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Tricks of the Trade - Chapter 3 - How to Break Up with Your Phone - 2024

Author: Catherine Price

“Tricks of the Trade - Chapter 3.” How to Break up with Your Phone, by Catherine Price, Ten Speed Press, 2018.

Never before in history have the decisions of a handful of designers (mostly men, white, living in SF, aged 25–35) working at 3 companies had so much impact on how millions of people around the world spend their attention.
–Tristan Harris, ex–Google employee and design ethicist

THE BETTER WE UNDERSTAND OUR own dopamine responses, the better equipped we’ll be to recognize brain hacks when we see them. So let’s take a phone’s-eye look at some of our psychological quirks—and how they’re being used to manipulate us.


You know that heady feeling you get early on in a romantic relationship where you crave spending time with the person? That’s the work of dopamine, too—it’s released any time we experience something new. But once novelty wears off, less dopamine is released. This is the post-honeymoon phase of human relationships where someone often gets dumped.

But we’ll never get to the point of even considering dumping our smartphones, because phones (and apps) are designed to provide us with constant novelty—and as a result, constant hits of dopamine.

Feeling bored or anxious? Check your email. Nothing there? Check social media. Not satisfied? Check a different social media account. And then maybe another one. Like a couple of posts. Follow some new people. Check to see if those people followed you back. Maybe go look at your email again, just in case. It’s easy to spend hours on your phone without using the same app twice—or staying focused for more than a few seconds at a time.

It’s worth pointing out that dopamine-induced excitement is not the same thing as actual happiness. But try telling that to our brains.


Anyone who’s spent time with a two-year-old knows that toddlers are fascinated by cause and effect. Flip a switch on the wall, and a light goes on. Press a button and a doorbell rings. Express even the slightest interest in an electrical outlet and an adult will come running.

It’s a trait we never outgrow: no matter what age we are, we really love getting reactions to things that we do. In psychology, these reactions are called “reinforcements,” and the more reinforcements we get when we do something, the more likely we are to do it again. (Oddly, the reaction doesn’t have to be positive. You might think that scolding a toddler for putting playdough in her mouth might discourage her from doing it again, but trust me: it does not.)

Our phones are packed with subtle positive reinforcements that trigger dopamine spritzes that keep us coming back for more. Touch a link, and a webpage appears. Send a text message and you’ll hear a satisfying “whoosh.” Cumulatively, these reinforcements give us a pleasant feeling of control—which in turn makes us want to constantly be on our phones.


You’d think that the best way to get us to check our phones obsessively would be to make sure that there was always something good waiting for us.

But what really gets us hooked isn’t consistency; it’s unpredictability. It’s knowing that something could happen—but not knowing when or if that something will occur.

Psychologists refer to unpredictable rewards as “intermittent reinforcements.” I call them “the reason we date jerks.” Regardless of what term you use, this unpredictability is incorporated into nearly every app on our phones.

When we check our phones, we occasionally find something satisfying—a complimentary email, a text from a crush, an interesting piece of news. The resulting burst of dopamine makes us begin to associate the act of checking our phones with the receipt of a reward. Similarly, there are times when checking your phone out of anxiety really does leave you feeling soothed.

Once that link has been established, it doesn’t matter if we’re rewarded only one time out of every fifty. Thanks to dopamine, our brains remember that one time. And instead of dissuading us, the fact that we can’t predict which of our fifty checks is going to be rewarding makes us check our phones even more.

Want to know another device that uses intermittent rewards to drive compulsive behavior? Slot machines.

In fact, the similarities between the two devices are so powerful that Harris frequently compares smartphones to slot machines that we keep in our pockets.

“When we pull our phone out of our pocket, we’re playing a slot machine to see what notifications we got,” he explained in an article titled “How Technology Is Hijacking Your Mind.”

“When we swipe down our finger to scroll the Instagram feed, we’re playing a slot machine to see what photo comes next. When we swipe faces left/right on dating apps, we’re playing a slot machine to see if we got a match.”

Harris’s observations are particularly disturbing when you realize that slot machines, which are specifically designed to deliver rewards in a way that drives compulsive behavior, are one of the most addictive devices ever to have been invented.


Anxiety is evolutionarily important, because it’s very motivating (a lion who’s anxious about food is more likely to survive than a lion who’s chilling out). But it also is easy to trigger, and it can turn us into stress cases, especially when it can’t be resolved.

According to Larry Rosen, a psychologist at California State University, Dominquez Hills, our phones deliberately incite anxiety by providing new information and emotional triggers every time we pick them up. This makes us worry that any time we put them down, even for a second, we might miss something.

The nontechnical term for this anxiety is FOMO: fear of missing out (not to be confused with its underappreciated counterpart, JOMO: the joy of missing out). Human beings have always suffered from FOMO. But we were protected from developing a full-blown infection by the fact that, until smartphones, there was no easy way to find out about all the things we were missing out on. Once you’d left your home (and your landline) to go to one party, you had no way of knowing that another party going on at the same time might be more fun. For better or for worse, you were just at the party.

Not only do smartphones make it easy to find out about the things we’re missing, but also—through notifications—they spray FOMO at us like a sneeze. We become convinced that the only way to protect ourselves is to constantly check our phones to make sure that we’re not missing something. But instead of helping alleviate our phone-induced FOMO, this actually increases it, to the point where our adrenal glands release a squirt of cortisol—a stress hormone that plays a large role in fight-or-flight responses—every time we put down our phones. Cortisol makes us feel anxious. We don’t like to feel anxious. So, in order to relieve our anxiety, we reach for our phones. We feel better for a moment; we put them down—and we feel anxious again. Infected by FOMO, we keep checking and touching and swiping and scrolling, trying to relieve our anxiety by doing something that, by reinforcing our habit loop, actually only increases it.


Human beings are social creatures, and we desperately want to feel like we belong.

It wasn’t so long ago that this affirmation (or rejection) came from real live people—as happened to me in middle school when a group of my so-called friends rated our classmates’ popularity on a scale of one to ten, and decided that I was a negative three.

For the record, a scale of one to ten does not include negative numbers. But the bigger point is that whereas my verdict was delivered in person and relatively privately, today it would have been posted online for everyone to see—and to vote on. Whether it’s ratings on Uber or “likes” on social media, many of today’s most popular apps actively encourage users to judge one another. Those features aren’t there by accident. Designers know that humans have an intrinsic desire for affirmation, and that the more ways there are for us to be judged, the more compulsively we’ll monitor our score. In Irresistible, Adam Alter describes the launch of the “Like” button on Facebook as having had a psychological effect that was “hard to exaggerate.” As he puts it, “A post with zero likes wasn’t just privately painful, but also a kind of public condemnation.”

The fact that these judgments matter to us is just as questionable as why I still remember the popularity scale incident more than twenty-five years later. But there’s no question that they do.

What’s particularly weird is that we don’t just care about other people’s judgments; we ask for them. We post photos and comments to show others that we’re lovable, that we’re popular and, on a more existential level, that we matter, and then we check our phones obsessively to see if other people—or at least their online profiles—agree. (And even though we know that we’re curating our own feeds to make our lives look as exciting and fun as possible, we forget that everyone else is doing the same thing.)

Put this all together, and it makes sense that spending a lot of time on social media could be associated with depression and lower self-esteem. What doesn’t make sense is that we are deliberately choosing to relive the worst parts of middle school.


There’s a reason that platforms like YouTube and Netflix are designed to automatically play the next video or episode in your (or, rather, their) queue: it’s harder to swim against the current than it is float downstream. If the next episode of the show you’re watching automatically starts playing five seconds after the previous one ends, you’re less likely to stop watching. (Some platforms allow you to disable this feature. Try it, and see if it makes a difference in how many videos you watch.)


Humans love feeling like we’re special, which is why designers provide so many ways for us to personalize our phones. We can display personal photos on our home and lock screens. We can assign our favorite songs as ringtones. We can hand-select the types of news articles that appear in our feeds.

These features make our phones more useful and fun. But the more our phones feel like reflections of ourselves (and our specialness), the more time we’re going to want to spend on them. And if you take a critical look at your phone’s personalization settings—as in, what settings you have control over versus what settings you don’t—you’ll notice that we have lots of control over features that make us more likely to spend time on our phones, and very little control over those that don’t.

For example, I do have the option to change the voice of my phone’s virtual assistant from an American woman’s to a British man’s—and to ask that British man to tell me jokes. (“The past, present, and future walk into a bar. It was tense.” )

But it has taken years (and at least one lawsuit) for phone makers to even begin to give us the ability to set auto-responses for text messages—hardly a revolutionary idea, given how long we’ve been able to set up vacation responses for email. In addition to making it easier to take a break from your phone, the option to auto-respond to text messages could save lives by eliminating one reason—namely, the fear of leaving someone hanging—that so many people text and drive.

Indeed, the more you think about this, the more likely you are to come to the same conclusion as Tristan Harris. “The closer we pay attention to the options we’re given,” he writes, “the more we’ll notice when they don’t actually align with our true needs.”


As we’ve talked about, the flip side of wanting to feel pleasure is the desire to avoid feeling bad—ideally with as little effort as possible. That’s why, instead of getting to the root of our negative feelings, we turn to alcohol or drugs…or our phones.

In a 2017 article in the New York Times, Matt Richtel reported that there’s been a decade-long trend toward less alcohol and drug use among teenagers. Great news—unless kids are just replacing one possible addiction with another. The title of the article was “Are Teenagers Replacing Drugs with Smartphones?” and the conclusion among most of the experts quoted was that the answer is likely yes.

“I see her at this point and time as not being a person who is controlled in any way by smoking pot,” one school psychologist was quoted saying about his own daughter. “[But] her phone is something she sleeps with.”


If our smartphones excel at one thing, it’s making sure we never, ever have to be alone with ourselves.

And thank goodness. In 2014, researchers from the University of Virginia and Harvard University published the results of a two-part study in Science that demonstrated the lengths we’ll go to avoid our own minds.

In the first experiment, volunteers received a mild electric shock, and then were asked whether the experience was unpleasant enough that they would pay to avoid being shocked again.

The researchers took the forty-two people who’d said that they would pay to avoid another shock and left them alone in undecorated rooms, without access to the internet or any other form of distraction, and instructed them to entertain themselves with their thoughts for fifteen minutes. They also told the participants that, if they wanted, they could press a button and receive another electric shock—as in, the same shock they’d just said they’d pay to not have repeated.

You’d think that no one would have taken them up on the offer, right? Wrong. Out of the forty-two participants, eighteen chose to give themselves a shock during the fifteen-minute experiment. Eighteen. (And not just once. In what is undoubtedly my favorite detail of the study, one outlier shocked himself 190 times.)

“What is striking,” wrote the authors, “is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid.”


Put this all together, and our phones are like digital Trojan horses: innocuous-seeming accessories packed with manipulative tricks meant to get us to let down our guard. As soon as we do so, our attention is theirs for the taking. And as we’ll see in a moment, it’s a very valuable prize.

DMU Timestamp: February 21, 2020 23:45

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