With a Capital C that starts out Cortisol and stands for Clickthrough / by Rob Smith

Here's a BBC video, entitled The design tricks that get you hooked on your phone. I think it's "neuro-bullshit". Let me explain...

I'd assert that all the talk about cortisol, dopamine, etc., in this piece is based on "science" in the loosest possible sense of that word. I imagine no neural studies of any kind were done in designing the app features discussed, at all. The reality is that our brains release these exceedingly common brain chemicals so continuously and in so many complicated ways and circumstances, that talking about parts of app design as if they are playing some sort of highly tuned game with neurochemicals, and with us, based on some deep understanding of these processes, is beyond exaggeration.

Think of it this way: seeing a frosted glass full of beer suggests to our brain a pending satisfaction, which probably gives us a little corizol. The satisfaction of drinking the liquid certainly gives us a satisfying dopamine hit. However, would it be fair to imply that there has been clever "neurological" design behind these simple signals from a beer advert? Or behind newer versions of the same sorts of temptations (ads on TV, in-app rewards of pretty colors and sounds, etc.) that were created in the era of the brain scan, neurochemical language, and the like?

Of course not, as all we're really talking about is normal and obvious human behaviour, and the way that people can artfully tempt and satisfy other people. That's been going on in human interaction and in design of almost everything for millennia, with no knowledge of impressive sounding neurochemistry. In fact it's a part of *any* designed object or process, and always has been.

And like I said, I'm pretty sure that *no* neuro studies are involved in the design of any of these features. The article's assertions are based  on metaphor and supposition, neurologically. Even if there are


studies, they will likely be of such a child-like obviousness as to render this sort of hype moot. This just follows from the real status of brain understanding today: we understand things in such gross terms that this sort of discussion is almost certainly exaggerated window dressing.

The use of "neurochemical" language here is just an attempt to wrap a veil of science around really relatively obvious things. And to help fund startup businesses like some of those that got name dropped in this story, and who are sure to have provided the journalist with press release and/or interviews to help him formulate this story, and get it on the BBC, so that he could tempt people like us into stressing about not knowing something that might be harming us or our loved ones (cortisol!), so that we click through and watch the video, providing confirming satisfaction (dopamine!) to those who are worried about what technology is doing to us .

This whole thing prompted me to re-watch

this scene from Music Man

, which really is a work of insight and singing genius:

The problem (phone addiction) discussed in the BBC video isn't that science has figured us out (it really hasn't), it's that we are ceeding figuring ourselves out to self-promoting pseudoscience. It's a distraction, to make some people a career and a living.

What's going on with people being addicted to their phones is no different from people's fears of addictions to all sorts of things in the past. What's troubling about this sort of thing is that it treats people as if they are machines, that can be simply manipulated, but that's just not true.

The real problems in the world are much more about the lives we've setup for people in our society, which are self serving and isolating, making a phone screen a vital and necessary source of (plain old normally tempting) stimulation, "likes", and "friends". We (including we scientists) don't have people figured out, but we have retreated away from really figuring out people, choosing instead to increasingly construct a society where we are treated like automata, so we act like automata, and we are exploited like automata.

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