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Psychological Tactics Social Media Uses To Hijack Your Attention

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.

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'.

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.

The bottomless scrolling and pull-to-refresh-feed mechanism on our news feed is like a slot-machine, and the slight delays before you see what comes up next is not due to slow internet- it's a strategy of building anticipation so that when you get to see those posts, your brain releases dopamine, which addicts you to the rush.

In Guy P. Harrisons book, Think Before You Like, he shares how slot machines work.

The #1 psychological ingredient of slot machines is called 'intermittent variable rewards'. When a player takes an action with the game (pulling a lever on a slot machine/refreshing the newsfeed), they don't know if they are going to get an exciting reward or nothing. The suspense of not knowing what is coming creates anxiety. Then the game delivers an adequate reward- not so much as to frustrate, but not so much as to satisfy. This relieves the players anxiety without allowing them to feel a sense of completion or satisfaction. Repeating this process of anticipation-reward keeps players locked in place, looking for more (I like to imagine it as a cartoon who's running in place but not going anywhere). 'What will I get when I open my phone- A new follower? New likes? New emails? New tinder matches? Did someone tag me in a photo?'

"When gamblers play, they're going into a zone that feels comfortable and safe, you're not playing to win, you're playing to stay in the zone- a zone where all of your daily worries, bodily pains, your anxieties about money and time and relationships fall away." -Natasha Dow Schull

2. By controlling your menu, they control your options

Social media companies take advantage of their role in setting our menu of options that we can spend our time on.

"Much of our daily lives are structured by menus. Whether we are deciding which email to respond to, what to order at a restaurant, which stores to visit—we navigate our lives by scanning lists of options. So what are the responsibilities of menu-makers? Devices and their menus should serve users. As humans, we tend to choose from what‘s in front of us. It follows that these menus which are so often in front of us have a great influence on our lives. Devices must take care to populate menus with options aligned with the users’ interests—rather than in the interests of increasing engagement metrics for media companies" - Joe Edelman, Choice Making and the Interface

When we wake up in the morning, we are presented with an immediate menu on our phone of everything we've missed overnight. This elevates the presence of options that serve the social media companies, and excludes options that are better for us, our health, and our goals.

3. Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)

Social media companies prey on our need to feel included. For kids, this is often the primary reason they lobby their parents for the right to be on social media in the first place. I hear it from my students all the time- the main reason they want to be on social media, is because all their friends are, and that's where they're talking. If you're not there, you miss it. Furthermore, online trends like memes, tiktoks, challenges, celebrities, these are the things that form important culture among kids and teenagers, and if you aren't aware of what's going on online, you're not in the know, you're not in the discussion. For adults, we have similar fears. Missing a valuable newsletter from that subscription we signed up for years ago we don't really like. Missing the perfect match on tinder. Missing a news update.

The truth is:

We are constantly missing all kinds of things. Anything we are not immediately engaged in, or that we have access to, we are technically 'missing'. What social media did was provide a false solution, they made you think that with their product, you won't have to miss things. They took control of the menu of what you are missing out on.

But another truth: If we constantly lived in a state of fearing what we are missing- we'd never be able to take any actions in our lives, because one action would mean missing out on another. It's easy for us to see what we'd miss without social media, but consider also whats not on the menu they present you: the many valuable things you are missing out on when you decide to spend your time on social media. That time spend has a cost, and part of that cost is not using those hours each day for something that actually pays off for you in the future. If we thought about social media time spend like an investment, it would be a non starter- If we were thinking rationally in terms of future payoffs.

"It’s amazing how quickly, once we let go of that fear, we wake up from this illusion. When we unplug for more than a day, unsubscribe from those notifications, — the concerns we thought we’d have don’t actually happen. We don’t miss what we don’t see. The thought, “what if I miss something important?” is generated in advance of unplugging, unsubscribing, or turning off — not after." -Tristan Harris

4. A human need for social approval and social status

Our evolutionary need for acceptance, inclusion, and to feel noticed is deeply innate. And our ability to quickly assess where we stand in the social dominance hierarchy- and our desire to take actions to improve our position, is something we have a designated part of our brain for (and something we share with many species of animals). Being appreciated and recognized by our peers is one of our highest motivations. Many studies have shown that humans prioritize status and reputation over money. One study I learned about in the book 'Contagious' shows that people are more likely to take a job that earns less money, so long as they will make more money than their co-workers on average- instead of a job that makes them more money over all but is less than their coworkers make. Status is a top priority to humans, and whatever the ecosystem- we want to be at the top. Social media companies took advantage of this driver by gamifying social status and becoming the attributer of it. Social media companies have crafted themselves into the main vehicle for attaining, demonstrating, and giving social status and approval. But the secret is- a lot of what we think of as approval points from other people- is really just a sequence of actions orchestrated by a machine.

Imagine a teenager, Ben, new to social media and desperate to gain some of this social validation. Here is how social media companies orchestrate hidden processes to make you think you are gaining social approval and validation- when really, it has little to no affect.

When Ben gets tagged in a photo by his friend, he thinks his friend made a conscious decision to tag him. What Ben doesn't see is how Facebook automatically suggested his name be tagged- a prompt by Facebook followed by his friend- instead of an independent choice that reflects any natural consideration for Ben.

When someone adds Ben as a friend, he thinks that person liked him enough to search his name. What Ben doesn't see is that Facebook suggested the friend request.

When someone sends Ben a Happy Birthday message, he thinks people really care about him and maybe remembered his birthday. What he doesn't see is that Facebook sent everyone a reminder, a suggestion, to send him Happy Birthday.

When someone likes Ben's photo on Instagram, he thinks that someone made a conscious decision to look at and appreciate his photo, what he wrote in his caption, and decided they really like Ben's ideas or image. What he doesn't see are the social media players seeing his photo for .5 seconds, and responding in the way Instagram taught them to: double tapping quickly, and then moving on to replicate the same mindless process over and over again.

It's like a high tech wack-a-mole. The game teaches you to wack moles on the head when they pop up quickly and be ready for the next one so you can hit as many as possible- much like Instagram teaches you to scroll, double tap, and keep scrolling. All you need to do to verify this is watch your own behaviour when you go online. How much thought do you give to every person you see? Now imagine how much time those people put into creating the perfect post- only for you to spend two blinks on it. Was it worth it for them? No, but they don't know that- they actually think you are genuinely appreciating them- and they think your like means something about their social value. And that is the likely outcome when you put hours into a piece of content. (sorry)

Its not about people genuinely assessing and validating your content. It's about people replicating the behaviour Instagram taught them in order to stay in the game. Social Media companies created an illusion of appreciation. They disguised addiction with validation.

"The game is luring in eyeballs and keeping them on screen for as long as possible. Facebook, snapchat, instagram, twitter all engage in a game in which you are not even a player. At best you are the ball, something to be kicked around. So long as you stay on the playing field, they're happy." -Guy P. Harrison, Think Before You Like.

5. Social Reciprocity (Tit-for-tat)

Humans also have a need to reciprocate. Social media takes advantage of that by maximizing the number of times we feel we need to take an action to reciprocate something.

  • You say, “Happy Birthday”— I have to say “thank you”

  • You send me an email— it’s rude not to get back to you quickly.

  • You follow me — i have to follow you back (especially for teenagers).

"When you receive an invitation from someone to connect, you imagine that person making a conscious choice to invite you, when in reality, they likely unconsciously responded to a list of suggested contacts. In other words, LinkedIn turns unconscious impulses (to “add” a person) into new social obligations that millions of people feel obligated to repay every day. All while they profit from the time people spend doing it."
"Imagine millions of people getting interrupted like this throughout their day, running around like chickens with their heads cut off, reciprocating each other — all designed by companies who profit from it."
"Welcome to social media." - Tristan Harris.

One way social media exploits our obligation to reciprocate, and encourage you to engage immediately, is by allowing people to see when you have read their message. When someone knows you saw their message, you feel obligated to respond to avoid that person feeling like you are ignoring them. This disrespects our agency and our right to control our own attention on our terms. Your phone is serving as a 24/7 portal to your attention, and the apps that are supposed to serve you are instead making it harder for you to ignore interruptions and control your own schedule.

6. Bottomless bowls, Infinite Feeds, Autoplay

Ever thought about why Netflix automatically plays the next video? They say it is out of convenience for the user- to make it easier for you to consume what you want. Really it is for their TSIA bottom line. Autoplay is responsible for a significant portion of video views. Autoplay and endless feeds turn the experience into a continuation, instead of something that has a natural end, which would gently encourage users to consider moving on with their day.

Tristan Harris on the bottomless pit:

"Social media companies turned a previously finite experience into a bottomless flow that keeps going. Cornell professor Brian Wansink demonstrated this in his study showing you can trick people into keep eating soup by giving them a bottomless bowl that automatically refills as they eat. With bottomless bowls, people eat 73% more calories than those with normal bowls. Tech companies exploit the same principle. News feeds are purposely designed to auto-refill with reasons to keep you scrolling, and purposely eliminate any reason for you to pause, reconsider or leave."

8. Not Without The Newsfeed!

Social media apps make it really hard to use the functions that serve you without getting sucked into using the functions that serve them. They do not want you to respond to a comment, or check the date of an upcoming event without being shown the newsfeed. And they're going to make sure they put whatever is most eye catching to you right at the top. Scrolling on the newsfeed is where they want to keep us- in prime consuming mode, because that is where they will sell us the most ads and collect the most data.

In the physical world of grocery stores, the most popular reasons to visit are pharmacy refills and buying milk. But grocery stores want to maximize how much people buy, so they put the pharmacy and the milk at the back of the store. In other words, they make the thing customers want (milk, pharmacy) inseparable from what the business wants. If stores were truly organized to support people, they would put the most popular items in the front. Facebook wants to convert every reason you have for using Facebook, into their reason which is to maximize the time you spend consuming things.
-Tristan Harris

One thing I find very helpful for this is the Facebook news feed eradicator for desktop.

9. Maximize The Reasons For Interruptions

Okay, we understand by now that social media companies will send you a notification as often as they possibly can- they'll even send you an email to tell you you have a notification.

Why did instagram add a feature where you could like messages? No one was ever thinking, 'responding with words or emojis or simply leaving the chat is just too primitive, what us humans need is a way to like every single message and notify that person every time we do'. I noticed this on my own, I was starting to get really annoyed when someone would like five of my messages before responding or not.. just to get me to look at my phone again. And you can't turn these off. I did not consent to be interrupted every time someone likes a message I sent, Zuckerberg! This is the same with 'liking' Instagram comments. My hypothesis is they realized that with a like option, they could convince people who weren't ready to invest time into writing a comment, to leave a quick heart tap- which has the same outcome of notifying the other person and getting them back on their phone.

For a simple article on all the things Instagram notifies you about and how to turn them off click here.

10. Using Our Anxieties Against Us

We know that social media purposefully induces as much suspense, anticipation, and tension as they can through design. It's good for business, meaning, it is effective in causing physiological effects on the brain which release dopamine and addict users (like gambling or drugs or sugar).

Dr. Kent Berridge of the University of Michigan, says that the dopamine that is triggered from social media is not about experiencing pleasure at all- It’s about seeking it. Dopamine is much more aligned with anticipation and motivation than with satisfaction. It causes us to want, desire, seek out, and search.

It's not that social media satisfies our needs for acceptance or connection, it's that it keeps us in a game where we think we can seek it. Here are some real examples of how they use this against us.

1. Those Three Dots.

Those three bumping up and down dots that show when someone is writing a message, or on instagram when it says 'typing...', or on Facebook comment sections when it shows you that 'someone is typing a comment...' They tell us that something is being done, but it doesn't tell us what. This essentially puts us in a state of anticipation, suspense, and even anxiety, awaiting what the person is going to say. Have you ever realized how hard it is to change the screen when you know someone is writing a message?

“The three dots shown while someone is drafting a message is quite possibly the most important source of eternal hope and ultimate let down in our daily lives,” said Maryam Abolfazli, who wrote a great piece dedicated to this topic, where she says her own therapist suggested she turn off the typing indicator, which was contributing to her daily anxiety.

When you think about how many messages we send per day, and how often this attention hack is unconsciously dictating our behaviour and mood, you realize how much of our mind space is being played around with by social media engineers.

2. Profile pictures

This is a sneaky one. When you upload a new profile photo, Facebook knows that it is a vulnerable moment for your ego. You're telling the world 'this is the new best photo representing what I want you all to see'. Facebook knows you will be very eager to see the response you get. So say 100 people like your photo the first day you upload it. Why would Facebook show you all those likes so you can feel the reward and move on with your life? That would be far too productive for you. Instead, they withhold your likes, because they know if you don't get notifications, you are going to be drawn in to check your phone again and again just to see, 'are people not liking my new photo?'. They will then save these likes to send you over the week, instead of all at once. Double win for them- they get you checking your phone in an anxious mess, and get to send you more alerts to draw you back in over time.

3. Just enough text to spawn suspense

There's a reason they don't show you the whole message without opening the app, and it's not because of lack of space. They know that when you get a message from someone, you are most likely to open it right away if you don't know what is in that message. The unknown ramps up our anxiety, we can't handle it. If we saw the entire text we would know whether we needed to address it right now or not- but they do not want us to have that privilege.


*The knowledge in this series was learned primarily from social media authors and researchers Tristan Harris,Jonathan Haidt, and Guy P. Harrison.

Girls Who Fight Self Defense Programs:

Written by Gemma Sheehan, founder of

Girls Who Fight. Our mission is to help women and girls lead safe and confident lives.

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