The Pavlovian Pleasure Box in Your Pocket: Your Smartphone is Ringing Your Bell

The Pavlovian Pleasure Box in Your Pocket: Your Smartphone is Ringing Your Bell

In the 1890s, Russian researcher Ivan Pavlov observed dogs’ tendency to salivate in anticipation of food. He wondered if he could condition that response in the absence of food. So, every time he served supper to the dogs he rang a bell until, sure enough, the dogs began to salivate at the sound of the bell without the food present. They were conditioned.
It didn’t take long for people to see ways to use this on other people, to condition people with analogous bells so as to produce certain desired responses. If you’re processing this you can see a potentially menacing method of manipulation. What could man do to his fellow man if he could condition him to respond to certain stimuli in predictable ways?
It’s disturbing enough to consider, but what if it’s already happening to you? We don’t like to entertain this thought because we all like to believe that we would not be so easily duped, but the truth is that most of us are carrying Pavlovian boxes around with us in our pockets and essentially salivating every time its bell rings, even every time we imagine it ringing.
Your brain, as you probably know, is equipped with a pleasure chemical called dopamine. You can think of it as little pleasure rushes that your brain can push through your body. It’s a truly remarkable and good gift from God, but it is susceptible to manipulation. And smartphone manufacturers, app developers, and gaming programmers know this.
If that wasn’t disturbing enough, they also know that the dopamine pleasure cycle produced by digital games and social media is the same as the one produced by heroin. Doug Smith, author of [Un]Intentional: How Screens Secretly Shape Your Desires and How You Can Break Free, writes, "[T]he dopamine pleasure cycles created by the drug and the video game are identical.”
Why is this concerning? Adam Alter, author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and The Business of Keeping Us Hooked, explains:
As the brain develops a tolerance, its dopamine-producing regions go into retreat, and the lows between each high dip lower. Instead of producing the healthy measure of dopamine that once inspired optimism and contentment in response to small pleasures, these regions lie dormant until they’re overstimulated again. Addictions are so pleasurable that the brain does two things: first it produces less dopamine to dam the flood of euphoria, and then, when the source of that euphoria vanishes, it struggles to cope with the fact it’s now producing far less dopamine that it used to. And so the cycle continues as the addict seeks out the source of his addiction, and the brain responds by producing less and less dopamine after each hit.
In other words, smartphones function like drugs on the human brain. They give great dopamine highs, but they require increasingly more exposure to produce these highs. And the lows in between get lower as the addiction gets stronger. Smith gives us the bottom line:
Our screen-saturated world is able to shape our desires by making us feel good in the same way drugs and alcohol makes us feel good, and with similarly undesirable long-term consequences.
Seth Godin, the author and former dot com business executive, has called smartphones “Pavlovian boxes” (thus the title of this article), writing, “The smart phone… is an optimized, tested and polished call-and-response machine. So far, Apple’s made a trillion dollars by ringing our bell.”       
They have been so lucrative that companies have invested massive resources into tracking every move you make online to deepen their understanding of how to ring your bell so as to manipulate your desires. Smith writes,
Every swipe and click… but also every video you watch and how far you watched it; every time you linger over an animated gif or just swipe on by; and certainly everything you ever post, upload, or share is cataloged and linked to a vast amount of data held about you. Over time, the history of every like, pin, email, swipe, and hashtag creates your epic digital biography – literally the instruction book that anyone or anything can read to learn what works on you, and what doesn’t.
Developers go so far as to pay attention to which background colors, which fonts, which audio tones maximize and retain your attention and which ones don’t. So deeply have they studied this that it has become formulaic. Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, explains how to manufacture desires, how to manufacture and manipulate your desires. He describes a four stage “desire engine” complete with a trigger, an action, a variable reward, and a commitment.
So, the trigger is something that invites you to take a certain action, to click on a photo, or tap on a video. Think of this as the bait. You are being baited. Then, the thing that gets you hooked is the variable reward. The important thing is that it’s not the same thing every time. So, your ice dispenser on your refrigerator isn’t habit forming. You don’t find yourself longing to push the lever to get ice or water. Its response is boringly predictable, but if every once in a while it spit out a strawberry daiquiri or a root beer slushy, then it would have the power to form a habit. And if it led you to believe that your chances of getting the daiquiri or slushy increased every time you depressed the lever, then you would find yourself drawn to the fridge frequently.
This is what’s happening on your phone. Eyal explains,
App developers know this, and they add many variable rewards to keep us hooked. Even the anticipation of a possible reward causes a user’s dopamine levels to spike before they even open their favorite app.
The simple truth is that you are being manipulated. And so are your children and grandchildren, and this manipulative conditioning is especially effective on children. To believe otherwise is naïve and foolish. Concerned? Ready to do something about it? It’s time to talk. It’s time to get wise to what’s happening so you can protect yourself and your children. For great resources, check out And consider being part of a screenstrong conversation group that I am working on starting. Call, email, stop in. Let’s get wise together. – Pastor Conner

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