The mobile phone and gaming industries are increasingly governing our behaviour by creating addictive products that shape and control how we communicate and interact, writes Catherine Shanahan.
The use of ‘behaviourist techniques’ to control the general populace, once feared as a potential tool of governments, are in fact used by technology companies, with games and apps designed to get us hooked.
That’s according to Jane Leonard, a lecturer at Cork Institute of Technology, who will deliver a talk today entitled From Pavlov to Snapchat — Why we are so addicted to our smartphones and social media, as part of the Psychological Society of Ireland’s Psychology Matters Day.
Ms Leonard said online services and apps such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat “have become expert at making products so good, people can’t stop using them”.
They were “deliberately engineered so that we feel the need to constantly check them”.
This was a modern example of classical conditioning — a theory proven by early 20th century Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, famous for an experiment where dogs in his laboratory began to associate the ringing of a bell with the arrival of food. After a while, any time the bell rang, they would salivate. This was a conditioned response and is known as classical conditioning, the opposite to free will. Ms Leonard said “in the same way, we seem to be pairing our human connection with our phone”.
“We do not salivate at a beep, buzz or vibration, but MRI scans show the brain is certainly responding.”
Similarly, the mobile phone and gaming industry were using the process of ‘reinforcement theory” to get users hooked. This theory — that behaviour is determined by consequences, be they reinforcement or punishment — was developed by 20th century American psychologist, BF Skinner.
Ms Leonard said reinforcement rather than punishment was used by the industries with users having had the option of removing negative feedback from their online feeds. It harked back to the notion of making people happy by controlling their environment, she said.
“We have learnt to associate these apps [Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter] with human connection and fun. We look for and achieve the positive reinforcement from sharing, commenting and playing games using these apps,” she said.
“Fitness apps use the same reinforcement schedule. How many people have walked around their house at 11pm just to complete the final 200 steps to get the Fitbit to buzz? How many will go to bed disappointed or anxious because they have not completed the required number of steps in order to receive the satisfying buzz?” Ms Leonard said.
The smart phone had become the source of positive and negative feedback “and we are in danger of becoming addicted. Every time it beeps, we get a hit.
If we realise we have left it at home, we will make the journey to be reunited with it,” Ms Leonard said.
She will discuss the addictive effects of technology on our lives and make practical suggestions on how to make more conscious choices at a talk in UCC’s Western Gateway Building today.
This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner.