The psychology behind your smartphone

Have you ever flipped through the pages of your phone’s home screen without even knowing what it was you had been looking for? Have you ever checked the time out of sheer boredom, forgetting it the very second you checked it? Have you ever refreshed your mail just to refresh it once again a few seconds later?

This kind of behavior doesn’t make any sense, and yet all of us do it on a regular basis.

In his fascinating TEDx talk about the psychology behind our high tech gadgets, Tristan Harris reveals why we keep refreshing our mails and scrolling through our news feeds: our smartphones are actually slot machines. They are designed to be. “Every time I check my phone I’m playing the slot machine to see what am I going to get.”, Tristan Harris says. “It leaves us with this all or nothing relationship with technology: you’re either on – and you are connected and distracted all the time – or you’re off – but then you’re wondering if you are missing something important.”

As we know from psychological studies our mind has the capacity to only focus on 185 billion events over the course of our lifetime. Shouldn’t we get to choose which events we want to focus on? In other words: Shouldn’t this time be well spent?



To click or not to click

“Every time we interrupt each other it takes us about 23 minutes on average to refocus our attention.”, Harris explains. And if this wasn’t already bad enough, our smartphones are currently also conditioning us to keep up this ADHD-like behavior: “It actually trains bad habits: the more interruptions we get externally, it’s conditioning and training us to interrupt ourselves. We actually self-interrupt every 3 and a half minutes.

The solution to this problem lies in a simple design concept: choice. In his talk, Harris proposes simple ways to design technology in a mindful way, so that we can get to make conscious decisions again when it comes to using our smartphones.

Today’s success of internet economy is measured in “time spent” on a website. Couchsurfing has actually already taken a different approach: They design their platform not for “time spent”, but for “time well spent”, by implementing human design goals instead of only measuring the time spent on their website. “Can you image a whole world that worked this way, that was helping to spend your time well?”, Harris says.

Watch Tristan Harris’s TEDx talk on this topic. Also don’t miss his blog post “Distracted in 2016? Reboot Your Phone with Mindfulness” and start saving lots of time right now.

Photo credit: Cover image by Death2Stock

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About Verena Ehrnberger

Verena works as a data privacy legal expert and studies philosophy at the University of Vienna. Always juggling multiple projects, she is seriously addicted to coffee.

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