How digital services can not only make you feel sad, but also make you stupid

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez June 14, 2015
Pete Trainor is founder and director of human centred design at Nexus, which looks at the nature vs nurture impact of digital services.


We often hear anecdotal evidence about how digital services are 'dumbing us down' and about how our attention spans are shortening to the point where we can barely focus on anything at all. And whilst many of us like to moan about the impact of the Internet and digital on our minds and bodies, I doubt many of us have any evidence to support this. It's often put down to people adjusting to the changes happening around us.

However, to kick off London Technology Week, advertising agency Tug hosted a number of fascinating sessions on this exact topic. A look at how how digital services are not only impacting our minds and bodies, but how they can be better designed to then take advantage of this. I'll be posting a write up of each of the presentations over the rest of the week, as I think that for any company thinking about how they approach digital, they should be thinking about the real impact of these services.

First up to speak was Pete Trainor, founder and director of human centred design at Nexus, a company that focuses on the psychological and behavioural impacts of digital. Trainor took the stage and said that “it's incredibly important for anyone designing services that touch the lives of people that they are thinking like a neuroscientist”.

And whilst this might sound a bit drastic, after some explanation, I think he has a very valid point.

Trainor explained that he began thinking about the impact of digital and neuro-marketing techniques after having worked for a large vodka client at an ad agency. The vodka client had embarked on a huge campaign to place pictures of famous pieces of art in the bottles that were being sold, so when consumers walked past the bottles in shops, they saw the pictures they recognised. He said:

When you stopped and looked at the picture, you were also absorbing the shape of the bottle, so when you were in the supermarket you would recognise that shape. It got me thinking about the ethical impact of some of this neurological work.

Digital has allowed us to get this neuro-marketing and technology in the market en mass, with apps especially, which is really scary and really exciting.

The brain

During Trainor's presentation, he pulled up a diagram of the human brain. See the image below (apologies for the poor quality). He explained that the neo-cortex deals with intelligence and motor commands, balance etc. Whilst the reptilian part, which is the oldest, deals with our fight and flight instincts. However, it is the “awesome bit in the middle” that is of most interest to Nexus and Trainor – the limbic.

The brain

This is where all the good shit happens, where rewards come from when something good happens, where habits are formed, where memories and emotions are contained. This is the bit of the brain where apps and digital have been tapping into a lot more. We don't really know what the long term impact of what we are doing is on this part of the brain, but there are ways of doing good things and bad things with it.

Trainor explained that when we are designing digital services, there are two types of problem solving that trigger the limbic section – linear and non-linear. Linear problem solving is about making stuff quicker, making it easier. Whereas non-linear is about making us smarter. Unsurprisingly, the digital world has largely focused on the creation of linear services. He said:

Linear problem solving is really about up-down, yes-no, A-B. Non-linear is more about analytical, creative problem solving, the things that stop and make us think.

In the last ten years what we have witnessed is that we have been flooding the market with a shit-tonne of linear problem solving apps and services that get you to an answer quicker. Statistically speaking the Apple App Store is made up of something like 75% linear problem solving apps and 25% non-linear.

pete trainor
Pete Trainor, Nexus

And whilst we may think that quicker and faster is better, it is having a real detrimental impact on the limbic part of our brain – it's actually making us stupid. Trainor said:

The intense repetition of a task grows stronger neural pathways in the brain associated to that task. It's called neuroplasticity – the more we do something relentlessly over and over again, the brain actually grows in that area. It starts to get smarter in a particular area. So the more linear problem solving, the apps and services that we use on a daily basis, the brain is actually getting dumber. We are actually designing stupidity. It's kind of frightening if you stop and think about it.

Swipe right for love

But it's not just the psychological impact that digital services are having on us that Trainor is focusing on, but also the biological impact. This might sound a bit far fetched, but Nexus has found that these linear apps can actually release hormones into our bodies that make us behave in certain ways and feel certain things. He said:

The other thing that we have discovered is that hormones are released during digital experiences, there are a whole bunch of hormones that are released when we are engaging in digital services. These have a far reaching effect across your body. It actually starts to change your body. So the fact that we are creating apps and services that release these hormones, we are in frontier town, we don't know how it's going to impact us.

Trainor used the example of dating apps, such as Tinder, where meeting a new mate is made possible from wherever you are, just by swiping a finger and finding a match. One in five people have Tinder on their smartphones and Trainor says that it was designed with very little thought about the impact it will have on people, despite it being one of the most addictive services on the market.

Most people are unaware that when using the likes of Tinder, people are releasing hormones into their body that can not only change how you act but can actually make them feel terrible. Trainor explained:

When you find someone you like, you swipe right, testosterone starts to leak out into your body,

closely followed by adrenaline. Within 15-20 seconds, testosterone and adrenaline are coursing through your body and it can start to change you. What they start to do is make your brain more susceptible to risk, make you make poorer decisions, makes you think differently. When people are sitting on their sofas playing Tinder, they're not even behaving like themselves anymore.

When you're on a winning streak, testosterone means that you're biologically predisposed at that point to win, you're quicker, you're faster. The downside is that when you start to lose you crash really badly, you actually get unhappy. On Tinder when you're winning your thumb is moving quicker, you're getting to the mate quicker. What we starting to see now, when you stop your winning streak on games like Tinder, you start to crash quite badly.

There's another effect. When testosterone and adrenaline leave your body, they only last about 15 minutes, they are replaced by a third hormone called cortisol, which is a stress and depression hormone. If you are using services like Tinder for 5 or 10 minutes, you're alright, you're on an adrenaline high. After 15 minutes, you start to get unhappy, that's what the body does.

It's fascinating to think that just because of a way an app is designed, it can have psychological and biological affects on you that mean you are no longer acting in a way that you wouldn't typically. And you can't do much to help that, it's the effects of linear repetition and hormone releases.

Trainor also cited another example, the Stanford marshmallow test, which was an experiment carried out in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which found that kids that delayed gratification (they didn't eat the marshmallow straight away, but waited for it) were actually smarter. They had a higher IQ and got better school results. Trainor argues that with push notifications, we are removing this delayed gratification on mass. What impact will that have?

Psychology is all about nurture, biology is all about nature. What we are seeing is that digital is about nurture, but these responses are all about nature. For years and years we have thinking about digital and nudging people in behaviour, what we are going into now is a period of time where we are starting to think about the nature aspect. The combination of nature and nurture is really where the world is going when we start designing services.

Think before you design

Trainor also said that this isn't about taking away the frictionless experience from digital services. And it doesn't mean that service like Uber aren't useful – Uber is less worrying, because it's typically used very

design thinking
quickly. It's the repetition of linear services that is of most concern. He added that banks are beginning to do some great work with non-linear services, with new savings tools. As are insurance firms, which are starting to challenge people to drive safer with data being collected on how they drive – forcing sensible behaviour, as opposed to speed.

However, the main takeaway from Trainor was that he wants digital designers to stop and think before they create new services. He wants people to start designing with the behavioural and psychological impacts in mind.

We all have the gift and the ability to design things in the right way, we do not have to sit down and design the next Tinder. Nobody is making us to do that. Our clients that are asking for quicker, smarter, get people to an answer quicker apps – we don't have to say yes to them. We can tell them that there are more non-linear ways of solving their problem. I would encourage you all to go away and do that.

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