Research & resources

Mental agility training

Mental agility training - start with, "I could be wrong"

Whatever role you have in life probably involves making lots of decisions and evaluating things. For example, we assess each other's performance, which option adds the most value, and we make predictions.
The problem is we often suck at it. Our biases, emotions and filters often get in the way of making decisions that add value for ourselves and our team.

Know your enemy – know your biases

If you ask classic questions like: 
a) "If a bat costs $1 more than a ball and both cost $1.10 in total, how much does the ball cost."
b) "If you are running a race and you pass the person in second, which position are you now in?"

(Correct answers 5c and second)

If you got one or both answers wrong, you may have fallen for the “rush to solve” heuristic bias.  People who tend to get these types of questions wrong would score poorly on a cognitive reflection test.  Being good at mental agility means pausing and actively searching for information that opposes your views and opinions.
Low scores on this test predict the degree to which people make poor decisions and judgments at work. And is also associated with how much time people spend on smartphones!
Good leaders tend to have the ability to be agile in their decision making, curious about the opinions of others, open to different viewpoints, prepared to change views and understand that displaying uncertainty is a sign of strength, not weakness.
Let's champion words like, "I don't know, let's find out together."

Smart leaders

Smart leaders know that the knowledge from the wisdom of a wise crowd of experts usually leads to better decisions than relying on one person. 
You can harness the wisdom of your wise crowd at work through dialogue, creating psychologically safe spaces and using anonymous data gathering tools such as Mentimeter. Anonymous opinion gathering helps us avoid some of the consequences of groupthink and the cascade impact and anchoring bias when a dominant person in a team speaks first.
The loudest voice in the room isn't necessarily (or probably) the smartest.

Pause, listen, reflect, act

Reflective thinking rather than impulsivity is effortful, but it helps people make better life decisions. 
To start with, you've got to be present - that takes practice.  Secondly, you've got to be more aware of the impact of biases on decision making. And lastly, find out what your biases are and check in with your colleagues to share ideas.
And check in with your colleagues.
And check in with your colleagues …and repeat for ever.

Some light bedtime reading

If you want to know more about the biases and noise which lead to poor decision making (and how you can overcome them) to help make informed decisions, contact me today about our leadership mental agility.
I'll come in and share ideas with your team about recognising biases and how to manage them.
Or, for a much cheaper option (though less fun), read "Thinking fast and slow" by Daniel Kahneman, "Focus the hidden driver of excellence" by Dan Goleman, "The upside of irrationality" by Dan Ariely and Kahneman's new book, "Noise – a flaw in human judgment."
Basically, any book written by a Dan.
These are amazing books that are a must-read for anyone needing to make informed judgments, evaluations and predictions about the future.


Too much screen time - thriving, surviving or shrinking?

Too much screen time - thriving, surviving or shrinking?

In this post we consider two ideas from the world of psychology which help identify some of the factors associated with thriving. The first is Banduras self-efficacy theory and the second is Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow theory.

The article takes about two minutes to read 

Bandura’s self-efficacy theory and screentime

Many of us feel we have too much to do and have too little time to do it in. And many of us have competing demands on our attention and conflicting priorities. Balancing the needs of our family, our own wellbeing, our values, our career, our organisations goals and values and the needs, goals and values of our colleagues is challenging. With so much going on we invariably drop the ball sometimes. Self-compassion and self-care is essential as we strive to perform this juggling act.

Sometimes we just have to act and deal with the consequences. But our ability to act as mindfully as possible is impacted by our stress levels, the level of data noise around us whether we have self-efficacy.

“how well one can execute courses of action required to deal with prospective situations”

People with high levels of self-efficacy tend to:

  • see challenges as tasks to be mastered;
  • become deeply engaged in activities;
  • are committed; and
  • bounce back from setbacks.

Bandura’s research points to these areas as being developable.  With self-awareness and practice we can learn more about our biases, strengths and emotional triggers. We can become better observers of our own internal narrative and become consciously aware of whether these help us or hinder us. 

We can learn to step back for a moment ( a few seconds) and consider how we wish to be in the world. What sort of a person do we want to be for our friends, colleagues and family? With greater awareness we can practice becoming the person we aspire to be.

All of these things require focus, energy, curiosity and diligence.  Too much online time, spent drifting, may rob us of these things.  We can develop greater self-efficacy through:

  • Mastery (repetition with fine attention to doing things better each time)
  • Social persuasion (modelling and enjoying group connection and encouragement)
  • Recognition of our own emotional state and how this impacts our performance
  • Finding ways to express ourselves emotionally
  • Developing new emotional states (through healthy nutrition, connecting with positive people, exercising and so on)

Being online obviously doesn’t mean that this time is always drifting and wasted time. Probably far from it.

When we are driven to seek knowledge, we might have high energy levels, lots of purpose and lots of drive. When we are in this state it’s worth taking regular breaks to make sure energy levels stay high and to ensure we don’t become overly fixated on one goal. Disappearing down the rabbit hole is a risk and before you know it your energy levels might be depleted, your balanced world view skewed and your self-efficacy (ability to act purposefully) potentially undermined.

And purposeless, drifting time spent on the infinity scrolls of Netflix, facebook and tiktok drains energy, robs time and deepens biases.  We might move toward mastery in an online game but we need to consider balanced self efficacy ie to what extent does one activity (being online playing games) rob our ability to execute actions in other important areas of our life.

Being in flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the godfathers of positive psychology, developed his “Flow theory” over the last thirty years. When we are in flow states we are:

“strong, alert, unselfconscious and at the peak of our current abilities.”

His research points to happiness being generated when we are in a state where we are gently striving. This is one where we are learning new things - slightly outside of our comfort zone and expanding our minds, connecting with people in new ways and learning new skills.  

This can often be the very opposite of closing into ourselves online, in a filter bubble, surrounded by a wall of mirrors, reflecting our conditioned likes and beliefs.

Being in a flow state has multiple benefits including:

  • Enjoying positive emotions and optimism 
  • How satisfied we are with our lives 
  • Being more motivated 
  • Performing well academically  
  • Performing well at work 

To be in flow we need to be aware and not be mindlessly drifting. Being in flow means to be self-aware of our underlying strengths, goals, interests and motivations. It means to gently challenge ourselves and try new things. 

As with self-efficacy we need to consider the potential conflict between personal and organisational flow and consider whether our point of attention has value to us, our loved ones and our colleagues.   

We may be in a flow state online but to what purpose? 

Is our point of attention healthy for us? 

Does our version of flow online mean that we are less able to attend to helping our colleagues and loved ones achieve their own flow states?




Screentime, self efficacy and being in a flow state

Find out more about how screen time disrupts self efficacy and flow

Screen time, self-efficacy and being in a state of flow

This is the eighth in my series of posts about the impact of social media and screen time in on our wellbeing, communication  and our ability to make rational decisions.  This post takes about two minutes to read.

The posts have been inspired by the book “Offline”, written by Imran Rashid and Soren Kenner.  

In the last section of the book the authors explore self-efficacy and flow theory and how infinity scrolling is time lost - a scattered, disengaged and fragmented stated. To learn about the world around us and about ourselves requires engagement and energy. We remember things better when we are present. We learn new ways of navigating the world when we are present. And we are happier, when we are present.

Does too much screen time impact our self-efficacy and our ability to be in flow?

The great psychologist, Bandura, worked in the area of self-efficacy. What does this mean? And how does it relate to screen time overload?

“how well one can execute courses of action required to deal with prospective situations”

People with high levels of self-efficacy tend to:

  • See challenges as tasks to be mastered
  • Become deeply engaged in activities
  • Are committed
  • Bounce back from setbacks

Bandura’s research points to these areas as being developable.  With self-awareness and practice we can learn more about our biases, strengths and emotional triggers. We can become better observers of our own internal narrative and become consciously aware of whether these help us or hinder us. We can step back for a moment and consider how we wish to be in the world. What sort of a person do we want to be for our friends, colleagues and family? With greater awareness we can practice becoming the person we aspire to be.

All of these things require focus, energy, curiosity and diligence.  Too much online time, spent drifting, may rob us of these things.  

We can develop greater self-efficacy through:

  • Mastery (repetition with fine attention to doing things better each time)
  • Social persuasion (modelling and enjoying group connection and encouragement)
  • Recognition of our own emotional state and how this impacts our performance
  • Finding ways to express ourselves emotionally and to learn and grow from what these emotions mean
  • Developing new emotional states (through healthy nutrition, connecting with positive people, exercising and so on)

Being in flow

Finally, the book introduces the “Flow theory” of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He’s one of the godfathers of positive psychology. And his flow theory also helps us understand the adverse impact of too much screentime.

When we are in flow states we are:

“strong, alert, unselfconscious and at the peak of our current abilities.”

His research points to elevated personal wellbeing when we are in a state where we are gently striving. This is one where we are learning new things, slightly outside of our comfort zone and expanding our minds, connecting with people in new ways and learning new skills.  

This can often be the very opposite of closing into ourselves online, in a filter bubble, surrounded by a wall of mirrors, reflecting our conditioned likes and beliefs.

Being in a flow state has multiple benefits including:

  • More positive emotions and optimism 
  • More satisfaction with our life
  • Being more motivated 
  • Performing well academically  
  • Performing well at work 

To be in flow we need to be aware and not be mindlessly drifting. Being in flow means to be self-aware of our underlying strengths, goals, interests and motivations. It means to gently challenge ourselves and try new things. Flow theory points to wellbeing being enhanced through trying new things and is undermined when we repeat the same things again and again.

Takeaways from this post 

  • Mastery - set aside some time for you each week to practice something you love
  • Social persuasion - if you feel passionate about something join a group to find out how you can learn more and how you can give back more
  • Finding ways to express emotions – if you are experiencing challenges at the moment spend some time documenting your feelings.  The next stage might be to reach out to a trusted friend, therapist or coach to explore your emotions and whether they illuminate your values and goals (and perhaps some of the real or perceived barriers to you attaining your goals) 
  • Developing new emotional states – which activities or lifestyle choices enhance your mood state?  Reach out to friends or new groups to enjoy these things with other people

Does social media improve or undermine our wellbeing?

Does social media improve or undermine our wellbeing? 

No, yes, maybe - it’s complicated

This is the seventh in my series of posts about the impact of social media and screen time in general on our wellbeing, ability to communicate and make decisions.  The posts have been inspired by the book “Offline”, written by Imran Rashid and Soren Kenner.

Quality counts

A 2017 study by Duke University found that it wasn’t necessarily the amount of online time, college students experienced, which had a positive or negative impact on their wellbeing, but whether that social media engagement led to more or less interactions with friends offline. People who used social media to connect with people offline tended to have elevated levels of wellbeing, regardless of the amount of time they spent online. Whereas, those who tended to rely on social media for friends and connection had lower levels of wellbeing. 

Distorting the way we see ourselves

Social media tends to condition and reinforce popular perceptions of desirability, attractiveness and what is an appropriate way of acting. In a 2012 study Chou and Edge found that the more time a person spent on Facebook, and the greater the percentage of strangers a person had as friends (vague awareness of how the friend contact was formed), the more likely the person is to perceive others as having better lives than their own. And in a 2015 study Vogel, Rose, Okdie and Franz found that people who had a greater tendency to compare themselves to others  were more likely to be heavy Facebook users and had lower levels of self-esteem. 

In other studies, self-reported self-esteem is correlated with the level of fight flight hormone cortisol. Elevated cortisol levels act to enable the fight/flight system by tensing the body up and enabling energy to be directed to movement and defence and away from higher reasoning.  It helps us react fast. The authors of the book “Offline” point to research which found that body shaming increases cortisol levels and that social media time effects the way we perceive our own bodies. A distorted self-view, that we are not beautiful enough or don’t fit in, may make people feel like awkward outliers from society. This may lead to increased social isolation, or perhaps unusual behaviours with friends or colleagues, as people try to preserve their sense of self.  Social media may increase the amount of comparison with other people we engage in.

Making us less resilient?

In a 2017 study, people who were given a stressful event to experience, had significantly higher levels of stress (cortisol levels) if after the stressor they spent some time browsing Facebook. Facebook browsing seemed to impair cortisol recovery. The research indicated that we may feel the impact of heightened cortisol levels for much longer if we browse Facebook when we are feeling stressed. For example, some of the physical effects of this could include tight neck and shoulders or lower back, shallow breathing or general discomfort. Some of the psychological and social impacts may mean we overly focus on weaknesses, deficits and dangers, feel anxious, experience low levels of self-esteem and be disinclined to meet up with friends and family. 

What happens to us when we experience a long, slow surge of dopamine as we flit from one image to the next on our infinity scrolls? It’s uncertain what the long-term impact of this is.  A survey by the Pew Centre in 2015 of 1,800 people indicated that more social media usage was correlated with more stress. The more usage, the more stress and the greater the negative body self-image.  In addition, the more social media platforms you use the greater the levels of anxiety and depression.

Research from the Sleep Research Society in 2017 on 1,700 young adults in the US indicated that using social media, within 30 minutes of going to sleep, had a negative impact on sleep quality. The heavier the usage, the worse the impact. 

Too early to tell about long term impacts

Smartphones were only introduced in 2007 (date of the iPhone launch). Less smart phones had been around for a little while prior to 2007 but the sharing and roaming technology, that we have come to rely on, only started to become popular with the iPhone launch. It’s still quite a new phenomenon and the long-term consequences of this technology is unknown. What we can do is look at longitudinal studies of behaviour and have an informed conversation about what may be happening.

Once such researcher is Larry Rosen.  He has been studying the impact of technology on children for the last thirty years and therefore we should pay attention to what he says. 

‘Our real and virtual worlds overlap, as many of our virtual friends are also our real friends. But time and effort spent on our virtual world limit the time to connect and communicate on a deeper level in our real world. We face a barrage of alerts, notifications and vibrations warning us that something important is about to happen”. 

Jean Twenge, from the University of San Diego has also noted sudden and massive changes in young people since 2012.

“Young people socialise in completely new ways, reject once sacred social taboos and want different things from their lives and careers.  They are obsessed with safety, focussed on tolerance and have no patience for inequality”.

In virtually all the studies mentioned in this series of articles, splitting out cause and effect is almost impossible. For example, do people who are more prone to depression tend to withdraw into social media and reduce real time friend interactions or does more time spent online, reduce meaningful friend interactions and lead to depression?  It cannot be concluded that A leads to B. Highly stressed people may be susceptible to being drawn in by social media, whilst some heavy users of social media may remain upbeat and energised and use social media to connect to more people in a positive way in real time. However, most of the research concludes that over time we are changing the way we behave and there is a positive correlation between spending more time online, particularly on social media, and significant negative psychological, physiological and social connectivity impacts. 

Takeaways from this post 

  • Set aside specific times for checking social media during the day 
  • Monitor your social media time and aim to reduce from the average of 2 hours per day
  • If possible, turn your phone to airplane mode 30 minutes or more before you go to bed
  • Make social media work positively for you – aim to organise at least one face to face meeting with friends through social media and stick to your meetups 
  • Join a meetup group to practice your hobby or passion
  • Before engaging in social media consider your mood state.  Reflect back on the things today that brought you joy, were meaningful or successful (or all three). Practice some gentle breathwork meditation exercises.



Does too much screen time distort how we see the world and undermine our decision making?

Does too much screen time distort how we see the world and undermine our decision making?

This is the sixth 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.

Living in an echo chamber

In addition to the concerns about too much screen time creating dysfunctional behaviours there are a number of other potential dangers. These include the echo chamber effect. Algorithms serve up the things we either desire or inflame us to engage in content. Content engagement means more screen time, which means more potential advertising revenue. Being served up a constant stream of similar things and similar views can lead to social and political polarisation. We may become surrounded by people with similar views, reinforcing attachment to our own beliefs and ego. In his 2009 book, “The Master and his Emissary”, Iain McGilchrist explains how the left hemisphere of our brains already nudge us in the direction of duality, ego and separation. He describes this as like living in a hall of mirrors, where our confirmation biases seek out people and views that affirm our world view. With social media this effect is turbo charged.

As people become more polarised they increasingly cling to their group’s identity, even when they are confronted with facts which disprove their group’s view. Being part of a group may become more important than truth. This cognitive dissonance  (avoiding and discounting facts which oppose group views) , combined with confirmation bias (having heightened awareness of  information which confirms group views), increases polarisation. The more stressed and anxious people are, the more they cling to group views and identify with the group even when their membership of the group is at odds with their values, goals and the facts.

Screen time deepening our biases

The authors of “Offline” set out a number of common cognitive biases which work with social media to create a distorted view of how people see themselves and the world around them. In yoga a distorted view of reality is described as ignorance or “avidya”. It means to see the world through biased filters. These false views can adversely impact our health, wealth, happiness and relationships.  This is a summary of some of the common thinking traps which may be heightened by our screen time:

Identifiable victims - over engagement in individual stories and how they make you feel rather than understanding statistics and how society and groups of people are impacted by events

Framing effect - influenced by how information is presented. For example, if you are told person A is intelligent, diligent, impulsive, critical, stubborn and envious and person B is stubborn, envious, intelligent, impulsive, critical and diligent you are more likely to view A more sympathetically.  This framing effect influences and distorts our opinions

Availability cascade - repeating the same message again and again (even if it is not based in fact). Hearing the same message again and again influences our opinions

Bandwagon effect - the herd mentality shaping our views

Bias blindness - belief that we are less biased than others 

Hostile attribution bias - tendency to interpret other people’s behaviours as aggressive, which is heightened by stress and anxiety

Reactance - urge to take the contrary view in order to thwart perceived attempts to dominate or constrain freedom


Have empathy levels declined and is this due to increased screen time?

According to research by the University of Michigan, on 14,000 students over the last thirty years, there has been a 40% decline in empathy, with particularly sharp falls in the last ten years. Empathy comes from the German word einfuhlung and means feeling into another person.

  • Does our time online divert our attention away from observing other people’s facial expressions and body language? 
  • Does this mean that we lose our ability to read other people? 
  • Does our filtered world view and increased biases mean that we find it harder to imagine what another person may be feeling? 
  • Does our time online mean that we simply don’t have the time to think about the plight of other people?  
  • Does spending more time in our filter bubbles make us more interested in servicing our own needs and desires rather than considering the greater good of communities and society? 
  • Does the volume of traumatic  images we see (climate change, violence etc) lead to a compassion fatigue and a desensitisation? 
  • Does our deepening of in group/tribe relationships lead to us dehumanising people from different backgrounds and cultures?

“Most people do not listen with intent to understand; they listen with intent to reply”  Stephen Covey

The book turns to considering ideas on how to emerge from our filter bubbles and reduce the biases with which we see the world. The authors identify research which indicates that reading fantasy books may be helpful. Experiencing imaginary worlds makes us feel both smaller and more connected to something bigger than ourselves. Perhaps it stimulates our tangential thinking and a sense of awe and reduces rigidity.

Throughout the book the authors consider how little of the information available through our senses we are consciously aware of.  Millions of bits of information and interactions with the world around us shape our behaviours, wellbeing and decision making, often without our conscious awareness. 

When we listen to stories, read new books or consider ideas, we briefly burst the filter bubble surrounding us. What we pay attention to shapes us and therefore we need to consider who or what we look at. Do we surround ourselves with positive and upbeat people who help us become better versions of ourselves? When we mindlessly scroll on social media our brains are being shaped by what we see and we are drawn deeper into our filtered view of the world.

“Beware of the stories you recall or tell. Subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness they are altering your world. Without stories we would go mad. Life would lose its moorings or orientations. Even in silence we are living our stories.”

Ben Okri

Takeaways from this post 

Consider your biases - Spend some time on social media and observe some posts. Notice how you feel as you read and look at the posts. What do you agree with? What do you disagree with? Now re read the list of heuristic biases above. Take a few breaths in through the nose and out through the nose doing some deep diaphragmatic breathing. With understanding of your biases, document in what ways do you think your mood and opinions have been swayed by what you see

Consider your emotional state - Before reading news online or scrolling social media spend a few moments closing your eyes and engaging in deep diaphragmatic breathing exercises. Think about three that went well and why they went well for you today.  Now spend a few moments considering common heuristic biases noted above.  As you read the news or read people’s posts consider how you feel positively detached from what you see. 

Consider someone else’s view - If you read a post, written by a friend, that annoys you don’t immediately react.  Think back to when that person has been at their best with you.  Consider moments that brought you together.  Now consider your biases. If you feel the need to engage in a texting/posting conversation be aware of the tendency for words to be misconstrued without the vital element of face to face emotional and social signalling. If you feel yourself become emotionally embroiled try and stick to the facts. If things become heated, disengage from the conversation and agree to disagree.  

Develop your empathy - At work spend some time considering what one of your colleagues may be going through at home, in their career and with their health. Try and imagine the world from their shoes rather than trying to imagine you in their shoes. True empathy means using your imagination, being kind, supportive, non-judgmental and deepening your understanding of what makes the other person tick


Social media and screen time addiction

Is social media, online games and general screen time addictive?

This is the fifth 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.

If you spend a few minutes observing someone on Instagram or Facebook there are number of things that could happen; you might be perceived as a weird stalker (try doing it surreptitiously).  If you can maintain a non-stalky demeanour and think of it as a science experiment, rather than weird, that helps. If you do this, look at the speed of the fingers, the darting eyes and the deeply engrained focus. The infinity scroll looks like a job. People spend hours and hours ticking and liking and commenting. To what effect?  

  • As you engage in social media imagine that you are being observed. 
  • Are your movements soft, slow and measured?  
  • Are you problem solving, and using your higher brain functions, when you’re online or merely liking and scrolling to satisfy old patterns of likes, dislikes and habitual patterns of thinking? 
  • Are you endlessly scrolling to serve yourself a stream of dopamine? 
  • Do your actions, in this moment, lead to a deeper connection with people? 
  • Does your scrolling, at this moment, help you spend more real time with people? 
  • What else could you be doing at this moment?

This what Sean Parker, the first CEO of Facebook, said about the importance of addictive design for their business model:

“How can we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible? That means that we need to give you a little dopamine hit. With the social media feedback loop you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology”.

What are addictive behaviours?

Addiction could include some or all of the following:

  • Mental preoccupation
  • Neglect of personal life
  • Escapism
  • Mood modification
  • Modification of tolerance levels
  • Concealment

(The international gaming research unit at Nottingham Trent University)

The widely used U.S DSM5 (diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders) added gambling and internet gaming to the list of disorders. However, if we can pathologize  gambling and internet disorders where does the line get drawn? 

“How can we conceptualise behavioural addiction without pathologizing common behaviours?” (Society for the study of addiction)

It is up to us as individuals and also in our friendship and work networks to decide which behaviours are useful and which are undermining. For example, a colleague told me about her sixteen-year-old son’s friend group who ban phone time when they catch up for coffee or dinner. Screen time is now an essential part of life. We just need to explore how it affects our relationships, quality of work and wellbeing.

Takeaways from this post

  • Talk to family, friends and colleagues about this stuff! Create some soft rules for when we are with each other
  • Where possible set aside some alone time for checking social media, playing games and so on. And monitor how much time you do these things each day
  • Keep a simple journal of your online experience - After long sessions on social media, watching Netflix or playing games online, document your mood and energy levels. Compare these to mood and energy levels after you have met friends in person, played sport or received positive feedback at work
  • Be mindful when you are on social media – For example, when you are Instagram continue to breathe slowly and steadily and consider how you would like to be perceived. Are your movements fast paced and frenetic as you like and comment or are your movements more measured?
  • Before you post something consider whether you are adding value for others. Does your post add new information that helps others thrive? For example, does it share moments of joy with friends and family in different countries? 
  • When you comment, consider whether you would say something similar if you were face to face with the person

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

Screentime and how it impacts our ability to learn and collaborate

How screen time changes how we see the world

This is the third 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.

In 2007 Apple introduced the iPhone, which sold six million units. In 2019 1.5 billion smartphones were sold. 

We have become so attached to our phones that many of us experience smartphone separation anxiety (where our heart rate and blood pressure increase) when we are detached from them or they fail to work. Have they become part of us? Are they our extended self or almost our souls? We no longer need to remember so much because our extended self remembers and stores things for us. The extended self contains our digital DNA and separation can cause stress and anxiety for many. In addition to being a store for our memories they are increasingly becoming the portal through which our senses navigate the world. 

We only experience a fraction of all that is available to us

Neuroscientist, Manfred Zimmermann, calculated that the human senses are exposed to eleven million bits of information per second through sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. Of these, sight represents ten million bits and sound almost one million bits, with the other senses making up the rest. Obviously, these figures are influenced by our abilities and where our attention is directed. For example, blind and deaf people compensate and rely on different senses.  When we are asked to focus upon a particular sensation, such as the smell of a flower, our resources are directed to the sense of smell. In addition to the five senses we also enjoy the internal sense of the sensations in our body. Interoception enables us to direct our attention to our inner world, helping us make sense of our feelings. 

Whatever we pay attention to changes the mix of which sensations we rely on most in that moment. In general, for most people, most of the time, the eyes dominate.  They are thirsty for information and the modern world of memes and flashy images serves them up one after another.   Our infinity scrolls feed our thirst but never allows us to be totally quenched. 

Zimmermann has calculated that out of the eleven million bits of information, we are served up every second, we are only consciously aware of approximately 40 bits.  That means that there is a lot of sub conscious filtering of information before we are aware of it ie our subconscious drives much of our decision making without us having consciously been aware of how the decision was derived.   

Our senses pick up vast quantities of data which hack straight into our mind/body connection, influencing our decision making, behaviours and wellbeing. For example, being surrounded by uptight, negative people has an impact upon  us through subconscious emotional contagion and neural mimicry.   What you look at and who you spend time with has a profound impact on every aspect of your health and success in the world. What you choose to look at changes you. 

How screen time impacts our ability to learn and store information

The following summarises how we process information:

  • Our attention is directed towards something
  • Does the subject matter interest us i.e., are they intrinsically motivated to move towards it and find out more?
  • Are historical dopamine reward channels being triggered? We tend to follow learned patterns of what we like, dislike or are attracted to. And this is where we invest our time and attention
  • Does the path somehow tap into a direction of learning which seems aligned to who we are and where we want to go to?

Take the example of reading a book:

  • Reading
  • Noise outside (potential threat or something interesting_
  • Attention briefly diverted to the noise outside
  • Return to the book
  • Encode information - mix and match what you are reading with other information you have stored in the past
  • Store new knowledge in short term memory
  • Sleep then shifts the information to longer term storage
  • NREM sleep (non rapid eye movement)  helps store the information
  • REM (rapid eye movement) sleep involves replaying the days events and trying thought experiments - this helps us deepen memory and also helps us do some synaptic pruning (letting go of memories which don’t add value)

Weapon of mass distraction

Technology can assist learning or dramatically undermine it.  Multi-tasking can be done when we are performing simple actions. For example, when we are walking and talking and chewing gum. But try listening to two conversations at the same time and your ability to make sense of and store the information you are hearing will be dramatically impaired.  If we are constantly surrounded by screen stimulation and alerts which are designed to fragment our attentions we are less able to dive deep into information and make sense of it.  Energy flows where your attention goes. If you aren’t fully invested in what you are doing you won’t store memories so well nor understand complex arguments.

 Think of smart phones and apps as potential weapons of mass distraction. The alerts, beeps and the pulls of stimulating visual images fragments our attention and leads to reaction time switching costs. 

In the workplace a 3 second interruption doubles the error rate in a task. A 4.5 second interruption triples the error rate.

Having multiple apps open, each with competing alert noises, pulls our attention away from task, makes it harder for us to communicate with others and increases our error rates at work.

Takeaways from this post – improve your focus

  • Talk to your work colleagues about creating meeting rules – no phones, making eye contact, having a mindfulness moment at the start of meetings 
  • Where possible set aside times for social media rather than randomly checking throughout the day 
  • Discuss with your teams how to create blocks of focus time at work – for example, agree on focus hours where you all agree to prioritise your own tasks and enable each other to be in flow, free from distraction 
  • Practice mindfulness body scanning techniques. Improve your interoception abilities through sequential observation of how each part of your body feels. This is an ability which can be developed. The more we tune into how we feel the better we can understand, learn from and regulate our emotions and also tune into other better
  • Practice using different senses. For example, set a timer for ten minutes and spend a couple of minutes prioritising a different sense. You could close your eyes and focus on the smells coming into your nose or listen to the sound that seems most distant etc
  • Reduce the number of apps you have open at one time
  • Where possible switch off notifications
  • Practice reading a book
  • Turn your phone to airplane 30 minutes or more before bed
  • Buy an alarm clock
  • Do some breathing or meditation techniques in the morning before your turn your phone back on 
  • Sign up for a meditation course
  • Set a goal to reduce the average social media time you engage in each day – record your goal, keep a record of improvements and look for positive replacement techniques (calling a friend, reading a book, learning to cook a new meal etc)
  • Practice leaving your smartphone at home and going for a walk without it 

How big tech creates brain hacks

How big tech creates brain hacks

How big tech creates brain hacks

This is the second 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.

I’ll explore how humans are hard wired to be social animals and how big tech can take advantage of our brain wiring in order to grab our attention. The article takes five minutes to read.

Social animals

In his book, Sapiens, Yuval Harari explores the idea that we became social animals because of the use of fire. Fire, led to cooking, improvements to food quality and hence the development of bigger brains.  Hunting, gathering and farming also required us to be more social.  The neuroscientist, Vilayanur Ramachandran appeared in a great TED Talk about how our mirror neurons enabled us to be empathetic animals and also emulate and share learning much faster than other animals.

Social bonding previously required that we were in close proximity to others. This enabled us to pick up the subtle social and emotional signals from faces, tone of voice and body language.  This subtle and vital language of communication is explored by David Brooks in his brilliant book, The Social Animal. For thousands of years this has been how humans deepened social and emotional communication in order to warn others about danger, explore social hierarchy, teach new skills and to transfer ideas.

Social media mimicking the need to connect socially 

Back in the 1960s Paul Maclean introduced a useful, but somewhat outdated, idea of the triune brain.  The three-part brain is divided into the following areas:

  • Brain stem – Heart rate, breathing, balance
  • Limbic system – Fight, flight, freeze reaction to alert us to and protect us from danger plus awareness of sensations and emotions to bring meaning to our thoughts and behaviours 
  • Cortex – Higher functions of the brain – movement, sensory awareness and understanding, planning, memory, reasoning, morality, insight, stress modulation, attuned communication, empathy and so on 

The authors compare Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid to this simple brain structure and also compare the research of positive psychology researcher, Ed Diener, to the model. Diener found that intimate human connection wasn’t just a nice thing to have but was essential for our wellbeing. Human connection was also a  basic need like warmth, food and shelter. His research indicates that people need the warmth and intimacy of other people [Diener 2011]. Comparing the triune brain to Maslow’s hierarch of needs:

  • High level functions - Middle prefrontal cortex - self-fulfilment, self-awareness
  • Mid-level functions - Limbic region – psychological connection to others, self-esteem, feeling of accomplishment, intimate relationships
  • Low level functions – Brain stem – physical needs, warmth, food, shelter, rest

The brain hacks created by big tech imitate the social connection that we crave but in ways which are not always entirely satisfying. It doesn’t provide (as well as) the real time depth of relationships that we enjoy when we see, feel, smell, talk to and listen to others.

Fast brain, slow brain – hacking into the fast brain

One of the godfathers of US philosophy and psychology, William James, introduced the division of thinking between associative based and reason based thinking. Associative based thinking tends to be fast, emotional, autopilot and lacking in deliberate conscious effort. Reason based thinking involves the higher brain function and is more conscious and deliberate. Fast forward to the early 21st century and Daniel Kahneman, one of the leading researchers in the area of cognitive distortion and bias, developed this concept further in his classic book, “Thinking fast and slow”.  He describes how the slow brain (middle prefrontal cortex) needs to keep an eye on the more fast reactive, emotional brain to ensure that our biases, reactivity and patterned behaviours do not lead to poor decision making and communication. 

The slow brain takes more time to evaluate situations in order to come up with good decisions.  The fast brain deals in repetitive, autopilot quick decisions. It navigates based on deep seated likes and dislikes. The slow brain may make better decisions but in a fast-paced world we need to have a healthy balance of fast and slow simply to navigate a busy world crammed with decisions.  Slowing down, to make more accurate decisions, is more challenging when we are open to so much information coming into our senses. The more information we open ourselves up to the more we default to fast decision making, which in turn deepens our attachment to repetitive thinking patterns and behaviours and more deeply engrains our likes and dislikes.

Dopamine reward structures influenced by online time

Being online provides our senses with a vast amount of information to process. For example, when we engage in infinity scrolls such as on Instagram, Facebook or LinkedIn we are served up a stream of information which hooks us emotionally.  We are rewarded by things we like to look at. This could be a challenging game, pornographic images or pictures of people, teams and events we love. As we experience these things we enjoy doses of dopamine, which make us feel good and encourage further engagement in the subject. We are served up a steady stream of dopamine which ensures we continue to engage.   However, as we continue to engage, we experience diminishing returns as the content we watch does not satisfy us as much as the first time we see something, which in turn fuels our quest for more content.

The authors point to a re-examination of dopamine and its role as a reward to encourage action. They discuss how, for example, roulette players experience similar increases in dopamine levels regardless of whether they win or frustratingly nearly win.  Dopamine signals that a person is near reward but is not quite there.  The chase may feel  endlessly frustrating, hollow and empty; an endless chase leading to addictive, unrewarding behaviours.

Oxytocin – the love and trust hormone influenced by real human interaction

Another hormone discussed is oxytocin.  Oxytocin could be described as the social bonding hormone.  When we are close to people and feel their love, warmth and touch we experience elevated levels of oxytocin.  People with elevated levels of oxytocin tend to experience more interpersonal trust that others. Mothers with heightened levels of oxytocin gaze more at their children. And creating secure attachment between mother and child elevates oxytocin levels in both. Oxytocin is an important part of deepening human bonds and developing  cohesive societies in which people care, share and work for each other.   

Social media, and screen time in general, can sometimes be a barrier to human bonding. For example, parenting researcher, Brandon McDaniel, coined the term “technoference”. According to his research 35% of adults are on their smart phones for one in five minutes spent at playgrounds.  Too much technoference might undermine understanding and communication between child and adult. Potentially this could lead the child to develop an unsecure or anxious attachment to their parents and others and may result in the child finding it difficult to develop deep, trusting relationships with others. 

Parents send strong signals about how to behave in the world and they may inadvertently be telling children that online time is more important than time spent in the moment with family and friends.   This may also lead to a pattern of behaviour where screen time is used as a psychological crutch or coping mechanism when connecting with people in real time feels too much of a challenge. 

Does increased online time make life too easy (in some ways)?

The Stamford marshmallow experiment of 1960 is a classic psychology experiment which has, pretty much, stood the test of time. Six hundred children were offered one marshmallow now, or none now but two in fifteen minutes. Of the six hundred, approximately one third successfully delayed their gratification and opted for two marshmallows in fifteen minutes. Subsequent research revealed that the children who were able to delay gratification tended to end up with better jobs, be more rewarded and be happier in life. Follow up research in this area indicates that when interpersonal trust is undermined people are less likely to defer gratification.

We live in a world where our desires and wants can be satiated almost instantly. We want food and uber delivers. We want a quick fix of dopamine and exciting stories and images are served up to us. Technology means we are gratified more quickly than in the past and delays increasingly frustrate us. 

Does more screen time adversely impact the depth and quality of human relationships, reduce oxytocin levels and reduce interpersonal trust, making it even harder to delay gratification? Research from around the world has shown a steady decline in both interpersonal trust and the trust people have in organisations. When interpersonal trust declines, we demand even more instant gratification, leading to more online time.  It’s a bit circular and therefore we need to introduce circuit breakers. 

There’s a current craze in the wellbeing media for “dopamine fasting”, enabling your body and brain to reset. One way of doing this is to set your timer for ten minutes, close your eyes and focus your attention on your breath.  As your attention drifts keep bringing it back, again and again.

Another factor which impacts impulse control is feeling tired. People who lose a night’s sleep may experience 60% greater amygdala activation than people who are well rested (more fight flight hormones such as cortisol). Part of the fight/flight response is designed to focus our attention on danger, weakness and deficits. In a siege mentality people are more likely to take what they can now because the future seems so uncertain. The more tired you are the harder you may find it to delay gratification. Increasing time on smartphones may decrease our ability to defer gratification and weakens impulse control.

Takeaways from this post

  • Turn off all or most of your notifications whenever you can
  • Reserve time in the day for social media, game playing etc and stick to those times
  • Practice mediations on the breath. Turn off notifications on your phone. Set a timer for ten minutes and practice observing your breath. Every time your attention drifts return to the breath point of focus
  • Aim to regulate your sleep patterns  - ensure the bedroom is dark, give yourself 8 hour plus of potential sleep time, eat at regular times if possible, avoid intense cardio in the evenings, eat light meals in the evening, avoid caffeine after midday, practice breathing exercises before you sleep, buy an alarm clock, avoid screentime for 30 minutes or more before sleep
  • Cuddle the people you love
  • With colleagues, friends and family aim to be as present as you can. Discuss how as a friend or colleague group you can be more present with each other. For example, in work meetings insisting that phones are left out of the room
  • Practice delayed gratification techniques using mindfulness – observe the thought of chocolate!!... and observe how that feels. Observe the desire rise and subside as you practice mindfulness techniques. Practice breath work techniques AND practice replacing an unhealthy habit with a different healthy one

Handling technoference and learning to focus better

Handling digital distraction and learning to focus better

Online or offline? Where is your attention? What is your intention? How are your energy levels?

This article is the first in my series of posts about the impact of social media and screen time on our wellbeing, and our ability to communicate and make good decisions. The posts are inspired by the book “Offline”, written by Imran Rashid and Soren Kenner and take about four minutes to read. 

What we pay attention to shapes our minds. Right now, society is dangerously polarised. From either side of politics, we see different facts. The facts we see depend upon the sophisticated algorithms which interpret our past choices and shape our behaviours. Our minds are hacked to keep our eyes on screens to sell things to us and influence our behaviours.  

We need to educate people about how big tech leverages off weaknesses to gain an advantage over us, how this impacts our wellbeing and behaviours and then take steps to interact online in new ways.

The book “Offline” is a useful wake-up call to review our social media and screen time and to try and take some control of our attention so that we can learn to direct it to things in life that help us thrive. 

I bought “Offline” at the start of 2019, and it sat on my bookshelf, gathering dust for a year. I knew, or thought I knew, what it would say; we all spend too much time on screen time, particularly on social media. And this is associated with: 

  • increasing stress, 
  • reducing real-time interaction with people, 
  • hampering our ability to focus, 
  • reducing our empathy levels,
  •  increasing our filter bubble view of the world, 
  • increasing tribalism, 
  • increasing loneliness, 
  • increasing boredom, 
  • reducing self-confidence, 
  • making us more vulnerable to advertisers and marketers and 
  • reducing our energy levels and enthusiasm. 

That, in a nutshell, is it.

I’ve just finished the book, and it has given me some fresh ideas to help me understand the addictive pathways big tech companies are using to manipulate us and some good ideas for overcoming tech addiction and making screen time and social media work for me.

The average person spends about 2 hours on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Tinder, LinkedIn or other social media per day. So there are about 720,000 hours in the average life. We spend 240,000 sleeping, about 90,000 hours working and if things remain as they are today, about 55,000 on social media. That’s a hell of a lot of time. 

What does social media do for you? Does it make you connect to people in real-time (for example, to play sports)? Does it help you connect with people with similar hobbies to help you develop and deepen your interests? Does infinity scrolling make you happier? 

This is not a black-and-white book. The authors of the book are not Luddites. Instead, they argue that social media, when used smartly, helps us connect, learn and grow. This book lets people know more about the brain science associated with social media, general screen time and game playing. With this knowledge, we can start to make plans with our family, friends and colleagues to help us get the most out of our online time without falling victim to its dangers. 

I’ve summarised the main points I found helpful from the book in this post. I’ll release the post in chunks over the next few weeks to help make the content easily digestible. Each section takes about 4 to 5 minutes to read.

The sections include:

  1. Information overload
  2. How big tech creates brain hacks
  3. How screen time changes our worldview and our decision making
  4. How big tech draws our attention to the screen
  5. Is social media, online games and general screen time addictive?
  6. Does too much screen time distort how we see the world and undermine our decision-making?
  7. Does social media improve or undermine our wellbeing? No, yes, maybe - it’s complicated.
  8. Screen time, self-efficacy and being in a state of flow
  9. Thriving in a hyper-connected world

Information overload

Big tech companies, such as Facebook, Amazon, Alphabet (google) and Apple, have been at the forefront of addictive design. They work to create brain hacks to pull your attention away from what you are doing. They do this by understanding and appealing to people’s deepest desires, and worries and have created an array of colourful and noisy tools to spark interest and draw you in.

There are now some six billion smartphones and tablets on the planet. That’s a lot of noise and, to be honest, a lot of digital pollution. 90% of all the information created by humanity has been produced in the last two years. According to Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google if you took all the information created by humankind up to 2003 (from cave paintings to Shakespeare, Love Island and so on), we now create as much content every two days. 

We are deluged by selfies, cat videos, fake news and endless pictures of our kids wearing every conceivable outfit in every location.

This endless diet of new information makes us thirsty for more and constantly looking for new things, opportunities and dangers. Fragmented attention may reduce our ability to be fully engaged in a task. The big tech companies have profited from drawing our attention away from the present. With eyes on the screen, we can be sold to and influenced.  

Apple, Alphabet, Facebook and Amazon have a combined worth of approximately $4.5 Trillion (between 7 and 10% of the economic worth of all the economies and all the economic output on the planet).

When the book was written, there were approximately three billion social media users on the planet, two billion Facebook users and 3.5 billion google searches per day. The average adult experiences eleven hours of screen time per day, approximately two hours on social media.

Mind aid tools, external to ourselves, which help us connect with others, learn things and store information, have existed for a long time. For example, in the past, we had maps and telephone books. We rely increasingly on outsourcing our memory (Daniel Wegner, Harvard). However, the tools we used, in the past, such as phone books, did not deliberately distract us.

The book explains how we struggle to cope in the face of an avalanche of information. Many people have heard of Moore’s law; computer processing capacity doubles every 18 months. This extra computing power leads to rapid increases in the information we can access and share. The authors proceed to introduce Amdahl’s law; this compares the increase in the processing power of computers with the abilities of humans to use that information. The authors compare the meteoric rise in computing power with the human capabilities of hearing, vision, visual reaction time, auditory reaction time and working memory. These human abilities have barely changed over time. Not being able to keep up with data availability might be a factor in the rapid increase in stress, anxiety and depression worldwide. Perhaps we can’t cope with the amount of opportunities and threats that come to our senses. The authors question whether constantly scanning for new information makes us feel burnt out. Does unlimited data make us overly compare ourselves to others, think that we can’t handle the volume of data at work or that we are missing out on opportunities?

With so many things competing for our attention, what should we do, and who should we listen to? 

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Gandalf and Frodo in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. 

Takeaways from this post

  • Consider how much “technoference” you are creating in the world. Do your posts help others thrive and connect? Or are they just more noise?
  • Are the posts you share grounded in a solid evidence base?
  • As you share things and comment, do you keep your emotions balanced? For example, would you repeat your words if you were face to face with the person?
  • What steps can you take to give your attention centres a rest - for example, taking some time to be in nature.