Are your Decisions Really Yours? 10 Ways Technology Plays with Our Minds and Influences Our Behavior
Technology has changed the way that we live. There’s absolutely no doubt about it. Ten years ago, we wouldn’t have dreamed of checking a small hand-held computer for information before we get up and go to work in the morning, but more than 50% of people today grab their phone the second they wake up.
You might not know just how influential technology can be on our decision-making.
In his incredible article “How Technology Hijacks people’s minds“, Tristan Harris outlines how technology hijacks our psychological vulnerabilities. As former Product Philosopher at Google, he knows a thing or two about how technology affects people’s attention. The more you know about the power of technology, the more you can use it to your benefit.
Let’s have a look…
1. Technology x Illusion of Choice
We all like to think that we’re completely in control of our actions. The internet gave us the “freedom of choice”. Right?
The truth is, we don’t look beyond the options that our technology gives us when making decisions.
When people order food for delivery through an app, they rarely ask themselves “What’s not on the menu?”. Instead, they pick the best item available from the list of what’s there, and don’t spend much time thinking about the restaurants that might be available on other apps or just around the corner.
But even though people don’t tend to question the options they are given, they do question their choices.
Businesses therefore need to be good at understanding their customers to offer options that align with the customer’s true needs, give them a selection they really want to choose from and help them make decisions they will be happy with.
Check out how businesses in varied industries use digital advisors to support and improve the decision-making process: Digital Advice Examples.
2. Technology x The Pleasure of Frequent Rewards
Remember when Pokémon Go was a huge hit? Those who played the game, quickly became addicted to checking the app over and over again, just in case something new appeared on their screen. Every time a new Pokémon showed up, that person felt as though they’d been given a reward for checking their phone, positively conditioning them to continue their behavior.
Tinder plays the same game by letting people swipe right or left to see if they get a match, and when you scroll through the Instagram feed, you continue to look at a stream of pictures hoping that you’ll be rewarded with something that interests you.
Of course, there are times when users, for example, would get a Pokémon they already had or see a picture that didn’t seem special, but the intermittent variable rewards they’ve received lead to a slot-machine-like pleasure response from users.
3. Technology x The Fear of Missing Out
If you’ve ever gone somewhere without your smartphone, you’ve probably experienced a moment of panic. In fact, you may even have stopped your journey short and returned home. Not because you necessarily need your phone with you, but because you’re terrified of missing out on something important when you’re separated from technology.
The psychology of “what if”, is what makes the most popular apps most appealing to us, and it’s a great way to ensure engagement. For instance:
- People continue to check their social media feeds every couple of hours even if nothing interesting has shown up in days – because they’re afraid they’ll miss something special.
- We continue to swipe through faces on dating sites even if we haven’t matched with someone in a while, just in case we miss out on Miss or Mr. Right.
- We play lottery games even if we never win, because the fear of losing out on a potential win is greater than the fear of wasting our money on those initial tickets.
4. Technology x The Power of Peer Pressure
No matter how mature you consider yourself to be, the truth is that you’re probably vulnerable to peer pressure and social approval. There’s nothing wrong with that – we all feel an underlying need to be accepted by our peers, as human beings are naturally social creatures. However, social approval has become a technologically-focused concept.
For instance, Amazon.com gives you the option to share something that you’ve purchased recently with your friends on Facebook or Twitter. Nine times out of ten, the only reason why you would consider sharing that information is because you’re looking for some kind of social approval. For instance, you might admit to buying a new book to share your experience and insight with a community, but avoid sharing information about buying weight loss pills because you’re concerned about how that would make you look.
Peer pressure can be a dangerous thing for businesses, but also a very powerful one too. If you can get an influential person in your industry to recommend your product to their followers, then this immediately gives you social influence. Similarly, if your customers can see which of their friends on Facebook have already bought and enjoyed your product, then they’ll be more likely to buy from you too – not just because social approval makes businesses more trustworthy, but because everyone inherently wants to fit in.
5. Technology x Social Reciprocity
I’ll Scratch Your Back if You Scratch Mine. As human beings, we’re naturally vulnerable to the urge to reciprocate what other people do for us. In other words, if someone sends you a text message, you’d feel rude not responding to them. Similarly, if someone is following you on social media, then you’re likely to follow them back.
LinkedIn is an obvious example of the “social reciprocity” urge in most of us. This business-first social media platform wants as many people as possible to create social obligations for each other, because each time they reciprocate, they have to come and spend more time on LinkedIn.
Just like Facebook, LinkedIn uses asymmetry in perception. When someone asks you to connect, you might believe that they made a conscious choice to find you, and invite you. However, in many cases they probably picked you from a list of suggested contacts. Still, you feel compelled to repay them for their efforts by adding them. And, every time you accept a connection, endorse someone, or respond to a message, you’re spending more time on the LinkedIn platform.
6. Technology x Infinite Feeds
How can you make sure that you always keep your users’ attention when they’re browsing through your website on a smartphone or using your app? Exactly, you keep them engaged.
A professor from Cornell showed us the depth of this psychological trick in a study that found people would continue to eat food from a bowl that automatically refilled long after they were full. If the food keeps coming, we find it harder to stop and recognize that we no longer need it.
Technology is using the same “infinite feed” concept. News feeds are designed to keep refilling so that you can keep scrolling, eliminating any need to leave. At the same time, social media and video sites like Facebook, YouTube and Netflix auto-play the next video rather than asking you to make a conscious decision to keep using the service.
7. Technology x The Knock-knock
Businesses can choose to deliver information to their consumers in a host of different ways. Messages that interrupt people and force them to take notice are generally more persuasive than those that sit peacefully in your inbox for you to examine at your leisure.
That’s why apps like Facebook or WhatsApp would prefer to create a messaging system that interrupts recipients immediately with a pop-up chat box, rather than allowing users to respect each other’s attention.
Disruptive delivery is ideal for businesses that need to create a sense of urgency, but it’s not always the best solution. After all, if you’re too disruptive, then you could end up annoying or frustrating your audience, meaning that they are far more likely to unsubscribe, unfollow, or stop engaging with your brand.
Examples of respective and disruptive delivery range from Facebook automatically telling your sender when you “read” their message, so that you feel more obligated to respond (disruptive), to Apple allowing iPhone users to switch notifications on or off (respective).
Many websites now ask you to allow desktop notifications or use audible chat notifications, even if you haven’t initiated a chat. These are all ways to get your attention – and it’s working. But remember, it can quickly get annoying for customers too.
8. Technology x Combining Customer Goals and Business Goals
Another interesting way that technology is used to control the behavior of consumers, is by looking at the things that a customer wants to accomplish when they visit and app or website (user’s reasons and goals), and making sure that those goals are inseparable from the business’ reasons and goals.
For instance, Facebook makes you sign up (their goal) and log in before you can “facebook-stalk” your friends and acquaintances (your goal).
And, before you can post a tweet on Twitter (your goal), you will see your newsfeed inviting you to scroll through (their goal). Twitter wants you to use the app as often and as long as possible, even if you only want to get that one tweet out.
In grocery stores, we can see this concept in action too: Milk, and pharmacy refills are the two most common reasons people will visit a store. So, to increase the amount of time you spend in that store, and therefore ensure that you’re more likely to buy extra things, grocery stores situate their pharmacies and milk sections as far away from the entrance as possible.
9. Technology x The Inconvenient Choice
Technology allows businesses to make more choices available to more consumers. So they say.
However, the way companies achieve success, is by ensuring that the choices they want you to make are easy, and the choices they don’t want you to make are hard.
In other words, if you sign up for a subscription to a newsletter, then that might be as simple as entering an email address and clicking on a confirmation email. However, cancelling your subscription to that same newsletter is made far more inconvenient, by asking you to fill out forms and jump through hoops.
Technically, you still have the option to leave the service, but by making the option inconvenient, it’s more likely that you’ll decide not to bother canceling because you don’t have the time, or energy to deal with the process.
Audible, an audiobook service by Amazon, is a prime example. While it’s easy to sign up for a trial – you don’t have to create a new account as it connects directly with your Amazon account – cancelling a subscription is much harder. Have a look at the process described here.
And while most users use the Audible app on their mobile devices, they can only cancel their membership on the Audible desktop site. That’s what we call a hoop.
10. Technology x Foot in the Door
Finally, technology can control the behavior of consumers by taking advantage of their inability to forecast what the consequences of an action might be.
Sales people have long used foot-in-the-door techniques to grab the interest and engagement with a small request (“just one click”) to gradually ask for more (“just download this ebook”).
Mobile engagement is a way how news outlets drive their digital subscriber business. The NYT’s introduced their paywall in 2011. Readers get 10 free online articles per month and need to pay a subscription fee if they want to read more articles. This approach helped them increase their subscriber base to 1M in 2015 and it has been growing ever since (which can be partly attributed to this).
Technology is playing an increasingly important role in our lives. The more we learn about the ways that technology impacts us and our decisions, the better our choices will be.