In One Corner: You. In the Other: the 24-7 Slot Machine in Your Hands

Yes, it’s true: on average, we touch our phones over 2,500 times per day. Why?  

“Because we enjoy it!” many people tell me at my conferences. It turns out nothing could be further from the truth. We are constantly on our phones because we feel compelled to be.  

Once again, why?  


Dopamine Drives You Toward Goals 

Dopamine is not only released when you are pursuing a cognitive goal, such as finding a good travel deal. It is also released when you are pursuing an emotion-laden goal, such as trying to find the right partner. Electrochemical studies in male rats reveal that more dopamine is released in the presence of a female receptive rat than during actual copulation. In other words, dopamine is associated with the chase, not the catch

If you’ve ever spent more time on Netflix searching for a film than actually watching it, you are no stranger to this phenomenon. It’s the feeling that we are progressing toward a goal, rather than actually enjoying the attainment of the goal, that releases dopamine. 

“Wait a moment,” you may be thinking. “Is dopamine all bad? Doesn’t the expectation of it also keep us focused on important goals?” Yes, this is true. In fact, it could be argued that the wiring of this neurotransmitter into our inner circuitry has enabled us as human beings to become goal oriented and focused on progress. Without dopamine impelling us to accomplish the next task, complete the next project, or achieve the next goal, perhaps we would replace ambition with apathy and prefer to slothfully lounge through our lives in a desultory state of uninhibited contentment. 

You could even argue that most of our dopamine-deficient ancestors on the open plains were probably wiped out by ravenous predators targeting such lethargic prey. Even if they were not so unfortunate, those who survived were improbable marriage material and less likely to propagate their genes. 

The Old Slot Machine Trick 

App programmers captivate us and keep us glued to our screens through meticulous algorithms that provide unpredictable yet continual bits of information that make us feel like we are progressing toward our goals—more recognition, competence, approval from others and so on. 

How do they accomplish this goal? The same strategies used by the designers of slot machines: the provision of sporadic, unpredictable rewards. One of the main tenets of behavioral psychology discovered by B.F. Skinner.  

The basic Skinner model is that, different from continuous reinforcement, to keep someone hooked you only provide reinforcement for their behavior at variable (i.e., unknown, or random) time intervals. Variable-interval reinforcement tends to generate slow, consistent, stable responses over time. A pigeon, for example, might peck over 150,000 times without any reward of a pellet as long as it thinks the reward might come at any moment.  

If there is a fixed-interval reinforcement schedule, on the other hand, the pigeon will peck more vigorously only when the expected time for the reward approaches. The pigeon (or our) interest is much choppier, peaking at the time of the anticipated reward (e.g., visiting your favorite Mexican restaurant only on “Taco Tuesday” and driving past it on the other six days of the week). For these reasons, variable-interval reinforcement is more utilized by companies, as it keeps customers steadily engaged all year long.  

Casino owners are not unaware of the power of variable-interval reinforcement to addict us. It’s the core strategy of slot machines. Not a good portent for us, as we never had much luck regulating slot machines. In fact, slot machines now constitute about 80 percent of all casino revenues and earn more revenue per year in only one US state (Nevada) than Major League Baseball does in all fifty.  

Release Yourself from Its Control 

So what can we do to better regulate ourselves vis-à-vis the digital slot machine in our hands, pumping out information to us in variable intervals that keep us hooked? Understand what stimulates the dopamine and parse it out of your life. Here are a few strategies, each with the corresponding tool you will remove from the arsenal of app developers who have made a copious living by learning how to control you:  

Take notifications off your phone | Strip app developers of using sounds and popup messages to control you. 

Decide how often you will check your most addictive apps and then move them to your last screen | Prevent app developers from using proximity to manipulate how you spend your day. 

Set your phone to Grayscale | Refuse to allow app developers to continue using color to distract you from your most important goals. 

Most importantly, ask yourself what you will replace your screen time with. While there is nothing wrong with checking a news site or returning a text, neither is there anything wrong with taking a long walk alone, spending in-person, unmediated time with someone you care about, meditating or reading books that really make you think.  

Shift your time toward these non-digital activities and you will feel a renewed lightness of being as you begin to once again experience what gives your life meaning. 

I’d love to know what you feel keeps you hooked on your devices. Have you discovered any strategies that help you to regain control of your life vis-à-vis these digital temptations? Share them in the comments so others can benefit from your experience.