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The social hampster

Updated: Oct 2, 2023

Can you escape the global social behavior laboratory?

AI-generated image created with MidJourney | Owned by The AI Academy as per MidJourney ToS

[ME]: Do you guys know what an hampster is?
[MY SON]: yes daddy, is like a little rat
[ME]: Yes, that’s right. You know scientists use hampsters to make experiments in laboratories?
[MY DAUGHTER]: Yes. … I think that should be forbidden, poor little creatures …
[ME]: True. Often they make experiments without hurting them though. They create experiments to observe their behavior and how to make them do things by giving them rewards: when the hampster gets a piece of cheese after he has done something, there are some chemical in his little brain that make him feel good so next time he knows that to get the cheese he needs to do the same thing.
[MY KIDS]: (thinking)
[ME]: they do similar experiments with chimpazees giving them bananas too ..
[MY KIDS]: (thinking)
[ME]: who know who else is doing experiments like these to understand how rewards make people do things?
[MY SON]: who?
[ME]: companies like Facebook, TikTok, Youtube. and you know who are the little hampsters?
[ME]: you are.
[MY KIDS]: (stop eating, looking at me with surprise)
[ME]: they are doing hundreds of experiments every day, with millions of people like me and you, and they study how to give you rewards so you keep staying glued to the Instagram, TikTok or YouTube app longer.
[MY KIDS]: (silence)
[ME]: and you know the rewards they use to give you that sense of pleasure that makes you stay there? are the little number on the screen that tells you how many people liked your comment or post. Or the small vibration or bell sound that tells you someone is sending you a message or reacting to something you posted.
[MY KIDS]: (surprise, pondering my words)
[ME]: I’m not trying to tell you these apps and tools are bad, but is important you understand that these companies have enourmous resources to make these experiments with one goal: making you stay inside their app as long as possible, the more time you spend there, the more their companies is worth. Because they run all these experiments all the time, they know how to make it very very easy for you to get in and stay more time without you even realize.
[MY DAUGHTER]: I know, sometimes you think “let me check this message quickly” and then you’re stuck for half an hour or an hour.
[ME]: exactly!
[MY SON]: the worse is when you pick up the cellphone to do something and then you get distracted and spend half an hour doing everything but the one thing you picked the phone for!
[ME]: this is so true! they know how to keep you distracted because the more you forget what you were intended to do, the more you stay there.
[MY DAUGHTER]: you know daddy, I stopped taking the phone as the first thing when I wake up. because otherwise I get sucked in and I loose time I need to get ready for school.
[ME]: awesome! you just told me a good “hack”
[MY SON]: life hacks! ahaha there is a guy on youtube showing a bunch of “life hacks”.
[ME]: absolutely! These companies have found a way to hack your brain, so you now have to find a way to hack their apps back!

This is a fairly accurate transcription of a conversation I had with my 11 and 13 yo kids this past week. As many parents I’m of course worried how much time my children spend on social media but the same concern could be extended to pretty much all the adults I know.

It’s a sense of growing frustration I’m sensing among the participants of whatspp groups I join. Frustration for not being able to “keep up” with the speed of information and communication that, in cases where there is a genuine interest to participate to the conversations inside a specific community, very quickly transform itself into the growingly popular Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) feeling.

Beside the fact that we became lab rats used by large technology companies to conducting their social behaviour experiments, I feel the hampster analogy is also relevant because most if not all the time spent on some of these platforms often feels like time spent to accomplish absolutely nothing: we intuitively associate hampsters to hampster wheels where the only result of the animal running faster, is to let the wheel spin faster … in place just like droomscrolling on your favorite app’s home feed.

So how do you escape the global social behavior laboratory we’re stuck in?

It’s not easy to escape the lab. After all we’ve all “freely chosen” to use these tools to make our lives more productive and efficient right? Well, some are arguing that is debateble how free our choice is and that our brains are effectly being hacked by large and powerful companies who have the resources to use Data and AI at scale (see Yuval Harari’s famous 60 minutes interview here to get a sense of what he has being saying in numerous books, ted talks and interviews over the past few years).

I’m not going to get into the huge and open conversation about how to regulate AI (although is a topic I’m following closely for its importance). I want to stay down to earth and practial on this post and instead considering what can you and me do on a daily basis to “escape the lab” or “hack back” these powerful systems.

The best practical help I found on this came to me recently from Jake Knapp & John Zeratsky’s “Make Time - how to focus on what’s matter every day”. Jake&JZ have worked at these large companies and have seen from the inside the logic being applied to control your attention and making the adoption and retention mechanisms of these apps extremely frictionless and efficient. And they have developed a system that everyone can apply to be able to

transform your life from distracted to focused, from reactive to intentional, from overwhelmed to in control

I believe the framework they have developed to be very powerful for two reasons:

is simple:

  1. you pick one thing YOU want to accomplish and make it your highlight for that day using one or more of the 16 tactics suggested

  2. then choose one or more of the over 44 tactics described in the book to get laser focus and increase the chances of accomplishing your objective

  3. you adopt one or more of the 27 tactics to energize, in other words take care of your body to help your mind work better.

  4. then you reflect on what worked and what hasn’t for you

is flexible:

  1. the suggested tactics are small things that (for the most part) are easy to implement

  2. you get to experiment every day on what works and what doesn’t for you and you can adjust along the way

  3. there are no rigid rules about applying these tactics so you don’t feel guilty if you implement only a small fraction or choose not to adopt some tactics at all

I have started experimenting Jake & JZ’s framework over the past week. I can’t say I’m off the hampster wheel or out of the lab yet but I feel I made a great step in the right direction. Even at small doses, it provides a great sense of getting in control of my time and the direction I want my life to take.

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