Your Brain Is Vulnerable to Hacking. Companies Are Exploiting That.

We can't seem to resist frequent rewards, which is why slot machines and social media are both so addictive. What's more, they're designed that way, purposefully, to keep you coming back.

Tristan Harris: One thing we don't talk about is that—it's sort of hard to talk about this—our minds have these kinds of back doors. 

There's kind of—if you're human and you wake up and you open your eyes there is a certain set of dimensions to your experience that can be manipulated. 

When I was a kid I was a magician, and you learn all about these limits: that short-term memory is about this long and there's different reaction times, and if you ask people certain questions in certain ways you can control the answer. And this is just the structure of being human. To be human means that you are persuadable in every single moment. 

I mean the thing about magic, as an example, it’s that magic works on everybody—sleight of hand, right? 

It doesn't matter what language you speak, it doesn't matter how intelligent you are, it's not about what someone knows. It's about how your mind actually works. 

So knowing this, it turns out that there's this whole playbook of persuasive techniques that actually I learned when I was at the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab and that most people in Silicon Valley in the tech industry learned as ways of getting your attention. 

So one example is: we are all vulnerable to social approval. We really care what other people think of us. So for example, when you upload a new profile photo of yourself on Facebook, that's a moment where our mind is very vulnerable to knowing, “what do other people think of my new profile photo?” 

And so when we get new likes on our profile photo, Facebook—knowing this—could actually message me and say, “oh, you have new likes on your profile photo.” And it knows that we'll be vulnerable to that moment because we all really care about when we're tagged in a photo or when we have a new profile photo. 

And the thing is that they control the dial, the technology companies control the dial for when and how long your profile photo shows up on other people's newsfeeds, so they can orchestrate it so that other people more often end up liking your profile photo over a delayed period of time, for example, so that you end up having to more frequently come back and see what the new likes are. 

And the problem is that they don't do this because they're evil, they do it because, again, they're in this race for our attention. 

And we should also ask: is that necessarily such a bad thing if they're orchestrating it so that other people like my photo? I mean that might feel good to me. 

So we have to have a new conversation about, as these technology companies use these techniques, these vulnerabilities in our minds, when is that actually aligned and good for us? When is that ethical? When is that honest? When is that fair? And when is that dishonest and unfair? Because they're actually manipulating our minds in a way that doesn't add up to our spending our time well on the screen. 

Well, so another vulnerability in our mind is something called a variable schedule reward, and that's like a slot machine in Las Vegas. It turns out that slot machines make more money in the United States than baseball, movies and theme parks combined. 

People become addicted to slot machines, I think it's two to three times faster than any other kind of gambling in a casino. So it's insane. And why is that? 

Because it's very simple: you just pull a lever, and sometimes you get a reward and sometimes you don't. And the more random it is and the more variable it is the more addictive it becomes. 

And the thing is, that that turns our phone into a slot machine, because every time we check our phone we're playing the slot machine to see “what did I get?” 

Every time that we check our email, we're playing the slot machine to see, “What did I get? Did I get invited to an interview at Big Think or did I just get another newsletter?” 

Or if you're on a dating site like Tinder and when you're swiping, each swipe is: you're playing the slot machine to see “did I get a match?”, I'm playing the slot machine to see, “did I get a match?” 

And the problem is that this dynamic, these variable schedule rewards or this slot machine mechanic, is so powerful that it's the best thing at addicting people and putting you in the zone. 

One of the original designers of the Facebook newsfeed told me that the thing that made the newsfeed work at the very, very, very beginning back in 2006 was in part a hardware innovation. 

And I looked at her and I said, "What do you mean?" And she said it was actually the scroll wheel on a mouse, because with the scroll wheel on a mouse your hand never had to leave its resting position—you just scroll to see the next thing. Because before that you had to click on the down button or move your mouse and drag the arrow down and scroll the page that way. When you don’t, you can take your two fingers on a track pad and do this, or you can just scroll on a scroll wheel—it just means your hand never has to leave its resting position, and it's more like a slot machine: you can just keep swiping and playing just like in Vegas where there's the button right there. They actually changed it. In fact, it used to be a lever, and now it's just a button in Vegas because they found it's easier just to get people to see if they get a match this way. 

So, how much on our phones, when we use our technology, Instagram is like a slot machine? What's going to come next on the feeds? Snapchat is a slot machine, each time you see the red notifications and you don't know what's behind it you're playing the slot machine when you click on it to see “what did I get?” 

And so it's sprinkled all throughout these products because it's a very compelling way of getting people's attention.

Casinos, magicians, and the makers of social media platforms all know something about you: your mind is very vulnerable to influence. Just as the magician relies on limitations in your short term memory or visual acuity to accomplish sleight of hand, online software engineers leverage the limits of your mind to make their product addictive. From the sonorous ping of mobile phones to Facebook's highly nuanced algorithm, product makers understand that frequent reward is what keeps you coming back. And just like slot machines, the easier those rewards are to access, the more frequently we'll want them.


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    Politics & Current Affairs

    Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

    "I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

    Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

    Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

    The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


    Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

    In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

    It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

    Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

    Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

    The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

    It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

    In their findings the authors state:

    "The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
    upholding First Amendment ideals.

    Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

    With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

    Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

    As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

    • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
    • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
    • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
    • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
    • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
    • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
    • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
      Patriotic.

    Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

    It's interesting to note the authors found that:

    "Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

    You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

    Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

    • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
    • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
    • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
    • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
    • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
    • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

    Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

    Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

    • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
    • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
    • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
    • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
    • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
    • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

    Civic discourse in the divisive age

    Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

    There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

    "In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
    dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
    the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
    These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
    putting our democracy in peril.


    Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
    immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
    become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
    Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
    The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
    re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
    building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

    We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

    This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.