Now, Where Was I?

Technology is creating distracted mindsets amongst us–but we can stop it

Posted Aug 18, 2014

I went out for a quick drink last week with four friends from work. Well, in fact, I had a drink with only one of my friends, as the other three spent most of their time checking their phones. I accept that I might be less interesting than the text message, email, Twitter post, Facebook update or whatever else they were looking at. But I would rather use evidence to explain their preference for their phone over a friend as a sign of their addiction to the distraction provided by the former rather than the drivel coming out of the mouth of the latter.

There are two main sources of evidence that technology is creating distracted mindsets amongst us. The first is from neuroscience: Technology physically alters the way our brains work. The brains of heavy Internet users – people who report symptoms of addiction – actually shrink, just as they do in people who are addicted to drugs like heroin. Consider also the medical condition ‘digital dementia’, which refers to irreversible deficits in brain development and memory loss among children who spend a lot of time on electronic devices. An Ipad with a ‘Cute Pocket Puppy 3D’ app is not a replacement for a childhood pet.

The second source of evidence is from behavioural science: distraction becomes habitual. A “habit loop” gets formed in three steps: (1) the cue—a trigger to send your brain into automatic mode; (2) the routine—the physical or mental act itself; and (3) the reward, which determines whether any loop is worth remembering. You know how this works with your phone: you hear a text alert, you look at the text, you are happy knowing what it says. And then you wait for the next one. It’s no wonder so many of us experience phantom phone vibration syndrome, wishing and thinking we had a text when we don’t.

A distracted mindset means that we’re constantly alert – expecting that text, news alert, or Twitter post, even when they’re not there. Attention is crucial to being happier. Most attempts to explain the causes of happiness have all mistakenly sought to relate inputs, such as income, directly to the final output of happiness. But the same inputs—money, marriage, sex, or whatever—can affect your happiness a lot or a little depending on how much attention you pay to them. A distracted mindset means we have less attention leftover to pay attention to what makes us happy – which is usually the real friends we are having the drink with rather than the virtual ones on Facebook.

There’s a lot we can do to detach ourselves from our distracting devices. There’s the Phone Stacking Game, for example; otherwise known as ‘Don’t Be a Dick at Dinner’. Before the meal, everyone piles their phone in the middle of the table - if anyone touches their phone before the bill comes, that person has to pay the bill. The existence of Internet access blocking apps such as the ‘Freedom’ app suggests that we want to curb our technology enthusiasm. You can also turn off notifications, and leave your phone on silent from time to time. Technology has brought many benefits, but it can benefit us even more if we better control its impact on us. These small steps will help kick start your escape from the addiction of virtual interaction; you have nothing to lose but your chains of e-mails.

What do you think?

About the Author

Paul Dolan Ph.D., is a professor of behavioral science at the London School of Economics and the author of Happiness by Design.

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