I’m an expert on how technology hijacks our psychological vulnerabilities. That’s why I spent the last three years as a Design Ethicist at Google caring about how to design things in a way that defends a billion people’s minds from getting hijacked.
And this is exactly what product designers do to your mind. They play your psychological vulnerabilities (consciously and unconsciously) against you in the race to grab your attention.
Hijack #1: If You Control the Menu, You Control the Choices
Western Culture is built around ideals of individual choice and freedom. Millions of us fiercely defend our right to make “free” choices, while we ignore how those choices are manipulated upstream by menus we didn’t choose in the first place.
When people are given a menu of choices, they rarely ask:
- “what’s not on the menu?”
- “why am I being given these options and not others?”
- “do I know the menu provider’s goals?”
- “is this menu empowering for my original need, or are the choices actually a distraction?” (e.g. an overwhelmingly array of toothpastes)
For example, imagine you’re out with friends on a Tuesday night and want to keep the conversation going. You open Yelp to find nearby recommendations and see a list of bars. The group turns into a huddle of faces staring down at their phones comparing bars. They scrutinize the photos of each, comparing cocktail drinks. Is this menu still relevant to the original desire of the group?
It’s not that bars aren’t a good choice, it’s that Yelp substituted the group’s original question (“where can we go to keep talking?”) with a different question (“what’s a bar with good photos of cocktails?”) all by shaping the menu.
Moreover, the group falls for the illusion that Yelp’s menu represents a complete set of choices for where to go. While looking down at their phones, they don’t see the park across the street with a band playing live music. They miss the pop-up gallery on the other side of the street serving crepes and coffee. Neither of those show up on Yelp’s menu.
The “most empowering” menu is different than the menu that has the most choices. But when we blindly surrender to the menus we’re given, it’s easy to lose track of the difference:
- “Who’s free tonight to hang out?” becomes a menu of most recent people who texted us (who we could ping).
- “What’s happening in the world?” becomes a menu of news feed stories.
- “Who’s single to go on a date?” becomes a menu of faces to swipe on Tinder (instead of local events with friends, or urban adventures nearby).
- “I have to respond to this email.” becomes a menu of keys to type a response (instead of empowering ways to communicate with a person).
When we wake up in the morning and turn our phone over to see a list of notifications — it frames the experience of “waking up in the morning” around a menu of “all the things I’ve missed since yesterday.” [...] A list of notifications when we wake up in the morning — how empowering is this menu of choices when we wake up? Does it reflect what we care about?
Hijack #2: Put a Slot Machine In a Billion Pockets
The average person checks their phone 150 times a day. Why do we do this? Are we making 150 conscious choices? One major reason why is the #1 psychological ingredient in slot machines: intermittent variable rewards.
If you want to maximize addictiveness, all tech designers need to do is link a user’s action (like pulling a lever) with a variable reward. You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward (a match, a prize!) or nothing. Addictiveness is maximized when the rate of reward is most variable.
But here’s the unfortunate truth — several billion people have a slot machine their pocket:
- When we pull our phone out of our pocket, we’re playing a slot machine to see what notifications we got.
- When we pull to refresh our email, we’re playing a slot machine to see what new email we got.
- When we swipe down our finger to scroll the Instagram feed, we’re playing a slot machine to see what photo comes next.
- When we swipe faces left/right on dating apps like Tinder, we’re playing a slot machine to see if we got a match.
- When we tap the # of red notifications, we’re playing a slot machine to what’s underneath.
Hijack #3: Fear of Missing Something Important (FOMSI)
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 keeps us subscribed to newsletters even after they haven’t delivered recent benefits (“what if I miss a future announcement?”)
- This keeps us “friended” to people with whom we haven’t spoke in ages (“what if I miss something important from them?”)
- This keeps us swiping faces on dating apps, even when we haven’t even met up with anyone in a while (“what if I miss that one hot match who likes me?”)
- This keeps us using social media (“what if I miss that important news story or fall behind what my friends are talking about?”)
We don’t miss what we don’t see.
Hijack #4: Social Approval
We’re all vulnerable to social approval. The need to belong, to be approved or appreciated by our peers is among the highest human motivations. But now our social approval is in the hands of tech companies.
When I get tagged by my friend Marc, I imagine him making a conscious choice to tag me. But I don’t see how a company like Facebook orchestrated his doing that in the first place.
Facebook, Instagram or SnapChat can manipulate how often people get tagged in photos by automatically suggesting all the faces people should tag (e.g. by showing a box with a 1-click confirmation, “Tag Tristan in this photo?”).
So when Marc tags me, he’s actually responding to Facebook’s suggestion, not making an independent choice. But through design choices like this, Facebook controls the multiplier for how often millions of people experience their social approval on the line.
Hijack #5: Social Reciprocity (Tit-for-tat)
- You do me a favor — I owe you one next time.
- You say, “thank you”— I have to say “you’re welcome.”
- You send me an email— it’s rude not to get back to you.
- You follow me — it’s rude not to follow you back. (especially for teenagers)
We are vulnerable to needing to reciprocate others’ gestures. But as with Social Approval, tech companies now manipulate how often we experience it.
LinkedIn is the most obvious offender. LinkedIn wants as many people creating social obligations for each other as possible, because each time they reciprocate (by accepting a connection, responding to a message, or endorsing someone back for a skill) they have to come back to linkedin.com where they can get people to spend more time.
Like Facebook, LinkedIn exploits an asymmetry in perception. When you receive an invitation from someone to connect, 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. All while they profit from the time people spend doing it.
[...] It’s also in their interest to heighten the feeling of urgency and social reciprocity. For example, Facebook automatically tells the sender when you “saw” their message, instead of letting you avoid disclosing whether you read it (“now that you know I’ve seen the message, I feel even more obligated to respond.”) [...]
Hijack #6: Bottomless bowls, Infinite Feeds, and Autoplay
Another way to hijack people is to keep them consuming things, even when they aren’t hungry anymore.
How? Easy. Take an experience that was bounded and finite, and turn it into a bottomless flow that keeps going.
Tech companies exploit the same principle. 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.
It’s also why video and social media sites like Netflix, YouTube or Facebook autoplay the next video after a countdown instead of waiting for you to make a conscious choice (in case you won’t). A huge portion of traffic on these websites is driven by autoplaying the next thing.
Hijack #7: Instant Interruption vs. “Respectful” Delivery
Given the choice, Facebook Messenger (or WhatsApp, WeChat or SnapChat for that matter) would prefer to design their messaging system to interrupt recipients immediately (and show a chat box) instead of helping users respect each other’s attention.
Hijack #8: Bundling Your Reasons with Their Reasons
For example, in the physical world of grocery stores, the #1 and #2 most popular reasons to visit are pharmacy refills and buying milk. But grocery stores want to maximize how much people buy, so they put the pharmacy and the milk at the back of the store.
In other words, they make the thing customers want (milk, pharmacy) inseparable from what the business wants. If stores were truly organized to support people, they would put the most popular items in the front.
Tech companies design their websites the same way. For example, when you you want to look up a Facebook event happening tonight (your reason) the Facebook app doesn’t allow you to access it without first landing on the news feed (their reasons), and that’s on purpose. Facebook wants to convert every reason you have for using Facebook, into their reason which is to maximize the time you spend consuming things.
Hijack #9: Inconvenient Choices
Businesses naturally want to make the choices they want you to make easier, and the choices they don’t want you to make harder. Magicians do the same thing. You make it easier for a spectator to pick the thing you want them to pick, and harder to pick the thing you don’t.
For example, NYTimes.com lets you “make a free choice” to cancel your digital subscription. But instead of just doing it when you hit “Cancel Subscription,” they send you an email with information on how to cancel your account by calling a phone number that’s only open at certain times.