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You can’t stop checking your phone because Silicon Valley designed it that way

Have you ever wondered why notifications on your phone are usually red?
Research shows the colour will elicit a higher response rate than any other colour because it conveys a sense of urgency. Psychologists say it physically stimulates the body, can raise a person’s blood pressure and heart rate, and is associated with movement, excitement, and passion.

And web designers know that.

That’s why when they want you to do something on their site or app or platform, they’ll likely colour it red. Think of those tiny dots on your phone’s screen that notify you you’ve got email, or a text message. Many of them will be red.

But it’s not just the colour that’s driving us to action.

All those notifications — all those pings, rings and dings that we get on our phones — trigger a shot of dopamine in our brains, the neurotransmitter that inspires us to take actions to meet our needs.

And those are just two examples of what developers can do to get us hooked. The internet has spawned an “attention economy,” where the biggest prize goes to those who can grab users’ attention and keep it the longest.

The business models of Facebook, Snapchat, and indeed most of the big players on the web, revolve around selling your attention to advertisers. And that doesn’t happen by accident.

Welcome to the world of ‘persuasive technology’

The term “persuasive technology” was coined in the mid-1990s by an experimental psychologist at Stanford University named B.J. Fogg. His goal was to develop technology that could change attitudes or behaviour through persuasion or social influence, but not through coercion.

If that sounds fairly benign, that’s because it was — at least at first.

Long before the web, smartphones and social media, Fogg was convinced that computers could be incredibly powerful tools of persuasion. He was excited about the prospect of using interactive technology to change people’s behaviour, especially around health and lifestyle choices.

In 1998, Fogg established the Center for Persuasive Technology at Stanford, where he hoped to inspire a generation of designers and engineers to think about technology and persuasion in a new way.

He succeeded, but not necessarily in the way he intended.

Turns out that the same techniques that can persuade people to eat healthier food, get more exercise and live more sustainably can also be used to hook people in to buy products or turn over their data.

Think of how seamless Amazon makes online shopping, or how Facebook can manipulate its news feed to keep you on their platform as long as possible, or how apps use various reward systems to keep you coming back.

Fogg warned about this. In a 2003 book on persuasive technology, he argued that the power to persuade came with serious ethical responsibilities.

But once the persuasion genie got out of the bottle, it became hard to control, especially after the introduction of incredibly addictive smartphones a decade ago.

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