Psychological Tactics Social Media Uses To Hijack Your Attention

Updated: Nov 12, 2021

The Unplug Series: Part 2

The allures, the harms, and how to take control of our minds.


We live in an attention economy. That means attention has become a very valuable currency. When you want to share someone's ideas or show you support them you share them on social media. Companies and influencers do as much as they can to encourage followers to share them online, even in exchange for free product. And celebrities do anything they can to get the public's attention to stay relevant.

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Our attention is far more valuable than we realize, both for our own outcomes, and as an asset to huge corporations. 'Time Spent In App (TSIA)' is a metric that apps use as their main indicator of value. TSIA translates directly to how many ads an app can sell you, and how much data they can collect and sell to third parties. Their two hundred billion dollar revenue streams. But how did it get like this? It wasn't always this way- the first apps weren't created with the sole purpose of getting the worlds population hooked on useless scrolling. They started with providing a useful service. Instant messaging, staying connected with friends, etc.

The problem started when more companies started to emerge, competing for your attention. That's when the social media companies had to get very serious, very strategic, and very effective with their tactics to win the market share of attention. Today, every big company has a department that is dedicated to this only. Attention engineers. Growth hackers. Their job is to design every aspect of the user experience in a way that keeps people in the app, and brings them back to the app as much as possible. Some companies even have a department within that department, called Design Ethicists. Their job is to draw the line between strategic design and human exploitation (or mind control).

Tristan Harris is an expert on how technology hijacks our psychological vulnerabilities. He was a Design Ethicist at Google whose job was 'to design things in a way that defends a billion people’s minds from getting hijacked.' Atlantic Magazine called him:

'The closest thing silicon valley has to a conscience'.

social media impacts on teens
Tristan Harris

Tristan became concerned with how social media companies play our psychological vulnerabilities against us in the race to grab our attention. He calls this the 'race to the bottom': in order for companies to stay in the game, they had to cross more boundaries in order to get us addicted. And if your company wasn't willing to employ these tactics, well you just weren't going to last. Tristan left google and started a website where he shares what he learned at his former position, and advocates for better practices that serve user goals.

And he's not the only industry insider who's become seriously concerned. Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former vice president of user growth said that “I feel tremendous guilt. I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.” He has stated that he himself rarely uses Facebook, and that his children “aren’t allowed to use that cr*p”. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook has said that he doesn't want his nephew on a social network. So what do the insiders know that we don’t? What addictive psychological methods are they using to keep us hooked?

1. The Science of Slot Machines

"If you’re an app, how do you keep people hooked? Turn yourself into a slot machine." -Tristan Harris

Slot machines are extremely sophisticated. They bring in 70-80% of a casino's revenue. Compared to other kinds of gambling, people get ‘problematically involved’ with slot machines 3-4x faster, according to NYU professor Natasha Dow Schull, author ofAddiction by Design. Slot machines are designed to keep human brains engaged with them for as long as possible.

social media addiction