Why We Can't Help Paying Attention:
Novelty Bias and Addictive Technology
“We are novelty junkies”.
Catherine Price, How to Break Up with Your Phone.
Are you interrupted by notifications while trying to work? When you hear your phone buzz, do you find it impossible to resist checking what is NEW?
Our rational thinking goes out the window as we prioritize the shallow new thing over the old meaningful thing we intended to focus on.
We pay attention not to what we want, but to what we can’t help paying attention to.
That’s your novelty bias at work. If you let it run your life, it can make you unproductive, stupid, and unhappy.
Novelty Bias and Our Prehistoric Brain
According to Wikipedia, novelty seeking is “an inherited, unlearned, temperamental bias toward novel signals from the environment”.
It makes biological sense in the evolution of our species. Our prehistoric ancestors had to keep an eye out for the new stuff in their environment to answer some important questions:
- Can I eat it?
- Can it eat me?
- Can I mate with it?
All very important priorities for the hunter-gatherers. The brain had to focus on new unknown stimuli, because it was a matter of survival and passing on your genes. An unfamiliar animal might turn out to be a deadly predator or a new food source – either way, something new was often a question of life and death, so we learned to pay attention.
Like our ancestors, we are still on the lookout for dangers and opportunities.
New is Addictive
In the 21st century the algorithms have discovered this convenient feature in our prehistoric brain, and learned to exploit it to reliably extract our attention.
Nothing demonstrates this better than the psychology behind notifications. You are excited and curious – a notification spells the opportunity for a novel experience. A buzz from your phone would get you to grab the phone every time. Even if you are in the middle of a marriage proposal.
Such persuasive design works on humans of all backgrounds, whether you are a kindergartener or a PhD in psychology. We are all hostages to our subconscious. Evolution has primed us to pay attention to the change of environment. Notification is a change of environment, and therefore it becomes a priority that we have to address immediately.
Such is the nature of cognitive biases that they are built-in features of our brain. They reside below the level of the conscious mind, they are reflexes that cannot be turned off. Now, an automatic switch that a human user cannot access but AI can – that is a reliable method of manipulation to optimize for engagement.
According to the Center for Humane Technology, “Design features like infinite scroll and algorithm-driven recommendations keep us continuously engaged. Our brains are rewarded with small bursts of chemicals each time we see/hear something novel, triggering repetitive, automated behavior. This type of “slot-machine” mechanism makes us stay longer than we intend on social media platforms and switch into a trancelike, passive state in which we can be more vulnerable to clickbait or advertisements.”
Persuasive Design for Novelty
Red Circle of Notification
A red circle of notification stands out as a new signal or even a threat – that’s why those notification circles are red, the color of danger.
If there is a video or a gif (moving image) in your feed, the movement itself captures your attention and you can’t help it:
Fresh Emails in Your Mailbox
They are highlighted as unread. If the sender added an emoji or a capitalized script in the title, in addition to novelty, they tap into our salience bias – we pay attention to things that are more noticeable without thinking of it consciously.
Infinite scroll in the feeds is a bottomless rabbit hole of novel items. The inventor of the feature, Aza Raskin, is now a conscientious objector to social media and one of the founders of the Center for Humane Technology.
A fast-paced action in a fast-changing landscape. Novelty is everywhere in overabundance compared to the real world.
I’ll stop here. Every app you open rewards you with novelty. Because when it does not, you stop using it.
New Friends, Anyone?
When the novelty bias is paired up with our need for social validation, we obsessively collect new “friends” on social media and accept friend requests from people we barely know, or don’t know at all. Each new “acquisition” brings with them a world of potential new digital experiences – and the opportunity to bombard them with ours in return.
Social media is all about new updates. Their interruption is irresistible because it is a perfect storm of random rewards – a super-weapon behind addictive technology.
Entertaining Ourselves to Death
When we are exposed to novel stimuli, a release of dopamine hits the pleasure centers of our brain, and the behavior that triggered the release – like social media binge – eventually becomes addictive.
Novel features in our digital experiences are crafted to be rewarding. We learn to expect overstimulation, and move from one dopamine-loaded experience to the next one faster and faster, a digital hedonic treadmill.
Anything new and stimulating seems to be better for us humans than the dreaded boredom. In one study, participants would voluntarily administer electric shocks to themselves rather than just sitting for 15 minutes doing nothing.
As philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in the 17th century:
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
We’d do anything to be distracted. In Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman warns about the costs to society when politics, journalism, education, and even religion become subject to the demands of entertainment.
Multitasking is a Myth
The obvious victim of the stream of new distractions is work. Novelty bias shifts our focus to what is new in our field of vision – good luck trying to concentrate on a work project when you are bombarded with email notifications. We become like a cat chasing a toy.
One study, performed in 2005 by psychiatrist Dr. Glenn Wilson at King’s College London, showed that just the awareness of an unread email can reduce your IQ by 10 points. Multitasking between work and email turned out to be the same as going a whole night without sleep and even worse than smoking marijuana. Things got a lot worse since 2005.
Multitasking is actually a myth: the brain can only biologically pay attention to one thing at a time. What people call multitasking is actually rapid switching between tasks, which results in “attention residue” sticking to the previous task, leaving less cognitive power to deal with the task you are switching to.
Cal Newport makes an argument in his book Deep Work that today’s network tools are degrading our capacity to remain focused. Our work takes place in small spaces between distractions, instead of the other way around.
From his book, I took the Law of Productivity, wrote it on index cards for my children, and placed it where they do homework:
High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
My hope is that it will serve as a reminder that YouTube can wait until homework is done.
Novelty and the Young
When we are young, we are primed to learn as much as possible about the world. We take disproportionate risks as teenagers, but we become more conservative with novel experiments as we accumulate knowledge and wisdom, and the rational brain fully develops.
A novelty bias utilized by addictive tech works best on the young.
Video games of today provide infinite novelty experiences. The frame of today’s shows changes every couple seconds to keep user attention. We have drastically decreased attention spans compared to previous generations, who were able to enjoy slow-paced movies where the camera lingered thoughtfully on every scene.
That’s the world our kids inhabit – if there is nothing new happening every 2 seconds, they are so BORED! Instead of trying to entertain themselves with their own imagination, they move on to the next NEW thing on their screens. The extreme emotional fragility and anxiety epidemic among the young people today is a side effect of never taking the time to process their feelings.
Novelty seeking encourages impulsiveness, the ultimate manifestation of which is an Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). There is a compelling argument that increasing amounts of screen time are making ADHD symptoms worse.
According to our family friend, a school psychologist, 1 in 5 kids today have some sort of neurological diagnosis. ADHD is the most common one for boys, and these are the kids whose brains crave overstimulation and constant change – which the high-frequency digital media readily provides, reinforcing the broken instant gratification dopamine reward loop in their brain, the very handicap they need to overcome in order to become a functional adult.
Keep Up with the New - Miss Out on the Important
Not only do we pay attention to the unexpected, we are actively seeking it. Novelty bias is a powerful instinct. Humans are driven to obtain novel experiences almost as much as we are driven by basic survival.
We check our screens constantly to see if something new happened in the last 30 seconds.
“Latest updates” and “breaking news” hijack our attention. We have the relentless drive to always “be informed” and stay on top of what’s “trending”.
We are like spoiled kids on Christmas morning: opening a gift, looking at it for a second, tossing it aside and moving on to the next one, and the next one, and the next one. Not taking the time to appreciate the experience because a new experience awaits. I have to stop my own kids from doing this every Christmas.
What is new distracts us from what is important.
In Fear of Missing Out (FOMO), we rapidly sample a lot of new things. We go through our days splashing in the shallows of social media updates, and become shallow ourselves. Our focus is broken, our attention is scattered, our mind is scrambled.
The result of constant distractions by the new stimuli is a messed up brain. Our IQ drops. Our productivity plummets. Our priorities go by the wayside. Distractions deprive us of the time and brain power needed to pay attention to what matters most – relationships, work, learning, and self-care.
We are busy all the time, but we accomplish nothing of value. We feel bad about ourselves and the world that bombards us with too much information for us to process. Our daily digital diet consists of multiple new dishes, but few of them are good for us – most lack nutrition or are plain toxic. So not only are we distracted, we are also anxious.
Antidote to Digital Novelty
The solution to the problem of digital distractions is to manage our relationship with technology in a way that protects our focus: turn notifications off, put phones away, even work offline.
My favorite life hack against digital novelty is to use old media. Actual paper books. There are no ads on the pages of Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations”, written 2000 years ago.
The content is evergreen, time-tested, and not manipulative.
The antidote to digital distractions is giving yourself an abundance of novel experiences in the real world. When you fill the void of boredom with things that YOU choose to do instead of letting the algorithms manipulate your attention for someone else’s gain, you regain your freedom and humanity.
By keeping up with the new, we risk missing out on the important.
When we give in to FOMO, we miss out on life.