Habit in a nutshell: why we check our phones so often?

In the 1970s, Michael Zeiler experimented with pigeons by rewarding them after they clicked a button. In the beginning, he gave them food every time they pressed the button. Afterward, he gave them food only in 50 to 70% of the time the button was pressed. Now the pigeons started pressing the button even more. Ferociously! 

This is how addiction works in a very simplified manner: 

First, there’s a trigger. A trigger can be external, like seeing a tasty burger or a cigarette. The trigger can also be an internal thought that suddenly pops up in your mind: “I’m hungry.” 

The second step is action. Action is the “doing” of the thing. The action is usually really easy to do. Checking our phones only takes a second.

The third step of the process is what is called the reward. Every time we get a new message, like or comment, we get a dopamine hit. We feel good for a second.

Coming back to the Zeiler experiment – why the phones – or rather, the apps – are so addictive is because of the variable reward. When we check our phones in the hopes of digital validation – we are the Zeiler pigeons! 

This creates a loop that just goes on and on and on.

If I remember correctly, Twitter and Instagram don’t show you the new likes or notifications immediately after you login. They let you wait for a half a second or so before you can see whether you got a red digital heart or not. These companies know how to maximize the hooking of their users. This is the reason why “likes” will probably also never disappear from these platforms.

“It’s hard to exaggerate how much the “like” button changed the psychology of Facebook use. What had begun as a passive way to track your friends’ lives was now deeply interactive, and with exactly the sort of unpredictable feedback that motivated Zeiler’s pigeons. Users were gambling every time they shared a photo, web link, or status update. A post with zero likes wasn’t just privately painful, but also a kind of public condemnation: either you didn’t have enough online friends, or, worse still, your online friends weren’t impressed. Like pigeons, we’re more driven to seek feedback when it isn’t guaranteed.”

Adam Alter, Irresistible

We think we have it under control, but we really don’t. The cycle is so strong, and we’re all addicted. Everyone’s addicted to something. Most of us to our phones at the very least.

It’s an unfair battle. Our brains that have not been meant for this kind of technology vs. the tech companies with psychologists implementing every tweak possible to keep us on their platform as long as possible. More time spent by the user on the platform = more ads seen = more revenue for investors. The average user has no idea what’s even going on.

For deeper insights, check out Irresistible by Adam Alter and Hooked by Neil Eyal.

KRISTJAN