The perils of smartphone addiction came into sharper focus when a group of investors demanded that Apple Inc. address what the iPhone’s success might mean “to the health and development of the next generation.” The compulsion to use a smartphone continuously is often driven by the apps that it powers. That’s no accident. Social-media companies, mobile gaming studios and others employ armies of psychologists to help them engineer products that ensure users stay hooked, or return again and again. Here are some of the techniques they deploy.
MEANING: A reward for what you do: real prizes, virtual prizes, bragging rights, approval of others.
BACKGROUND: B.F. Skinner’s 1938 book, “The Behavior of Organisms,” coined the term “operant conditioning” – how the outcome of a subject’s behavior can change future behavior. Positive reinforcement, or receiving a reward for certain actions, is one type of operant conditioning. In Skinner’s experiments on rats, the reward was pellets of food.
CASE IN POINT: That endorphin rush you get every time someone likes your Facebook post serves as a reward, encouraging you to return to the app each time you receive a “like” alert — and to post more.
OTHER EXAMPLES: HQ Trivia’s split-many-ways cash pots. Candy Crush’s rewards for completing certain levels. The perfect three-star score in Angry Birds. Twitter’s likes and retweets. Virtual medals for reaching goals in fitness apps like Strava or Nike + Run Club.
MEANING: Avoiding pain. Also known as FOMO — fear of missing out.
BACKGROUND: When Skinner ran an electric current through a box housing a rat, the rat learned it could put an end to the charge — and its discomfort — by hitting a lever.
CASE IN POINT: Snapchat rewards heavy users with emojis, an example of positive reinforcement. But there’s a flip side: Some of the most coveted rewards are tied to “streaks,” or activities repeated daily for an extended period, and users lose them if they take a day off. So a Snapchat user might sometimes log in more to avoid disappointment than to experience pleasure.
MEANING: The luck of the draw, or a taste of gambling right on your phone.
BACKGROUND: When Skinner inadvertently ran short of the pellets he used to reward his rats, he instituted one-minute intervals between the rewards. That proved more effective at teaching rats to use the lever — and more when the intervals were made random.
CASE IN POINT: With Tinder and similar “swiping” dating apps, users might have six potential matches waiting for them. But those six promising candidates don’t all appear right away. Instead, they are spaced out, meaning there is only an “intermittent” reward for swiping. (Only those willing to stump up for a premium subscription can see all the people who’ve liked them at once.)
OTHER EXAMPLES: The hopes of a Facebook or Twitter post going viral.
MEANING: Logos, animations, pictures, ads, other shiny stuff.
BACKGROUND: A 2012 study showed that a color can attract your attention before you actively look at it. Red in particular can accelerate your heart rate. While Faber Birren, whose writings include “Selling Color to People” (1956), is arguably the father of modern color theory, the significance of their brightness is a relatively modern discovery.
CASE IN POINT: Starting with its logo of jelly beans and sprinkle-laden confectionery, Candy Crush bombards players with bright colors and trippy animations to attract their attention, stimulating the senses much like the sugar rush a kid gets from eating too much Haribo.
OTHER EXAMPLES: Instagram’s multi-colored logo; Facebook’s bright-red notifications; Twitter’s broadly defined notifications.
MEANING: The feeling of belonging.
BACKGROUND: In his 1961 book, "The Achieving Society," Harvard University’s David McClelland identified affiliation — a sense of community — as one of three dominant needs that underpin human motivation, the others being achievement and power. Affiliation underpins all social media apps. A 2015 paper found that social networks and social games “more considerably foster dependency than do cocaine and alcohol.”
CASE IN POINT: Harry Potter fans who live in Victoria, Australia, can join the Victorian Quidditch Association Group on Facebook. Its 689 members organize local tournaments and natter about the made-up sport. Many of Facebook’s 2 billion monthly users post to such groups.
Reciprocity and Obligation
MEANING: Don’t be an ingrate.
BACKGROUND: A 1971 study by Cornell psychologist Dennis Regan showed a strong sense of obligation among test subjects who received a soda from a person, then were asked by that person to buy raffle tickets.
CASE IN POINT: Facebook’s Messenger service alerts the sender that you’ve read a message, creating pressure on you to respond.
OTHER EXAMPLES: LinkedIn’s endorsements, Tinder’s Super Likes.
The Reference Shelf
- A QuickTake explainer on tech’s new monopolies and another on the backlash against them.
- Even Apple and Facebook executives see a need for limits.
- Researchers say teens who spend more time online are less happy than those who spend time on other activities.
- See how tech companies take up more hours of your day.
- Try to resist the Bloomberg American Mall game.