What is “brain hacking”? Tech insiders on why you should care
Silicon Valley is engineering your phone, apps and social media to get you hooked, says a former Google product manager. Anderson Cooper reports
Have you ever wondered if all those people you see staring intently at their smartphones — nearly everywhere, and at all times — are addicted to them? According to a former Google product manager you are about to hear from, Silicon Valley is engineering your phone, apps and social media to get you hooked. As we first reported in April, he is one of the few tech insiders to publicly acknowledge that the companies responsible for programming your phones are working hard to get you and your family to feel the need to check in constantly. Some programmers call it “brain hacking” and the tech world would probably prefer you didn’t hear about it. But Tristan Harris openly questions the long-term consequences of it all and we think it’s worth putting down your phone to listen.
Tristan Harris: This thing is a slot machine.
Anderson Cooper: How is that a slot machine?
Tristan Harris: Well every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see, “What did I get?” This is one way to hijack people’s minds and create a habit, to form a habit. What you do is you make it so when someone pulls a lever, sometimes they get a reward, an exciting reward. And it turns out that this design technique can be embedded inside of all these products.
The rewards Harris is talking about are a big part of what makes smartphones so appealing. The chance of getting likes on Facebook and Instagram. Cute emojis in text messages. And new followers on Twitter.
Tristan Harris: There’s a whole playbook of techniques that get used to get you using the product for as long as possible.
Anderson Cooper: What kind of techniques are used?
Tristan Harris: Tristan Harris: So Snapchat’s the most popular messaging service for teenagers. And they invented this feature called “streaks,” which shows the number of days in a row that you’ve sent a message back and forth with someone. So now you could say, “Well, what’s the big deal here?” Well, the problem is that kids feel like, “Well, now I don’t want to lose my streak.” But it turns out that kids actually when they go on vacation are so stressed about their streak that they actually give their password to, like, five other kids to keep their streaks going on their behalf. And so you could ask when these features are being designed, are they designed to most help people live their life? Or are they being designed because they’re best at hooking people into using the product?
Anderson Cooper: Is Silicon Valley programming apps or are they programming people?
Tristan Harris: Inadvertently, whether they want to or not, they are shaping the thoughts and feelings and actions of people. They are programming people. There’s always this narrative that technology’s neutral. And it’s up to us to choose how we use it. This is just not true.
Anderson Cooper: Technology’s not neutral?
Tristan Harris: It’s not neutral. They want you to use it in particular ways and for long periods of time. Because that’s how they make their money.
It’s rare for a tech insider to be so blunt, but Tristan Harris believes someone needs to be. A few years ago he was living the Silicon Valley dream. He dropped out of a master’s program at Stanford University to start a software company. Four years later Google bought him out and hired him as a product manager. It was while working there he started to feel overwhelmed.
Tristan Harris: Honestly, I was just bombarded in email and calendar invitations and just the overload of what it’s like to work at a place like Google. And I was asking, “When is all of this adding up to, like, an actual benefit to my life?” And I ended up making this presentation. It was kind of a manifesto. And it basically said, you know, “Look, never before in history have a handful of people at a handful of technology companies shaped how a billion people think and feel every day with the choices they make about these screens.”
His 144-page presentation argued that the constant distractions of apps and emails are “weakening our relationships to each other,” and “destroying our kids ability to focus.” It was widely read inside Google, and caught the eye of one of the founders Larry Page. But Harris told us it didn’t lead to any changes and after three years he quit.
Tristan Harris: And it’s not because anyone is evil or has bad intentions. It’s because the game is getting attention at all costs. And the problem is it becomes this race to the bottom of the brainstem, where if I go lower on the brainstem to get you, you know, using my product, I win. But it doesn’t end up in the world we want to live in. We don’t end up feeling good about how we’re using all this stuff.
Anderson Cooper: You call this a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.” It’s a race to the most primitive emotions we have? Fear, anxiety, loneliness, all these things?
Tristan Harris: Absolutely. And that’s again because in the race for attention I have to do whatever works.
Tristan Harris: It absolutely wants one thing, which is your attention.
Now he travels the country trying to convince programmers and anyone else who will listen that the business model of tech companies needs to change. He wants products designed to make the best use of our time not just grab our attention.
Anderson Cooper: Do you think parents understand the complexities of what their kids are dealing with, when they’re dealing with their phone, dealing with apps and social media?
Tristan Harris: No. And I think this is really important. Because there’s a narrative that, “Oh, I guess they’re just doing this like we used to gossip on the phone, but what this misses is that your telephone in the 1970s didn’t have a thousand engineers on the other side of the telephone who were redesigning it to work with other telephones and then updating the way your telephone worked every day to be more and more persuasive. That was not true in the 1970s.
Anderson Cooper: How many Silicon Valley insiders are there speaking out like you are?
Tristan Harris: Not that many.
We reached out to the biggest tech firms but none would speak on the record and some didn’t even return our phone call. Most tech companies say their priority is improving user experience, something they call “engagement.” But they remain secretive about what they do to keep people glued to their screens. So we went to Venice, California, where the body builders on the beach are being muscled out by small companies that specialize in what Ramsay Brown calls “brain hacking.”
Ramsay Brown: A computer programmer who now understands how the brain works knows how to write code that will get the brain to do certain things.
Ramsay Brown studied neuroscience before co-founding Dopamine Labs, a start-up crammed into a garage. The company is named after the dopamine molecule in our brains that aids in the creation of desire and pleasure. Brown and his colleagues write computer code for apps used by fitness companies and financial firms. The programs are designed to provoke a neurological response.
Anderson Cooper: You’re trying to figure out how to get people coming back to use the screen?
Ramsay Brown: When should I make you feel a little extra awesome to get you to come back into the app longer?
The computer code he creates finds the best moment to give you one of those rewards, which have no actual value, but Brown says trigger your brain to make you want more. For example, on Instagram, he told us sometimes those likes come in a sudden rush.
Ramsay Brown: They’re holding some of them back for you to let you know later in a big burst. Like, hey, here’s the 30 likes we didn’t mention from a little while ago. Why that moment–
Anderson Cooper: So all of a sudden you get a big burst of likes?
Ramsay Brown: Yeah, but why that moment? There’s some algorithm somewhere that predicted, hey, for this user right now who is experimental subject 79B3 in experiment 231, we think we can see an improvement in his behavior if you give it to him in this burst instead of that burst.
When Brown says “experiments,” he’s talking generally about the millions of computer calculations being used every moment by his company and others use to constantly tweak your online experience and make you come back for more.
Ramsay Brown: You’re part of a controlled set of experiments that are happening in real time across you and millions of other people.
Anderson Cooper: We’re guinea pigs?
Ramsay Brown: You’re guinea pigs. You are guinea pigs in the box pushing the button and sometimes getting the likes. And they’re doing this to keep you in there.
The longer we look at our screens, the more data companies collect about us, and the more ads we see. Ad spending on social media has doubled in just two years to more than $31 billion.
Ramsay Brown: You don’t pay for Facebook. Advertisers pay for Facebook. You get to use it for free because your eyeballs are what’s being sold there.
Anderson Cooper: That’s an interesting way to look at it, that you’re not the customer for Facebook.
Ramsay Brown: You’re not the customer. You don’t sign a check to Facebook. But Coca-Cola does.
Brown says there’s a reason texts and Facebook use a continuous scroll, because it’s a proven way to keep you searching longer.
Ramsay Brown: You spend half your time on Facebook just scrolling to find one good piece worth looking at. It’s happening because they are engineered to become addictive.
Anderson Cooper: You’re almost saying it like there’s an addiction code.
Ramsay Brown: Yeah, that is the case. That since we’ve figured out, to some extent, how these pieces of the brain that handle addiction are working, people have figured out how to juice them further and how to bake that information into apps.
Larry Rosen: Dinner table could be a technology-free zone.
While Brown is tapping into the power of dopamine, psychologist Larry Rosen and his team at California State University Dominguez Hills are researching the effect technology has on our anxiety levels.
Larry Rosen: We’re looking at the impact of technology through the brain.
Rosen told us when you put your phone down – your brain signals your adrenal gland to produce a burst of a hormone called, cortisol, which has an evolutionary purpose. Cortisol triggers a fight-or-flight response to danger.
Anderson Cooper: How does cortisol relate to a mobile device, a phone?
Larry Rosen: What we find is the typical person checks their phone every 15 minutes or less and half of the time they check their phone there is no alert, no notification. It’s coming from inside their head telling them, “Gee, I haven’t check in Facebook in a while. I haven’t checked on this Twitter feed for a while. I wonder if somebody commented on my Instagram post.” That then generates cortisol and it starts to make you anxious. And eventually your goal is to get rid of that anxiety so you check in.
So the same hormone that made primitive man anxious and hyperaware of his surroundings to keep him from being eaten by lions is today compelling Rosen’s students and all of us to continually peek at our phones to relieve our anxiety.
Larry Rosen: When you put the phone down you don’t shut off your brain, you just put the phone down.
Anderson Cooper: Can I be honest with you right now? I haven’t paid attention to what you’re saying because I just realized my phone is right down by my right foot and I haven’t checked it in, like 10 minutes.
Larry Rosen: And it makes you anxious.
Anderson Cooper: I’m a little anxious.
Larry Rosen: Yes.
We found out just how anxious in this experiment conducted by Rosen’s research colleague Nancy Cheever.
Nancy Cheever: So the first thing I’m going to do is apply these electrodes to your fingers.
While I watched a video, a computer tracked minute changes in my heart rate and perspiration. What I didn’t know was that Cheever was sending text messages to my phone which was just out of reach. Every time my text notification went off, the blue line spiked – indicating anxiety caused in part by the release of cortisol.
Nancy Cheever: Oh, that one is…that’s a huge spike right there. And if you can imagine what that’s doing to your body. Every time you get a text message you probably can’t even feel it right? Because it’s such a um, it’s a small amount of arousal.
Anderson Cooper: That’s fascinating.
Their research suggests our phones are keeping us in a continual state of anxiety in which the only antidote – is the phone.
Anderson Cooper: Is it known what the impact of all this technology use is?
Larry Rosen: Absolutely not.
Anderson Cooper: It’s too soon.
Larry Rosen: We’re all part of this big experiment.
Anderson Cooper: What is this doing to a young mind or a teenager?
Larry Rosen: Well there’s some projects going on where they’re actually scanning teenager’s brains over a 20-year period and looking to see what kind of changes they’re finding.
Gabe Zichermann: Here’s the reality. Corporations and creators of content have, since the beginning of time, wanted to make their content as engaging as possible.
Gabe Zichermann has worked with dozens of companies – including Apple and CBS – to make their online products more irresistible. He’s best known in Silicon Valley for his expertise in something called “gamification,” using techniques from video games to insert fun and competition into almost everything on your smartphone.
Gabe Zichermann: So one of the interesting things about gamification and other engaging technologies, is at the same time as we can argue that the neuroscience is being used to create dependent behavior those same techniques are being used to get people to work out, you know, using their Fitbit. So all of these technologies, all the techniques for engagement can be used for good, or can be used for bad.
Zichermann is now working on software called ‘Onward’ designed to break user’s bad habits. It will track a person’s activity and can recommend they do something else when they’re spending too much time online.
Gabe Zichermann: I think creators have to be liberated to make their content as good as possible.
Anderson Cooper: The idea that a tech company is not going to try to make their product as persuasive, as engaging as possible, you’re just saying that’s not gonna happen?
Gabe Zichermann: Asking technology companies, asking content creators to be less good at what they do feels like a ridiculous ask. It feels impossible. And also it’s very anti-capitalistic, this isn’t the system that we live in.
Ramsay Brown and his garage start-up Dopamine Labs made a habit-breaking app as well. It’s called “Space” and it creates a 12-second delay — what Brown calls a “moment of Zen” before any social media app launches. In January, he tried to convince Apple to sell it in their App Store.
Ramsay Brown: And they rejected it from the App Store because they told us any app that would encourage people to use other apps or their iPhone less was unacceptable for distribution in the App Store.
Anderson Cooper: They actually said that to you?
Ramsay Brown: They said that to us. They did not want us to give out this thing that was gonna make people less stuck on their phones.
A few days after our story first aired, Apple called to tell us it had a change of heart and made “Space” available in its App Store.
Produced by Guy Campanile and Andrew Bast. Jaime Woods, associate producer.
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