Sign of the Times

People . . . people who need people . . . are the luckiest people . . .

If you’ve been on the internet lately, you will have heard something about Cambridge Analytica. The private company used profile data from Facebook to better inform the Republican Presidential Campaign. Those of you who have pre-ordered my book (and if you haven’t – here’s how you can) will have the opportunity to read about how these big data sources like social media can be so informative. My final chapter is dedicated to the way personality research is changing, and how it will change in future, and it highlights the importance of the so-called ‘softer’ sciences. Next time someone dismisses the importance of psychology, or thinks the replication crisis refutes all psychological research, point out just how much money Cambridge Analytica made from those ‘fluffy’ old likes.

There are two kinds of responses to this story that I commonly see. The first is “You should all give up the social media like I do” and the second is “Social media is dangerous!”  I don’t think either of these are helpful, and here’s why: people like other people.

Much of social media’s appeal comes from Basic Principles of Psychology. Let’s do a quick recap. Things which make somebody more likely to do a behaviour again are called a ‘reward’. Rewards can be ‘positive’, the addition of something nice, like how I give Athena’s ears a scratch when she comes to see me, making it much more likely she’ll come to see me again. Rewards can also be ‘negative’, or the removal of something unpleasant, like how when I pay attention to Athena she stops screaming at a very loud and high pitch. The quiet is my reward.

Social media’s main way of rewarding you is to give you something the scientist in me would call ‘attention from a conspecific’, or a ‘like’. It can be a like, a comment, a tag in a photo, or a reminder of how much you’ve shared with another person – it’s all a form of attention.

You might ask “but what about that photo Kelly tagged me in at Christmas where I’m stuffing my third helping of Christmas pudding down my tearstained face because I got too in to Call the Midwife – that’s not rewarding attention at all!”

I’ve been there, fam, but the problem is – it does reward you. It might not be the attention you want, but it’s better than nothing at all. See also: ‘naughty’ children. And here’s the interesting part. When your phone buzzes to get your attention, you don’t know if that’s an amazingly juicy piece of gossip on your group chat, someone you fancy liking your latest selfie, or just a notification that Jane was checked in to Nandos.

This brings us to another aspect of social media and psychology: variable reward schedules. These are extremely common in gambling, particularly in slot machines. The essence of this is that the value of the reward you get is random for the same behaviour. For some reason, it drives those biological grey machines in our skulls wild. Is this notification going to be the big one? Will this pull of the lever get us a million pounds? It’s an extremely effective technique, one that has kept casinos going for years, and partly why we regulate gambling. We know this works.

My version of Clinton’s saying is It’s Behaviour, Stupid. These tricks of our psychology are so fundamentally tied to our being, and so unsuited for the world we live in, that we cannot say to people “Stop eating and you’ll not be fat” or “Stop smoking and you’ll reduce your risk of cancer” or “Stop using social media and it’ll improve your mental health and probably also your country’s political stability.” The trouble is that these appeal to the basic human need for pleasure. Social media companies want to keep you engaged, and use your ‘vulnerability’ to reward to do it. But it’s in their best interests not to farm us too aggressively. They don’t want us to stop using their services, they don’t want to lose their product. They need to think, just as the agricultural industry has had to think, about what kind of product they deliver. A happy, healthy product with the financial ability to purchase goods and services? Or a product that is tearing itself apart?

Ultimately, social media will need to think about how it incentivises people to use its service. Not just because regulation is on the horizon, more and more so with the Cambridge Analytica story, but because their product works best in a stable, thriving economy. Social media will be regulated, either by us, or by themselves. Telling people to simply ‘stop gambling on the likes’ ignores the fundamental aspects of human behaviour that makes social media so very profitable.

In the mean time, if you are worried about your addiction to social media – take the time to go through your settings. Revoke permissions for apps you don’t use, and turn off all side notifications (or even all notifications). Discourage push notifications on your phone.

It’s a perfectly normal human state to be in.

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