Survival of the Fittest

Only the strongest can resist

If you are in a car accident, presence of alcohol in your blood automatically means you are guilty. You are responsible because the packaging of your alcoholic beverage clearly asks you to drink responsibly. If you fail to drink responsibly, any problem that comes as a result is entirely your fault. Chances are, before crashing, a drunk driver will drive by a billboard that advertises a drink, and also warn to drink responsibly. We are a society of strong-willed people, and you'd have to be weak-minded to be irresponsible.

One thing that is not taken into consideration when making those demands is that when a person is under the influence of alcohol, they are less likely to make a rational decision.

Consuming between one and two drinks in an hour can increase a person’s BAC to 0.05 percent. They will appear relaxed; their inhibitions will be lowered; and their judgment and reaction times may be slowed or impaired, but not to dangerous levels.

Drinking makes you want to drink. The more you drink, the more impaired you become and responsibility goes out the window. If you sell a product that makes the person addicted and reduces the ability to make a rational decision, all you have to do is slap these words on it and you are safe:

“Drink Responsibly”

There is a popular study called the Marshmallow Experiment, where a child is presented with two options:

  1. Eat a marshmallow now and that's it.
  2. Wait 20 minutes and get two marshmallows to eat instead.

Under the eyes of researchers behind a one way mirror, the kids that choose the second option are seen struggling to obey the rule. When the child succeeds, without secretly cheating, it is concluded that the child has strong will. This will predict higher SAT scores, lower body mass index, and many more benefits in their adult lives.

We expect only the strong-willed to survive.

Gambling can be addictive. If you are susceptible, it can end up ruining your life and the lives of those around you. How can someone selling gambling get away with it if it can be so dangerous? That's easy. Make sure to include these words in your advertisement:

“Gamble Responsibly”

On the web, the winners are those who can keep users on their platform for as long as possible. Online companies report their monthly active users as part of their quarterly report. The higher the number, the better for investors. But increasing this number means finding ways to get users to spend as much time as possible on the platform. Any method really.

For example, YouTube optimizes their next recommended video algorithm to keep you watching forever. Before you finish watching your current video, Facebook will start loading the next video in the background so you don't even notice that the first ended. Netflix will constantly update thumbnail images of a movie to entice you to click.

Trying to put your phone away becomes a tremendous challenge. Behind every next recommendation are psychologists and mathematicians that have profiled you and found the next item you are most likely to consume. When an algorithm has been proven to work on millions of people, you have to show exceptional strong will to resist it.

Of course, there is the disclaimer that “This website uses cookies” and the 100 pages of Terms and Conditions that you somehow agreed to.

What all these institution are saying is that if you are strong-willed, their product is harmless. So it is safe to let it out in the world. It's true. The kids that pass the Marshmallow experiment are very likely to resist. Some people know when to stop drinking, when stop gambling, they can put their phone down anytime, they can ignore a notification. But these people are becoming rarer and rarer as the companies improve their engagement strategies.

We can't hold everyone to this standard. We can’t release poison in our water streams just because some people are immune to it. You can’t finish watching a show on Netflix. When you get to the end, the show you are most likely to watch is queued up and will load in 15 seconds. When you finish that lecture on YouTube, the most interesting lecture will follow. When you finish a level on your phone game, you are promised gems or more points if you continue.

The more you play or watch, the more you have to play or watch.

Everything that happens once can never happen again. But everything that happens twice will surely happen a third time — Paulo Coello

I haven’t found a single solution that everyone can implement to combat this issue. However, it’s a powerful new state of mind when you know and can see the system in action. Being aware that your app is trying to trick you into doing something makes you less susceptible to it. Knowing, that the recommendation engine is looking at your pattern and trying to keep you on the system the longest, can help you ignore it.

We can no longer afford to blindly use technology. We have to be aware of what they are doing to us in the background.


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