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Are We All Becoming Pavlov’s Dogs?

Blame your smartphone (and Steve Jobs).

Scenario 1: Your smartphone buzzes. Without a moment’s hesitation you grab it out of your pocket and check the alert: Was it an email? A test? A Facebook notification? Or just a phantom vibration?

Scenario 2: You looked at your phone a few minutes ago, but now you're standing in line at the market and grab it to check for messages even though your phone has not beeped, vibrated, or flashed.

Scenario 3: You posted on Facebook a few minutes ago and although you have not been notified of any responses, likes, or whatever, you tap the icon and scroll through the newest posts. You see that your best friend from high school just posted a photo of her trip to Maui, and you smile when you become the first to “like” it.

Scenario 4: You are at dinner with a group of friends and you have all agreed to put your phones on silent and stash them away. After the appetizer, you get up to go to the restroom (even though you really don’t need to go) and upon opening the restroom door, you grab your phone and check the sports scores, your email, or whatever. Looking around you notice that every other person in the restroom is doing the same.

I do a lot of people watching and have noticed that we now spend more time with our faces staring at our phone than we spend with our faces looking around at the world or looking directly at another person.

Source: arek_malang/Shutterstock

In a recent study, my colleagues and I asked 216 undergraduate students to try an app called Instant Quantified Self that tallied the number of times an individual unlocked his or her phone during the day, and how many minutes it remained unlocked. Strikingly, the average student—our participants were slightly older, averaging about 25 years old instead of the usual 20-year-old undergraduate sample—unlocked his or her phone roughly 60 times a day for about 3-4 minutes each time. In all, the phone was in use for four hours—and this doesn't count time spent on a laptop, tablet, or other electronic device.

What were they doing on their phones? Mostly accessing social connections via text messaging, reading or posting on social media, dealing with email, or using some other app that involves connecting with another human being.

Pavlov paired food with a bell; we seem to be pairing our human connection with our phone. We may not salivate at each alert, but our brain is certainly responding.

I have studied the “psychology of technology” since 1984 and can tell you that we did not become Pavlov’s dogs overnight. Over the past decade or two, as smartphones went from business tools to ubiquity, we began to spend more and more time with our face pointed down at tiny screens, rather than oriented out to the world. You see it everywhere: A policeman directs traffic while periodically glancing at his phone. A gardener mows with his phone resting on the mower frame. A bank teller steals a glance at his phone as one patron leaves and another approaches his station. Four young adults at a restaurant mean four (or more) phones on the table and constant tapping. A family dinner table is similarly littered with devices. But this did not happen as soon as smartphones entered our world; we slowly started using them more often and in more locations and now, in 2016, our phones have become our most prized possession. Most people use one all day and sleep with it beside them all night. More than a few inches rarely separate us from our phone.

The other day, two things happened to me that made me hyperaware of what has happened, and is happening to me personally, as I myself too often face the world face down: First, I was walking across campus reading about something on my iPhone. I decided to take a shortcut across the lawn and—BAM!—I stepped in a puddle that submerged my shoes and the bottom few inches of my jeans in a combination of water, dirt, and fertilizer. The rest of the day I smelled like a newly planted garden (and not in a good way).

The second event involved me talking on the phone in the bedroom of my house, and then taking my phone and walking to my home office to talk to my fiancé. As we chatted, I realized that my phone wasn't in my pocket or in my hand. No problem; I must have left it in the bedroom. Nope. I looked all around the room and then to no avail, then asked my fiancé dial my number, which did not ring and eventually went to voice mail. At this point I realized that my palms were sweating, my heart was beating a bit faster, and I was getting nervous. After 15 frantic minutes I discovered, by accident, that the phone had somehow fallen out of my pocket and lodged itself under the bed skirt, out of sight. It didn’t ring because I hadn't taken it off the nighttime silent setting.

I'm sorry to report that these are all signs of an anxiety disorder. In study after study in our lab we have examined the impact of anxiety as means of explaining why you might choose to use your smartphone in a certain situation, and how it disrupts your plans. Some of this is what is called “generalized anxiety.” We found that if you are someone who uses your phone much of the day, and we take your phone away, you will become anxious within 10 minutes, and your anxiety will continue to climb until we give your phone back.

We also study a particular type of anxiety connected to feeling a need to constantly check in, and feeling anxious if you can’t do so as often as you like. It is similar to the concept known as FOMO—fear of missing out—but it is not really a fear. Physiologically it looks more like a heightened level of “technological anxiety” that continues to rise until you check in with whatever is making you feel that way, and will abate only to start to rise again and again.

Anxiety is not the only issue driving us to act like Pavlov’s dogs. In our new book, The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, Adam Gazzaley and I explore more issues that have led to our rapid task switching and our distracted minds, including poor meta-cognitive decision-making skills that lead our attention awry, and what we now perceive as being “bored.”

The latter is interesting since boredom is important to our brain. It places our brain in its “default mode network,” which can lead to unique thoughts, creativity, and thinking out of the box. And yet we do not ever let ourselves get bored. Try this experiment when you have nothing you must do: Set an alarm for 15 minutes and simply sit and stare into space. My guess is that it will seem like hours. In my perusal of the literature, I did not find any longitudinal studies on boredom, but my gut says that our tolerance for it has steadily decreased, at the same rate that our acceptance of smartphones has increased. Given that smartphone penetration is upwards of 80%, this might suggest that we are nearing a point where our boredom threshold will be shorter than ever.

I have posted often on how to fix our knee-jerk reactions to the world of information and communication. Here are four reminders:

  1. Try to slowly wean yourself off the need to respond automatically to alerts and notifications, particularly while you are working on any task that requires concentration and attention. If you are working with a computer, shut down all programs and browser tabs that you are not going to use for your work—and I do mean shut them down. Do not simply minimize them, as they will still act as visual stimuli. Second, assuming your phone is nearby (which it always is), set an alarm for 15 minutes, put it on silent (with the “vibrate when silent” option turned off), turn it face down, and place it in a location nearby where you can see it. This means you will not see any alerts or get any vibrating notifications, but the phone will be a stimulus to tell you that you will get to it in 15 minutes or less. When the alarm rings, check any app, website, or whatever for 1 minute, then repeat the process. When you are comfortable with waiting 15 minutes to check in, increase the time to 20, 25, 30 minutes or more. You will know your brain has assimilated to this process when the alarm goes off and you keep working if even for just another minute or two.
  2. Instead of checking your messages when you receive alerts, check them on a time schedule. Alert friends, family and colleagues that you are going on a 30-minute plan (or whatever suits you), only checking messages every 30 minutes. Promise them that you will get back to them shortly when you do, but that you need to do make this shift to increase your focus. Shut down your email account on all devices and remove all alerts and notifications—auditory, visual and kinesthetic—from your apps. Set an alarm for 30 minutes and only check texts, social media, email, and any other apps at that time.
  3. Do not work with technology for more than about 90 minutes at a time. Take short 10-minute breaks and do something that doesn't use technology to calm and reset your brain. Walking in nature works. So does playing a musical instrument, meditating, exercising, listening to music, and taking a hot bath or shower. You know implicitly what calms your brain: Ten minutes is all it takes.
  4. Using technology at night ruins your sleep and the important brain processes that happen while you rest. Remove your phone and other devices that are used close to your face for at least one hour prior to attempting to sleep. Try to calm your brain, perhaps by reading a book (on paper), watching television (making sure it is a show you know well so it is predictable and, as such, does not require extensive mental load), or listening to music (preferably very familiar music that does not require a heavy cognitive load.)
MIT Press
Source: MIT Press

Nobody is making us respond so quickly to alerts and notifications. If you practice waiting and not checking your alerts you will find that the anxiety and mental need to check in will abate, and then you will be in control of your technology rather than your technology controlling you.

More from Larry D. Rosen Ph.D.
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