8 ways that technology hijacks your mind, according to a Google philosopher

Tristan Harris is an expert on how technology hijacks our psychological vulnerabilities in order to make more money.

He spent the last 3 years working as a design ethicist at Google focusing on how to design technology in ways that prevent billions of people’s minds from being hijacked by technology.

Rather than focus optimistically on all the good things that technology does for us, he seeks instead to answer this question:

Where does technology exploit our minds’ weaknesses?

Harris learned to think this way as a magician, always looking for people’s blind spots so he could influence them without them realizing it.

This is exactly what the product designers do at Google, Facebook and many of the other technology companies. Here are 8 ways they do this, as Harris wrote about in Thrive Global.

1. If you control the menu, you control people’s choices

Western culture is build around ideals of individual freedom and choice. We defend our right to make “free” choices, ignoring how our choices are manipulated upstream by people choosing what makes it to our “menu”.

When we are given a choice on a menu, we rarely ask about what’s not on the menu.

Think about how Yelp generates its recommendations when you’re looking for a bar to go to on a Saturday night.

It’s not that the bars presented to you aren’t a good choice. It’s just that your original intention to find a bar has been streamlined into providing answers the technology can serve up. It doesn’t consider that you may be looking for a bar to continue having a quiet and intimate conversation with your friends, as opposed to a bar where you can go dancing.

We end up surrendering our ability to make our own choices to the simplicity of having technology provide the choices for us. Yet we need to question whether the choices being provided are aligned to our true needs.

2. A slot machine is being placed in a billion pockets

If you want to design an app that keeps people hooked, the best way is to turn your app into a slot machine.

The average person checks their phone 150 times per day. Are we finding something useful every time we check out phone?

phone use 8 ways that technology hijacks your mind, according to a Google philosopher

The answer is no. However, some of the times we check our phone will deliver something of value to us. This encourages to keep on checking for that one time we find what we need.

According to Harris, all technology designers insert “intermittent variable rewards” to maximize the addictiveness of their apps. You pull a lever and get a reward, just like the classical conditioning experiments that are done on animals.

Does this really work on people? Yes, according to Harris. He says that slot machines make more money in the United States than baseball, moves and theme parks combined.

The unfortunate truth is that a few billion people on the planet have a slot machine in their pocket. When we pull our smartphone out of our pocket, we’re playing a slot machine to see what notifications we get.

3. Induce our “fear of missing out” (FOMO)

According to Harris, apps and websites hijack our minds by convincing us that if we don’t continually check in on the latest notifications, we may be missing something important.

missing out 8 ways that technology hijacks your mind, according to a Google philosopher

They do this by convincing us that they are the most important channel for relevant information, connections with friends or potential sexual opportunities.

Once you’re convinced that a channel is important for some key piece of information, then it’s difficult to unsubscribe or delete your account.

4. You’re being tricked to crave social approval

Everyone is vulnerable to social approval. We all want to belong, be approved by others and appreciated for who we are.

Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat manipulate people into giving this social approval by suggesting people to tag in photos. This is done not through conscious choice, but from these platforms using artificial intelligence to recognize people’s faces and suggest the tagging.

missing out 8 ways that technology hijacks your mind, according to a Google philosopher

Facebook also does this by ranking profile photo changes higher in the newsfeed, knowing that this is a critical moment for people who are vulnerable for social approval.

Designers know that we are vulnerable for social approval and are exploiting this vulnerability in how they design their apps.


5. Encouraging social reciprocity (and more interactions in the app)

Just like with social approval, we are also vulnerable to reciprocate when someone does something for us.

Technology companies manipulate this by creating social obligations for us to respond.

LinkedIn is the worst offender. They aggressively encourage you to add people you have potentially interacted with by accepting a connection, responding to a message or endorsing someone’s skill set.

6. An infinite feed that never ends

Another way to keep consumers interacting with your product is to continue to show them more even after they’ve finished consuming.

YouTube, for example, automatically plays the next video once you’ve finished watching one. Facebook now also does this. As does Netflix.

Technology companies will often claim they are just trying to make it easier for you to use their product. This is true. The result is that you’ll spend more time using their app, increasing the money they make from advertising products to you.

7. Instantly interrupt you to get your attention

Push notifications will get your attention more easily than messages delivered to your email inbox. The reason is that with the first, you’re instantly interrupted as the notification will make it to the screen of your phone. Emails, however, are more likely to be checked at a time that suits you.

Technology companies end up heightening your feeling of urgency and social reciprocity. You’re continually interrupted from living the moment.

This is an incredible tragedy, with global attention spans being ruined as we continually get conditioned to live in reaction to what’s happening.

8. Shift from helping you to perform a task to spend more time there

Apps usually build an initial user base by helping them to perform a task. It solves a problem.

Once an app reaches a critical level of scale, they shift from helping people to perform that task to maximizing their overall time spent inside the app.

Think of grocery stores. The two most common reasons to visit a grocery store is to purchase pharmacy products and milk. Yet grocery stores want to maximize what you buy, so they’ll put these products at the back of the store.

Technology companies act in a similar way. For example, if you want to go into Facebook to find out about an event you planned on attending that night, they’ll first make sure you get exposed to the newsfeed and will hopefully get distracted, maximizing the time you spend in Facebook.

Tristan Harris was a Product Philosopher at Google until 2016 where he studied how technology affects a billion people’s attention, wellbeing and behavior. For more resources on Time Well Spent.

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Justin Brown

I'm Justin Brown, the founder of Ideapod. I've overseen the evolution of Ideapod from a social network for ideas into a publishing and education platform with millions of monthly readers and multiple products helping people to think critically, see issues clearly and engage with the world responsibly.

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