You're working on a presentation that's due tomorrow.

Your phone sits next to your laptop as you work. You are completely focused on the slides. Probably even in a state of Flow.


"Was that my phone?", you think.

The presentation is important. You keep at it for another 30 seconds.

"Wait, what if it is something important?", you think.

The phone is right there. You could check it for a minute. No big deal. So you grab your phone.

It's WhatsApp. Your friend sent you another useless text.

Well, now that you have taken the effort to grab your phone, might as well reply. So you reply, thereby perpetuating a meaningless conversation.

While you're at it, buzz.

It's Instagram this time. Someone has tagged you in a post. It's about that vacation you took 2 months ago. #ThrowbackThursday

Well, now that you have taken the effort to grab your phone, reply to a meaningless conversation, might as well check the post.

After all, you will have to comment something nice and special about the vacation, you have to express how much it means to you. Although internally you know it was a banal trip.

You fall down this slope for the next 10 minutes, until you realise that your presentation has been waiting for you all along.

Argh. The previously interesting presentation now seems like a boring, daunting task to do. Also, there might be likes and replies on your completely genuine comment.

Fuck it, another 5 minutes. Let's escape life with some more scrolling.

You see where I'm getting at?

Photo by Oleg Magni / Unsplash

This is a huge problem in the modern world. We are constantly distracted. We are too used to having a constant means to communicate with the world. We are afraid of losing it. So afraid, in-fact, that there's a name for it: NoMoPhobia (No-Mobile-Phobia)

The point of this blog is not to convince you that you are addicted to your phone. You already know your problem. The point is to make you understand why you are addicted. When you understand the reason for a problem, you are better equipped to tackle it.

Social media isn't social media anymore

The original cause of social media and instant messaging was a noble one. To keep you connected with old friends and family. To bring the world closer together. This was cool until social media and phone companies came to know that they now have access to your most valuable resource: Your attention.

Think about it, how much of the time you spend on these apps is actually spent keeping in touch? How much of it is just mindless scrolling and looking at memes?

Why it changed

They figured out that the longer they manage to keep you on their platforms, and the more of your attention they can engage- the more you can be sold to. The longer you are on these platforms, the more data they gather about your behaviors, likes, dislikes.
This way, they can strategically sell you things tailored to your wants.

This led them to incentivize your stay on their app/website. Which in-turn led them to develop systems that make you constantly check your phone.

Humans are incentive-driven creatures. We like when we get a dopamine boost. We like to feel good. Who doesn't?

For 99.9% of human history, there was no instant gratification. To satisfy our dopamine receptors, we had to do something intrinsically rewarding. We had to eat fruit. We had to swim. We had to have sex. We had to hunt.

Phones hacked this need for gratification, it made it instant and effortless. Naturally, humans gravitated towards these cheap forms of gratification.

Our brain loves dopamine, I'm sure you've heard about it.
And social media exploits this very craving for dopamine. How? Variable reward.

Variable Reward

In the 20th century, American psychologist B.F. Skinner did an experiment that involved pigeons.

Pigeons in a skinner box / Source

He came up with the concept of a 'skinner box'. A pigeon was to be kept in this box. The box had a lever which the pigeon could pull for food. But there's a catch.

In the first test case, pulling the lever gave no food.
In the second case, pulling the lever guaranteed food.
In the third case, pulling the lever sometimes gave food, sometimes didn't.

Here's where the concept of variable reward kicks in.

If you've read even a little bit of psychology, you would figure out that the pigeons in the third case went crazy. They constantly pulled the lever. Because they didn't know when they would receive food, and when they wouldn't. They were uncertain.

Thus, the concept of variable reward was born. It is formally known as Intermittent Reinforcement.

Social media uses this concept to bait you into checking your phone. Again and again. How? By varying the possibility of reward. You don't know if someone has tagged you, sent you a message, or if your comment has replies.

So you check. Over and over again. Sometimes, you get a reward. Sometimes you don't. This way, you have been conditioned to keep checking.

You know where else a lever is used to give variable reward?
Slot machines.

Slot machines were one of the first to exploit this behavior in humans.

When the fun stops, stop.
Photo by Carl Raw / Unsplash

Pulling the lever does not guarantee success, but you might win if you're lucky. The exact phenomenon that gets people addicted to gambling, gets people addicted to social media. And that's bad!

You know where else you can see the slot machine "pull" lever effect? In news feed refreshes.

How do you refresh your feed? You need to go to the top, pull the feed down, wait for it to load. This is a subliminal trick to get you to pull the lever of your social feed, in expectation of a reward. They exploit the slot-machine effect.

No wonder you can't get off the phone. They exploit the most primal psychological triggers that get you hooked.

Even your notification tone is rigged

Phone companies spend millions of dollars to research which notification tune is the most attention grabbing.

You are alerted with the sound. You think pulling the lever(checking the notification) might give you a reward, it might not. But you do it anyway, because the brain loves mystery- especially when it can solve the mystery effortlessly.

What do you do with this information?

The best thing to do from here on is to be aware of the factors that I mentioned.

It is said that technology is a good slave, but a terrible master. You need to audit your phone usage to check who really is in control. You or your phone?

Do you own your phone or does your phone own you?

When you get an urge to check your phone, be conscious of it. Try fitting it into the framework I have given you in this post. Is the notification tone attracting you? Is it the color? Are you falling down the slippery slope?

When you find yourself scrolling at night, sacrificing valuable sleep, understand that you are being conned. You are falling prey to the variable reward hack. You need to reject it. Life's good without tech companies controlling your behavior.

It's crazy how fast you get used to not having Instagram on your phone. Try it.

I have been conscious of my phone usage for more than 2 years. I plan on writing another post with detailed steps on how to tackle your phone addiction.

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Thanks for reading!

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