Ex-Googler On Smartphones And Psychology


Former Google employee Tristan Harris worked on ensuring that Google's user-facing tech and products were as ethical and respectful of people's time as possible. His job was to keep apps from collecting unnecessary data or falling victim to addictive qualities. He recently published an article on Medium where he goes in-depth on how such effects work and the ways in which apps and technology take advantage of flaws, vulnerabilities and loopholes in human psychology to maximize impact and profits.

He describes a number of factors that affect addiction to tech, such as reduction of choice and how we're manipulated to see it as empowerment. In essence, this means that the question of, "What should I eat tonight?", when filtered through your smartphone, becomes, "What restaurants are in this area and what are their ratings and prices?", eschewing the nearby farmer's market and a few indie food carts lining downtown's streets. He also talks about the fear of missing something important, using social approval to keep users coming back, social obligation to respond, or reciprocity, "bottomless bowls" like news feeds and autoplay mechanisms, the power of interruption, app makers putting their reasons for having you visit their app ahead of your reasons, like having to visit your Facebook news feed to check up on a sick friend, the use of inconvenient choices to influence the decisions we make, and forecasting errors, where humans' inability to predict the consequences of an action is exploited.


The biggest point Harris makes, however, is that many apps, and indeed our phones themselves, are like slot machines. In some cases, the issue arises by accident or because of the nature of a service. In others, it may be an intentional way to keep users hooked. The point in any case, however, is that there's a "variable reward" system in place; pulling your smartphone out and checking your notifications could land you a night out with a Tinder match, an email from an old friend and a notification that your paycheck has just hit the bank, or it could net you absolutely nothing. Likewise, refreshing your news feed or Twitter feed could let you see that an old friend is in town or your favorite movie is getting a revival, or there could be nothing noteworthy. The possibility of it going either way, keeps you coming back, up to 150 times a day, for the average user. His breakdown of the reasons you may compulsively check your phone every few minutes is quite spot-on and comes from years of experience within Google looking for exactly those kinds of exploits.

Share this page

Copyright ©2016 Android Headlines. All Rights Reserved.

This post may contain affiliate links. See our privacy policy for more information.
Senior Staff Writer

Daniel has been writing for Android Headlines since 2015, and is one of the site's Senior Staff Writers. He's been living the Android life since 2010, and has been interested in technology of all sorts since childhood. His personal, educational and professional backgrounds in computer science, gaming, literature, and music leave him uniquely equipped to handle a wide range of news topics for the site. These include the likes of machine learning, Voice assistants, AI technology development news in the Android world. Contact him at [email protected]

View Comments