Reclaim Reality, Relationships, and Your Attention Span from Your Devices
Your future happiness and success will depend on the double-edged sword of embracing new technology to stay connected, and being smart enough to unplug at the right time.
Adam Alter is an Associate Professor of Marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, with an affiliated appointment in the New York University Psychology Department.
Adam is the author of the New York Times bestseller, Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave, which examines how features of the world shape our thoughts and feelings beyond our control. He has also written for the New York Times, New Yorker, Atlantic, WIRED, Slate, Huffington Post, and Popular Science, among other publications. Adam has shared his ideas at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, and with dozens of companies, including Google, Microsoft, Anheuser Busch, Prudential, and Fidelity, and with several design and ad agencies around the world. He is working on his second book, which asks why so many people today are addicted to so many behaviors, from incessant smart phone and internet usage to video game playing and online shopping.
Adam’s academic research focuses on judgment and decision-making and social psychology, with a particular interest in the sometimes surprising effects of subtle cues in the environment on human cognition and behavior. His research has been published widely in academic journals, and featured in dozens of TV, radio and print outlets around the world.
He received his Bachelor of Science (Honors Class 1, University Medal) in Psychology from the University of New South Wales and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Psychology from Princeton University, where he held the Charlotte Elizabeth Procter Honorific Dissertation Fellowship and a Fellowship in the Woodrow Wilson Society of Scholars.
Adam Alter: Young people today, in particular, but even adults don't have a tolerance for boredom—at all. There's some research looking at how our attention spans have changed across time. There's some evidence that they've shrunk by about 33 percent since the year 2000. One reason for that is because we interact with devices so much of the time and they don't demand anything of you. They are deliverers. They bring things to you. You don't need an attention span. If you're reading a book, if you have a lapse in attention for even a couple of minutes, you know you'll get to the end of the page, you'll realize that you haven't really been paying attention for the last half of page—that's a problem and you have to return back to where you were. That requires willed and directed attention.
That's just not true of smart phones. They are constantly competing for our attention. Every app, every social media platform, pretty much everything you encounter on a smart phone is designed to give you what you need. They are competing for you instead of you competing for whatever else is going on in the world.
And what that means is you don't need to have much of an attention span. And we've seen this in a lot of different respects, even beyond smart phones themselves, the way we interact with email, for example, when we get an email in the workplace it takes us on average about six seconds to check that email. And every time you check an email you spend 25 minutes getting back to the zone of engagement you were in before you checked the email. So what's happening here is we just don't have much attention for the things that we're doing because we're constantly distracted, we're pulled away to do things like check emails, quickly refresh a Twitter feed, an Instagram feed and so on. And as a result we really don't need an attention span. We don't need to be as engaged as we used to and we can still get through and get by in the world.
I think we have a lot to be worried about with respect to the evolution of tech and the way it engages us. We are far more engaged with tech today than we were ten years ago. And when we look back ten years from now I think we're going to look at Facebook, Instagram, Twitter as relics—and as primitive relics to be totally honest. The degree of engagement we'll have with things like virtual reality tech and virtual reality platforms will far exceed anything you see now. If I'm sitting with you at a table and we're having a conversation and there's a phone upside down on the table next to us, just for the presence of that phone, the connection we form between us will be diminished.
And if a phone can do that turned upside down because of all the things that it implies—that there's a whole world out there—imagine at any moment in time you have to choose between the real world with all its messiness, with all its complexity, with all its imperfections, and this perfect virtual world.
When virtual reality tech is really advanced and you can basically go anywhere at any time to speak to whomever you like, it's going to be really hard to resist the desire to leave the real world, the here and now, the world that's social and stop yourself from always retreating to that virtual world. So I do think there's a big concern.
I also think it's a concern from the business perspective that businesses make money for every moment of attention they can grab. And they are trying to basically weaponize whatever content they put out so that it's harder and harder for us to resist. A perfect example of this is clickbait on, for example, Facebook. Clickbait is something that's relatively new that didn't really exist ten years ago.
And there are a couple of techniques that clickbait purveyors have developed over the years; the sorts of headlines they use are almost impossible to resist, they hit a whole lot of psychological notes that we can't not respond to.
They basically open a loop, they open a cliffhanger and you have to know what the end of the story is so you click on that button. The other thing that they do is they give you these pictures that are kind of half filled so the thumbnail picture doesn't spell out the whole issue. So say they say, “You won't believe what this person did next!”, they'll show you the person with a surprised expression on his or her face but you won't be able to see the rest of the image, you have to click on the image to go to the next page.
And then you'll get there and it will be a slideshow with 17 different slides, each click providing some income to the company that's releasing it. So I think that's more sophisticated than what we saw five years ago, and we're only going to continue in that direction. It's hard to predict what, in ten years, we'll be competing with, but certainly they'll be a lot of competition for our attention and it will probably be quite successful at luring us away from the here and now.
I think about our current time as being at the bottom of a very steep, long, tall hill and we're all moving up this hill and at the moment we think of ourselves as very advanced. There's this illusion known as the end-of-history illusion, it's the idea that where we are right now feels incredibly advanced no matter where we are in the tech world, no matter where we are in the evolution of tech. I think of Twitter and Instagram and Facebook as pretty advanced, but in ten years we're not going to feel that way. In 20 years we're certainly not going to feel that way; we're going to look at the first social media platforms as relics, as curiosities. And I think what's really going to change in the next few years if you talk to experts in the virtual reality industry is that they say between four and five years from now everyone will own virtual reality goggles in the same way as we now all pretty much own smart phones. And once you have access to those goggles, at any moment in time you could leave this real imperfect world to go to a perfect virtual world. It's really hard to see why you would resist that at any moment in time. I mean if humans are basically constantly roaming the earth trying to be as happy as possible, hoovering up well-being, it seems almost rational that you'll leave the here and now for the well-being that you could acquire by leaving and going to that virtual world.
So I think that's a pretty serious concern. I think it's a concern because the social world—the real social world—can only exist and encourage us to thrive when we continue to be a part of it. If we leave it for long periods of time, I don't know if this has ever happened to you, but if you're unwell for a few days and you're home in bed, when you return to the social world there's a sort of awkwardness to the first communications you have. That's how humans are, we basically need to exercise that social muscle across time. If we don't do that, if it withers away, if we leave for the virtual world for enough time there's a pretty good chance that the way we communicate as a species will change. And I'm especially concerned about that for kids. So there are certain critical periods in child development where kids basically acquire the social skills that they'll take through their lives. And what they need to do is they need a lot of feedback, pretty rapid high fidelity feedback. If I'm a child and I take a toy from another child, I need to see what that does to that other child. I need to see his face scrunch up. I need to see him be upset. I need to see him lash out. I need to see that really fast so I learn that's not the right way to do things.
But if I'm interacting mainly through screens I don't get that rapid feedback and so I never really hone the skills that I'm going to need when I deal with people face to face in the real world. And I think that's a big concern because if you take the whole screen generation en masse, the kids who are born today, I think a lot of them may not hone those skills the way we have in the past so when it comes to being in the workplace, to being real people forming romantic relationships and forming friendships, I could imagine that being quite difficult for them in a way that just came naturally to us when we existed in a different world as kids, in a world that was largely face to face.
It's really hard to say whether unplugging in the long run will be beneficial, whether there'll be some sort of competitive advantage to not being engrossed in the tech world. I think we already see some advantages in some spheres. If you aren't buried in your phone, if you aren't buried in games you have more time to do other things that I think make you successful. You have more time to hone your social skills, you have more time to do useful work, you have more time to form deep, meaningful relationships with other people. I think all of that helps you to get ahead. At the same time being engaged with tech to some extent is necessary in this world. You need it for travel, you need it to be a member of the workplace, you need it to communicate.
I think disengaging completely is not the answer. I think the skill in the long run will be striking the right balance. A lot of people use the language of environmentalism, the idea that we need to form a sustainable relationship with tech.
And I think the people who manage to do that over time are the ones who will have that competitive advantage. They'll be plugged in at the right times but unplugged at the times when it's more beneficial to have face to face relationships and interactions.
I don't know what that will look like now. Already today many of us are plugged in for the eight hours when we're at work and then for three additional hours in front of our screens, our phones, and then for some of us additional hours in front of the TV. That's a lot of time. That's 12, 13 hours during the day when we are awake. That doesn't leave a lot of time to do things like exercise, engaging with nature, talking to people face to face, being creative and thoughtful, reading books and so on. So I think we're leaving a lot of things behind by being overly engaged with tech.
We shouldn't disengage completely. I think the skill over the next number of years into decades will be learning how to manage our relationship with tech in a sustainable way. And the people who do that best in the long run will be the most successful people and the happiest people.
There is a psychological self-deception called the end-of-history illusion, which refers to the feeling that—no matter where you are in the evolution of technology—your time seems incredibly advanced. However Adam Alter reminds us that the trajectory of progress keeps rising, and what we think is cutting-edge now—Snapchat, Facebook, the iPhone 8, the iPhone 12—will in ten years will seem laughably primitive. It's what we'll have in this new world that concerns Alter. He cites experts who predict that most of us will own VR goggles in the next 5 years, and if the success of clickbait and its irresistible effect on our psychology is any indication, the fully immersive alternative realities of VR will shake the foundations of our minds, relationships, and attention spans (which are already kaput). As we're lured into a life on the digital plain by corporations—who make money from every second they can capture our attention—virtual reality may threaten reality itself. Those of us who have known a life without it will have an slight advantage in managing its control over our behavior, but Alter raises concerns for children won't come at this technology pre-equipped and skeptical enough to see the intentions behind such lures—and what might be lost if we don't know how to disconnect. Adam Alter is the author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.
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