Are We Really In Control of Our Behaviours?


If what we think creates our behaviours, and our behaviours create our habits, and our habits form who we are, then just how much control do we have over who we are? 

A recent documentary investigating the unethical use of deliberate behavioural modification techniques has raised questions in regard as to how much of our daily actions are of our own doing. The use of deliberate tactics to influence and persuade an individual’s decision making is nothing new. Salesman seeking the most effective marketing strategies have been trying to manipulate consumer buying decision for decades. There is even evidence that the Chinese were so effective at persuasion and influence during the Korean War that they had success at turning American POW’s against not only America, but producing anti American propaganda, and informing on each other in regard to escape plans or anti-Chinese sentiments. A significant number even requested to relocate to China after the end of the Korean War. This behaviour modification is something that was almost mastered 70 years ago.

The power of behaviour change and decision influencing is something that has now become its own specific science, having grown out of marketing and gambling. These strategies have now branched out from gambling and are being leveraged through technological devices, applications and online gaming among several broader domains. The main push behind this deliberate manipulation of behaviour change and habit formation is mostly driven by marketing and consumerism. The big question is how is it so effective that even those who know how it’s being done are struggling to mitigate its effect?

There are a number of mechanisms but one of the most effective parts of the strategy relies on our primitive threat response and desire to avoid discomfort. Avoidance of threat or discomfort is one of our strongest motivators, working at a subconscious level and often resulting in action responses and decisions without us ever realising. So using the phone as an example, when we are alone we get a feeling of discomfort. As highly social beings we need to feel attached, to belong to a group. This likely stems from the primitive risk to our survival when we are isolated from the tribe. We are denied all the comforts, food, shelter and protection that is afforded to us when we belong within a group if we are alone. To avoid the increase in fear based on perception of threat, discomfort and the feeling of isolation we go to our phone. It provides a security blanket to our fear and need for survival through attachment and distraction. This gives a positive hit through the neuromodulator system and we code our brain that we like it, so let’s do that again. So next time we feel isolated, we seek that feeling of comfort, and so begins the formation of a deliberately designed habit. Of course, the phone itself provides no positive feedback, so that’s where the apps are deliberately designed to provide that security from threat and are deliberately designed to reduce all barriers to access and promote prolonged interaction in order to drive up marketing value. When we are looking to create new habits, the first thing we need is a trigger or prompt, which in this case is the feeling of discomfort and the next thing is motivation. Here the motivation is to avoid this feeling of discomfort. Once the prompt and motivation have been met the complexity of the task needs to be lower than the motivation in order for the behaviour to get over the threshold for action. This is why apps keep you logged in and limiting barriers for access to reduce any level of friction between prompt and behaviour. Even placing the apps in the last scrolling window of your phone and within in a group can increase the threshold enough to reduce your activity level. This ability to meet the desire of avoidance of discomfort and simplicity in access to the platform is a significant factor in why some apps fail and some succeed. 

Another key factor is the understanding of how our neuromodulators influence our thoughts and behaviours. Those combined with high levels of dopamine are constantly in a seeking state. Despite popular belief, dopamine has very little to do with rewards. Dopamine is a powerful motivator in seeking a reward but is never satisfied with achievement. Dopamine does spike when we get a reward and when the reward spike is higher than the seeking spike or than what we subconsciously anticipated we get reward prediction error. This reward prediction error creates a powerful sensation to get us to seek that same feeling again. The problem here is dopamine is instantly desensitised in relation to that reward, and now is generally higher during the anticipation of the reward, driving us to get more of what we just had and not settle for the same. For example, when you initially use a SM (Social Media) platform and you get XX number of likes or comments, boom, dopamine and reward, you feel important and have high belonging. You climb up a rung on your perceived social hierarchy ladder and now have perceptually elevated importance. Next time however, you are anticipating those likes/comments and now you need more. If it happens then reward prediction error occurs and more dopamine, if not then there is no dopamine and disappointment. However, this drives you to make more effort, as dopamine has two pathways and on pushes you through effort. To get that hit the higher effort dopamine causes you to seek harder to get that feedback and then the threshold goes up again. This is how you continue to need more followers, more likes, more comments and spend more time and effort on the platform to get that dopamine hit so you can want it more. Basically, this is how addiction works. This isn’t isolated to social media though, the reward prediction error is so precise that poker machine companies and online gaming platforms know the exact ratio to optimise this seek and reward behaviour to keep you engaged for as long as possible, often leading to addictive behaviours. Even websites and applications record your viewing habits and what information increases your chance of scrolling and interacting.

For those who have lower levels of dopamine it’s not all good news, the opposing system to dopamine is the here and now pathway. It is where the feelings of satisfaction with what we have is generated, but it is also responsible for our vigilance and need for safety. If you have high levels of these neurotransmitters, then although you are less vulnerable to seeking behaviours, you are more likely to make comparisons against those who have more than you and feel threatened as this is a status threat and low level status could mean social exclusion or missing out, and this ultimately raises your vigilance. Once your vigilance is increased you are far more likely to continue scanning through your feed focused on threatening information or stimuli. This also results in behaviours around continued engagement through continually scanning your feeds for threat, or through interaction to reduce your discomfort of this threat, through to increasing the perception of your status in comparison.

The problem here is that despite which way you are inclined, the algorithms in these platforms pick up your preference through your behaviours and the information you engage with and push the relative content to you to keep you engaged. This also has a number of second and third order effects. The longer you are engaged the more your neuromodulators are in a high burn state and the cognitive effort is reducing your energy levels impacting your subsequent cognitive ability, cognitive resilience and decision making. It also frequently impacts your sleep and the time allocation to these platforms reduces your time availability for other endeavours and creates a negative perception and anxiety around time availability. Even just an increase of 20 minutes of time spent online or engaged in social media creates a significant negative perception of being time poor. The actual loss of time and impact of these platforms has an impact on all our other behaviours and emotional states. It reduces our time availability and effort into other more beneficial behaviours, it changes our eating behaviours, it changes our hormone regulation and creates more negative emotion, it influences our thought patterns around increased focus on platform use and less focus on other activities and more importantly, often reduces our sleep and all the benefits associated with it. The list goes on.

Some of us are also more vulnerable than others to these platforms. Individuals who have low values or purpose, low perception of belonging or low self-importance are at risk of increased online activity and negative mental health and depression. Much like the way cults, ideologies and abusers target vulnerable individuals, the design of these systems makes these same individuals at increased risk. 

If you want to reduce the impact of these platforms, you need to start to deliberately address your behaviours. These platforms are designed around downhill habit creation. In that these habits are created with minimal effort. If we want to optimise our lives, we need to focus on uphill habits that require more effort but give positive benefit. This requires a deliberate strategy and the acceptance that we are going to need to be comfortable enduring through discomfort to get where we want to go. We are going to have to change the way we respond to threat and discomfort and learn to push through, otherwise these platforms will continue to manipulate our orientation toward avoidance behaviours and influence our thoughts, behaviours and ultimately our habits that make up who we are.

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