Survival of the Fittest

Only the strongest can resist

If you are in a car accident, the presence of alcohol in your blood automatically means you are guilty. If you fail to drink responsibly, any problem that comes as a result is entirely your fault. It is very likely that before crashing, a drunk driver will drive by a billboard that advertises a drink and also warns to drink responsibly. We are a society of strong-willed people, and only the weak-minded are irresponsible.

The responsibility we place on a drinking person is counter intuitive. We forget that alcohol makes a person less apt to rational decisions.

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. You can sell a product that turns people into addicts or impairs their cognitive ability. All you have to do is slap these words in the fine print:

“Drink Responsibly”

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. Even if it means crossing moral grounds.

YouTube optimizes their next recommended video algorithm to keep you watching forever. Before you reach the end of a video, Facebook will start loading the next one in the background. You won't even notice that the first one 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 recommendation are psychologists and mathematicians. They have worked to profile you and determine the next piece of content you are most likely to click. When an algorithm has been proven to work on millions of people, you have to show exceptionally strong will to resist it.

Of course, there is the disclaimer. “This website uses cookies.” And somewhere in the hundreds of pages of Terms and Conditions, you have agreed to be experimented on.

There is a popular study called the Marshmallow Experiment. Children are taken to a room one at a time and are presented with two options:

  1. Eat a marshmallow now and go one with your day.
  2. Or wait 20 minutes and get two marshmallows to eat instead.

The child is observed under the watchful eyes of researchers behind a one-way mirror. They can see the kids who chose the second option struggle as the clock ticks away. When the child succeeds, without cheating, he is rewarded with two sweet marshmallows. The conclusion is that only a child with strong will can succeed. This child will go on to have higher SAT scores, lower body mass index, and many more benefits in his adult life.

So companies assume 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. They can gamble responsibly. They are in charge of their phones, not the other way around. But these people are becoming rarer. The companies who abuse our psyche continue to improve their engagement strategies. No one is permanently immune.

We can't hold everyone to this standard. We can’t release poison in our water streams 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 consume, the more you have to consume.

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 solution to help people combat this issue. But, it’s a first step to know about system and to see it in action. Being aware that the app you are using is trying to trick you, 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. And slapping a little warning in the fine prints does not absolve you for wrongdoing. They have to be held responsible for their actions.


chris :

all true, but i stumbled over this thing by drinking beer and having my i resisting?

Ibrahim :

@chris and you managed to write a comment. You are resisting... but not for long.

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