NARRATION: Over the last decade…
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 1-9-07):
STEVE JOBS: Iphone is like having your life in your pocket.
NARRATION: …technology has reshaped how we interact with the world.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 2-4-19):
NEWS REPORT: One-third of humanity uses Facebook at least once a month. If Facebook were a country, it would be the largest in the world.
NARRATION: It’s also reshaped our own lives.
ARCHIVAL (FOX, 4-10-19):
ANCHOR: More families are texting each other while inside the same house instead of actually talking.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 6-5-2018):
ANCHOR: Even the CEO of Apple thinks he’s on his iphone too much.
ARCHIVAL (FOX, 12-27-2018):
NEWS REPORT: Some people are so addicted to technology and their devices they’re now turning to rehab.
NARRATION: But to understand how this technology hooks us, we need to look back to a different time.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 1959):
ANCHOR: Conquest. The search for new knowledge about our universe, our world and ourselves. What is behavior? What makes a man love? Gamble? Write a sonnet? In this laboratory, scientists seek answers to those questions using pigeons.
NARRATION: It was 1959, and an unassuming scientist was about to tell the nation about a remarkable discovery.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 1959):
ANCHOR: Dr. Skinner, what are you doing with this pigeon?
B.F. SKINNER: I’m getting ready to demonstrate a fundamental principle of behavior. This pigeon is hungry and I can give it food just by pressing this switch which operates a small food dish in back of the square opening in the wall. In that way, I can select parts of its behavior and make it do practically anything I like.
NARRATION: For decades, behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner had been experimenting with pigeons and rats to see what he could make them do. But rats pressing levers and pigeons pecking disks was just the start.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 1959):
B.F. SKINNER: If it goes past one pigeon, the other pigeon can eat. And if it goes the other way, the other pigeon eats.
ANCHOR: That’s remarkable.
B.F. SKINNER: Of course, we’re not interested in behavior because it’s amusing or dramatic. We want to study its causes and find out how to change it.
NARRATION: One of those techniques he found that was particularly useful in shaping behavior was the variable reward.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 1959):
B.F. SKINNER: The things we do in everyday life don’t always pay off and they don’t always not pay off. It isn’t simple all or none. We study that, in the case of the pigeon, by arranging various schedules or systems of payoff.
NATASHA DOW SCHULL (ASSOC. PROFESSOR OF MEDIA AND CULTURE, NEW YORK UNIVERSITY): He found that if you don’t know what is going to come down that chute in terms of a reward, and you don’t know when it’s going to come, you will stay there pressing the button and pulling the lever.
NARRATION: The key, skinner discovered, was making the payoff unpredictable.
NATASHA DOW SCHULL: That element of uncertainty, that perfect sweet spot, that balance of, you know, predictability, yet uncertainty, that is the most addicting reinforcement schedule.
NARRATION: To help make his case that humans could be controlled in the same way, Skinner pointed to casinos.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 1959):
B.F. SKINNER: People gamble because of the schedule of the reinforcement that follows.
NATASHA DOW SCHULL: In Skinner’s time, people found a lot of what he said for, for cultural and historical reasons to be very creepy. The idea that we could be controlled was coming right on the heels of this image of sort of communism and that we could be all turned into little drones executing the commands of others. And so, people were repelled by it.
ARCHIVAL (YOUTUBE, 1975):
ANTHONY BURGESS (AUTHOR, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE): I come back to the old question, the old objection: quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who is going to guard our guardians? Who is going to modify the people who are going to modify us?
NATASHA DOW SCHULL: In the climate of the 70s, 80s and even 90s, it would have been a very dubious proposition to call yourself and advertise yourself as a behavior designer.
NARRATION: But that’s not the case today.
ARCHIVAL (TED TALK, 2015):
NIR EYAL (BEHAVIORAL ENGINEER): I’d like to share with you a design pattern that companies use to build habit-forming products. It’s called the hook.
NIR EYAL: I decided to dive deeper into the psychology of what makes products habit-forming, hoping that I could build a habit-forming product.
NARRATION: Nir Eyal now works as a behavioral designer helping companies figure out what kind of behavioral techniques will attract users and keep them.
NIR EYAL: What we find is that habit-forming products have what’s called a hook designed into the product. If we feel lonely, we check Facebook. If we’re uncertain, we google. All of these things, fundamentally, cater to an emotional itch, an emotional discomfort. What we want to do is to find the pain points in users’ lives so that we can solve that problem for them.
NARRATION: But behavioral design goes beyond simply finding and easing an emotional itch. The hooks built into these products are also intended to keep users coming back. And here, Skinner’s discoveries are key.
NIR EYAL: The connection is to make something interesting it needs to be variable. It has to be, there has to be some kind of mystery, some kind of uncertainty. Instagram is a great example of a product that has a fantastic hook built in. The internal trigger is when you’re seeking connection, the action is to open the app. The variable reward is to scroll the feed. Over time, you’re changing your habits to use this product.
NATASHA DOW SCHULL: There are certain possibilities, and there’s certain uncertainties, right. So, something like Twitter really has that feel of you never know when a pellet is going to come down the chute, and the same with Facebook. You log on and you just keep scrolling to see like, “when am I going to get a little hit?” I think it is useful to think about them as some kind of digitally-enhanced Skinner box.
NARRATION: Loren Brichter is one reason Twitter is so addictive. He developed the code for the now ubiquitous gesture known as “pull to refresh.”
LOREN BRICHTER (APP DEVELOPER): It was literally five lines of code. I put it in and it was done. Like, that was pull-to-refresh. And then people started putting it in everything. In my mind I did it because it was a more natural gesture. Like, it was a little bit more ergonomic. Some people likened it to a, to a slot machine. Which, makes a ton of sense in hindsight.
NARRATION: Today, there is growing concern that technology companies have gone too far in their attempt to keep users glued to their screens. And some of the industry’s leaders are speaking out.
ARCHIVAL (STANFORD BUSINESS, 11-13-2017):
CHAMATH PALIHAPITIYA (FORMER FACEBOOK EXECUTIVE): The short term, dopamine-driven Feedback loops that we’ve created are destroying how society works.
ARCHIVAL (PBS NEWSHOUR, 1-30-2017):
TRISTAN HARRIS (FORMER GOOGLE ETHICIST): It’s not about giving you all this freedom, it’s about sucking you in to take your time.
ARCHIVAL (AXIOS, 11-9-2017):
SEAN PARKER (FORMER FACEBOOK PRESIDENT): I mean, it’s exactly the kind of thing that a, that a hacker, like myself, would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in, in human psychology.
NARRATION: Skinner’s daughter, Julie Vargas, says her father believed that behavioral psychology could be a force for good, if it was used in the right way.
JULIE VARGAS (B.F. SKINNER’S DAUGHTER): My sister’s school had father’s day. And what he saw was the teacher giving a lesson, and then giving a worksheet. And some of them were doing it quickly. Others were clearly not knowing what to do. So he came home and he said, “I’m making a teaching machine.”
ARCHIVAL (CHARTER AND OAK STUDIOS, 1965):
VOICEOVER: One of the practical applications of laboratory work in the field of behavior theory is the teaching machine.
ARCHIVAL (WGBH, 1979):
VOICEOVER: These machines are now being used to teach everything from telling the time to advanced physics. Satisfaction from achievement is a powerful human reinforcer.
NATASHA DOW SCHULL: He had an ethics, you know, an ethics of collective human flourishing that depended on making the right choices, rather than ones that would deplete us and keeping, keep us in the corner of the Skinner box pressing the button.
NARRATION: Vargas says her father would be appalled by the way his discoveries are being used by some technology companies today.
JULIE VARGAS: He would be horrified at how much control these little devices, or the interaction, has over, particularly, the young people of our, of our society.
NIR EYAL: Just because something is potentially addictive doesn’t mean we don’t have control. We’re not freebasing Facebook. We’re not injecting Instagram here.
NARRATION: Eyal says that many behavioral designers are actually trying to improve users’ lives.
NIR EYAL: I’ll give you example after example. Duolingo helps us learn languages. We’ve got apps that I use every day when I go to the gym that helps me exercise. Uh, apps to help us stop smoking. Apps that help us stop using our technology are all, using these behavioral design tactics.
NARRATION: But in the end, the solution to help us overcome our addiction to technology may not come from an app. Instead it may be from understanding one of Skinner’s most important realizations — knowing you’re being controlled by something might be the first step to breaking its grip.
JULIE VARGAS: Science liberates you to the extent that you now understand why things are happening and when they’re going to happen. Knowing what in your environment is controlling your behavior lets you change that environment and change your own behavior.
NARRATION: Loren Brichter is among those now thinking more deeply about his environment and the ones he created.
LOREN BRICHTER: On some levels it was, like, I thought I did like, good work. But on other levels like, I think that work led to bad things happening. And they’re all part of this big thing that like, led to this massive shift in human culture. There’s no undo button. I mean, all technology is like Pandora’s box. You can’t predict what making any of this stuff is going to do.