The psychology tools big tech uses to pull our attention

The techniques big tech uses to pull our attention


This is the fourth in my series of posts about the impact of social media and screen time. The posts have been inspired by the book “Offline”, written by Imran Rashid and Soren Kenner.

Tech companies successfully hook into the space between our subconscious and conscious mind. B. J Fogg, the godfather of the intersection between computer science and technology, noted that in order to draw a person’s attention the program must have three essential elements:

  • You must want to do it
  • You must be able to do it
  • You must be triggered to do it

Big tech has created an array of tools to grab your attention, including:

  • Emotional triggers – for example new friend requests 
  • Infinity scrolls – AI learning from what you have enjoyed before to serve up a constant serving of dopamine
  • Notifications, such as noises to alert you to potential danger or potential dopamine

As you scroll and like things, consider that big tech super computers are aimed, locked, loaded and directed at your head.  AIs want to know what draws your attention. The more they can learn about your individual likes and dislikes the better they can serve up a feast of stimulating information. They do this because you can also be served up with a flow of subtle and not so subtle marketing materials. The longer you spend with eyes on the screen the more value can be extracted from you. In addition, the better understanding there is of your likes, dislikes, desires and fears, the better able marketing companies are able to also shape your desires in order to extract more value. It’s not just about serving up information about what you need and what adds value in life, it’s also about shaping your desires in order to encourage you to vote in a certain way, moderate your values, influence your morality and part you from your money.

The “My Personality project”, created by Michael Kosinksi and David Stillwell from Cambridge University, obtained access to thousands of Facebook users by creating an app, embedded within Facebook, which enabled them to extract vital information from users.  They asked people to complete a personality assessment, which was based on Digman and Goldberg’s big five personality model.  The five areas map the degree to which a person is:

  • Open
  • Conscientious
  • Extravert
  • Neurotic

They then compared these assessments to the individuals Facebook history and were able to gauge a person’s personality, and much more, based upon their likes.  With just a few likes they were able to understand a person more than even close friends and family:

  • 68 or more – sexual orientation, politics, intelligence level, religion
  • 70 likes or more – know more about you than your close friends
  • 150 likes or more – know more about you than your parents
  • 300 likes or more – know more about you than your life partner
  • ? likes or more – know more about you than you are consciously aware of yourself 

Armed with this information marketers, politicians, bad people, good people, strangers and disinterested corporations, who desire to maximise shareholder value, can and do grab your attention and shape your thoughts and behaviours.

Takeaways from this post

  • Are you ok with other people knowing so much about your likes, dislikes, likely behaviours and patterns of consumption?
  • Are you ok with, potentially, having your decision making, behaviours, wellbeing and consumption influenced in a way which is totally out of your control?
  • Talk to family, friends and colleagues about whether there are better ways to share information in trusted friend groups
  • Put ad blockers on your phone and laptops
  • What we observe changes our brains and bodies. This influences our decision making, wellbeing and ability to communicate. Knowing this practice being in and observing nature

Share these insights with friends and colleagues