The idea that big tech companies like Facebook, Google and Apple are addicting us to their products has gained a fair amount of traction. That’s thanks in large part to Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google who has turned whistleblower of sorts by revealing the techniques tech companies use to instill all that compulsive clicking and scrolling into your brain. Harris appeared on “60 Minutes” a couple of months ago, and last week he discussed the issue on Bill Maher’s HBO show.
Many of the design elements these companies employ to ensnare users are derived from behavioral research and neuroscience, Harris and other experts claim. Here are seven such tricks of the trade used on popular tech platforms, as identified by these experts in interviews with KQED, other media outlets, and on Harris’ blog.
1. Snapstreaks (Snapchat)
This feature of the messaging app Snapchat tells users how many days in a row they’ve communicated with each other. Bloomberg reported in January that some obsessed teenagers have been logging on just to keep their streaks alive.
“For those that have streaks, they provide a validation for the relationship,” Emily Weinstein, a Harvard University doctoral candidate studying adolescents and social media, told Bloomberg. “Attention to your streaks each day is a way of saying ‘We’re OK.’ ”
Spurring even more use: The company’s use of hourglass emojis, notifying users when their streak is in jeopardy,
“The makers built into the app a system so you have to check constantly or risk missing out,” Nancy Colier, a psychotherapist and author of The Power of Off,” told Bloomberg. “It taps into the primal fear of exclusion, of being out of the tribe and not able to survive.”
Tristan Harris told KQED’s Lesley McClurg that Snapstreaks “might sound like it’s innocuous and kind of gamey, but if you have a number that’s, say, over 100, you don’t want to lose your streak. It’s really persuasive. They just gave you something to lose.”
Harris said teens who were unable to log on during vacations were giving their passwords to friends to keep their streaks going.
“It’s driving teenagers crazy,” he said.
2. Video Auto-Play (Netflix, Facebook, YouTube)
These companies are using the same principle to keep people viewing their content as the one demonstrated in a study involving trick bowls of soup, Harris wrote in his blog. As the subjects ate from them, the bowls were imperceptibly refilled.
The study reported that the eaters who got the refills consumed 73 percent more soup than those who ate from normal bowls. The reason: They did not receive the visual cue of an empty bowl that would prompt them to stop eating. More food, more consumption.
And that, says Harris, is why Netflix, Facebook and YouTube auto-play the next video after the one you are watching is finished, “instead of waiting for you to make a conscious choice. A huge portion of traffic on these websites is driven by auto-playing the next thing.”
3. Continuous Scroll (Facebook, Twitter)
Similar to auto-play, perpetual replenishment of written material will keep you hunting for something you want to engage with.
“News feeds are purposely designed to auto-refill with reasons to keep you scrolling, and purposely eliminate any reason for you to pause, reconsider or leave,” Harris writes.
“Continuous scroll is a proven way to keep you searching longer,” said Ramsay Brown, the co-founder of a company that uses artificial intelligence and neuroscience to help app writers attract and retain users. “You spend half your time on Facebook just scrolling to find one good piece worth looking at.”
4. Invitations to Connect (LinkedIn)
When LinkedIn sends you emails prompting you to connect with someone, says Harris, the implication is that “this person made this conscious choice to invite me to connect and they’re actually waiting there when I get that e-mail.”
He says at play is a principle called social reciprocity.
“You imagine that person making a conscious choice to invite you, when in reality, they likely unconsciously responded to LinkedIn’s list of suggested contacts. In other words, LinkedIn turns your unconscious impulses (to “add” a person) into new social obligations that millions of people feel obligated to repay,” he writes on his blog.
In addition, If you accept an endorsement from someone through the site, LinkedIn “takes advantage of your bias to reciprocate by offering four additional people for you to endorse in return.”
“And so we can sit there drowning in social obligations,” Harris told KQED.
5. Notifications (Facebook, Instagram)
Harris and Brown believe that social media companies use a concept known as variable rewards, which is a technique slot machines employ to hook gamblers, and which will similarly keep users compulsively checking their phones due to the possibility some bit of social approval may be waiting there.
“The brain isn’t particularly craving any one little feel-good signal as much as it does a really good rhythm and pattern,” Brown told me. He says Facebook and Instagram tailor the timing of the “notifications” they deliver — on Facebook, indicated by that number in red at the top right of the screen — in order to deliver, literally, hits of dopamine to users at algorithmically determined times.
Sometimes the companies will stockpile these notifications before delivering them all in a batch to maximize the emotional impact a user experiences, he says.
“Like, hey, here’s the 30 likes we didn’t mention from a little while ago, “he told “60 Minutes.”
6. Swiping Left or Right (Tinder)
“Fear of missing out” drives much of social media’s hold on people, writes Harris. “If I convince you that I’m a channel for important information, messages, friendships, or potential sexual opportunities — it will be hard for you to turn me off, unsubscribe, or remove your account — because (aha, I win) you might miss something important.”
This is what will keep us swiping faces on a dating app like Tinder, “even when we haven’t met up with anyone in a while. .. But if we zoom into that fear, we’ll discover that it’s unbounded: we’ll always miss something important at any point when we stop using something.”
7. Photo Tagging: (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat)
Getting tagged in photos plays right into our need for social approval, Harris says. He contends that because Facebook actually prompts users to identify people in photos, it is artificially creating social approval for people.
This craving for validation also comes into play when we change our profile photo . “Facebook knows that’s a moment when we’re vulnerable to social approval,” he writes. “What do my friends think of my new pic?”
Facebook can rank this “event,” such as it is, higher in the news feed, “so it sticks around for longer and more friends will like or comment on it. Each time they like or comment on it, I’ll get pulled right back.”
So, some may ask: What’s a successful social media app to do? Start kicking people off?
“Asking technology companies, asking content creators to be less good at what they do feels like a ridiculous ask,” tech consultant Gabe Zichermann told “60 Minutes.” “It feels impossible. And also it’s very anti-capitalistic. This isn’t the system that we live in.”
It should also be noted that Harris himself doesn’t necessarily think all of these strategies have been formulated intentionally by the companies “Apple and Google’s designers didn’t want phones to work like slot machines,” he wrote. “It emerged by accident.”
BJ Fogg, who runs the Stanford Persuasive Tech Lab, where many young entrepreneurs have learned methods like the ones mentioned above, told me a lot of these strategies have been employed by non-digital companies for a very long time.
“What ‘s different today is that machines are being created to use these techniques,” he said.
Indeed. Ramsay Brown put it this way:
“We have now developed a rigorous technology of the human mind, and that is both exciting and terrifying. We have the ability to twiddle some nobs in a machine learning dashboard we build, and around the world hundreds of thousands of people are going to quietly change their behavior in ways that, unbeknownst to them, feel second-nature but are really by design.
“Which means that there’s a deep ethical imperative for us to use it for good.”
Facebook, Snapchat and Google did not respond to our requests for comment. LinkedIn declined to comment.