(My answers to questions from Arjan Haring of the Persuasion API)
Question 1: How do the people in the Bay Area look upon a neurologist/psychologist turned technologist? And do you consider yourself a converted internet cheerleader?
I will say that psychologists and behavioral-scientists are seen, more or less, as omnipotent puppeteers. Most people believe that neuroscientists and psychologists have unraveled the human brain, and that if you understand these sciences, you can completely predict and change human behavior. The truth is a bit messier: Yes, we understand a lot about the brain and human behavior. Yes, we are better than most other people at changing behavior and inducing habits. But doing this requires a lot of experimentation and failure. Every group of people and every product is different—the dynamics are different. Because of this, your first attempts at changing behavior in a given group as a behavior change scientist are probably going to be ineffective, since you’re still getting a sense of how individuals operate within the system you’re building, and how all of the variables interact. However, if we are disciplined and thorough, we can begin to understand the driving factors in any given system and do some pretty amazing work. It takes patience, though. It’s not instant. It requires us to gather a lot of data from initial experiments and failures. We can’t just look at a person or a product and predict exactly what our product tweaks will do.
As for being an internet cheerleader… I would say that I’m almost the opposite of an internet cheerleader. Most of the products currently being built make our lives easier in ways that are, I think, counterproductive. We are already built to be as lazy as possible. It helps us conserve energy. It also reduces our risk. Habits are built from success—they’re the behaviors that have consistently worked in our environment.But I’ve always been a believer in hard work. I think it keeps us energetic and productive. I’m sure that many of you have spent a vacation on the couch. What was that like? You probably felt tired, lethargic, and out of it most of the time. Sure, it was relaxing. But, it wasn’t invigorating and energizing. We need to expend energy to be energetic and be our best selves. We grow through hard work and stress. So, I’m not one for getting rid of all the hardships and chores we have to do in our lives. I think that it’s good to mow the lawn, take out the trash, and walk to work—these things keep us active and alive.
With products like Instacart, Google Shopping Express, etc., we’re enabled to be as lazy as possible for a quite affordable price. Web technology is also getting rid of our need for human contact. No longer do you need to call a restaurant to make an order, you can do it online. No longer do you need to stop by a friend’s place, you can text or Facebook message them. I’ll talk more about this later.
Question 2: Is there a positive way of interpreting the drive towards user addiction that many startups have? And do these companies in fact have the skills to build addictive products?
Most companies, thank god, don’t have the skills to build addictive products. I refuse to work with a large number of companies in the gaming space for this very reason. If the product people at these companies spent a year immersed in the operant conditioning and reward literature, they might be able to break through and start making some severely addictive creations, but it takes a lot of time and effort to learn all of the jargon and read deeply in these subject areas. Most people don’t have the time. I’m lucky that it’s my job.
I don’t think that there’s a positive way of interpreting addiction. The line between a habit and an addiction is very thin—in my mind, habits veer over into the addiction category when they start to interfere with one’s normal functioning. You may have a gaming habit that causes you to play mobile poker for 30 minutes a day, but that’s unlikely to really cause you much harm. If, however, you start playing video poker for 8 hours a day, and it starts to hurt your ability to successfully do your job, take care of your kids, etc. then it’s a true problem—it’s an addiction. Facebook, I think, comes close to an addiction for a lot of people. I know so many people that are constantly on Facebook while at work; it’s not debilitating, but it’s definitely hurting their ability to focus and stay engaged on the task at hand. It’s definitely harming their careers.
So, where do we draw the line? Really, I think that our obsession with building “addictive” products arose with the creation of social products like Facebook. These companies started to use “user engagement” as the core metric that they built around. Engagement is all about usage: how often someone uses the product and how long they use it for. Utility products like Google, on the other hand, try to minimize the amount of time that users spend in the product per session—since longer session lengths are a bad thing.
Long sessions mean that users aren’t able to complete their task, or get the right information, quickly enough. So suddenly, with Facebook, getting people in your product as many times as possible, and for as long as possible, became the barometer of success. That, in my mind, is perverse. Most people shouldn’t be spending much time on their phones or computers each day. There’s a whole amazing world out there, full of great people doing great things. But because some guys at Facebook have built an amazing feed algorithm that perfectly provides users with variable reinforcement, we have hundreds of millions of people compulsively checking their phones dozens of times a day.
Is this a good thing? The jury’s still out. However, if you spend some time trying to socialize in SF, I think you’ll see that it’s not necessarily the best social lubricator.
Question 3: What’s your take on digital natives? And do you think young people are better armed against the addictive products that are being engineered in Silicon Valley?
Wow, that’s a great question. I think that digital natives are novelty obsessed. While this is true of all people, I think it’s particularly true of digital natives. From a cognitive point of view, we’re all obsessed with new stimuli. We have the most to learn from new things, since they can add to the models we build of the world—they can modify our understanding. Of course, the longer you’ve lived, the less novelty you encounter, so for this reason, hooking digital natives is a bit easier. For them, more things are new and exciting.
Because of this, I don’t think that young people are better armed against the addictive products being created. In a certain sense, they’re the most susceptible to getting hooked. Age and experience allow us to realize that “new” things are really just more of the same. That BuzzFeed article is really just a rehash of an argument that’s been making its way around the internet, and on newspaper op-ed pages, for the past 30 years. An older person will realize this. A young adult most likely won’t.
Age, and the wisdom it brings, is a protective force. In our youth-obsessed culture, we shouldn’t forget that. In most societies throughout human history, this was recognized.
Question 4: To you, what is the purpose of technology? And what role should we, as technologists, play in the larger community?
In my mind, technology throughout human history has had one purpose: to reduce uncertainty. This was a great thing when the uncertainty in our lives was consequential, potentially the difference between life and death. I would rather have certain food every year (from a technology like farming) than uncertain food (from hunting, gathering, etc.). That was likely a good technological advance.
Today, however, when there is so little uncertainty in our lives, I think that the never-ending crusade on uncertainty is a bit depressing. No one likes movie spoilers. We all want to be surprised at the end of the movie—it’s what we like about books, movies, and stories in general. But with the new digital and communication technologies, we’re starting to squeeze the uncertainty out of the little things in our normal lives. With cell phones, you can call your friend to see if they’re home and if they want to hang out. In the past, you would have walked over to your friend’s place, rung the doorbell, maybe talked to his neighbors to figure out when he was last around. But today, we go straight from point A to point B and use our little handheld computers to figure out where our friends are, when they’ll be there, and so on. We’ve been systematically getting rid of the importance of humans in our environment.
How many times have you seen someone at a restaurant or bar by themselves, sitting down and scrolling away on their phones? They’re almost petrified by the possibility of having to look up, make eye contact with people, and start a conversation with a stranger. Minutes later, their friends arrive, and they suddenly get all animated and start chatting away. Our phones allow us to organize our real world experience from a screen. When the real world and the screen don’t match up, a lot of us don’t engage with it. The real world is unpredictable—it can be scary and stressful. But that’s why it’s so important to constantly interact with it. We adapt to stressors and get stronger. This is what concerns me. I wonder if we’re creating a hyper-sensitive society of people that get spooked by common stressors: speaking to strangers, trying new restaurants, buying a product without full knowledge, etc.
So, what is our role? I believe our role as technologists is to create as many new things as possible. We are brute force trial-and-error machines. Most of the time, we technologists produce mediocre things. But, every once in awhile, everything comes together and we make something truly great. There are two rules that I think all technologists should follow:
1. Don’t produce anything that is harmful.
2. Don’t produce anything whose purpose is to addict, to take up time.