Tristan Harris is an expert on how technology hijacks our psychological vulnerabilities. That’s why he spent the last three years as Google’s Design Ethicist caring about how to design things in a way that defends a billion people’s minds from getting hijacked …
When using technology, we often focus optimistically on all the things it does for us. But I want you to show you where it might do the opposite.
Where does technology exploit our minds’ weaknesses?
I learned to think this way when I was a magician. Magicians start by looking for blind spots, edges, vulnerabilities and limits of people’s perception, so they can influence what people do without them even realizing it. Once you know how to push people’s buttons, you can play them like a piano.
That’s me performing sleight of hand magic at my mother’s birthday party And this is exactly what product designers do to your mind. They play your psychological vulnerabilities (consciously and unconsciously) against you in the race to grab your attention. I want to show you how they do it.
Hypnotise: If You Control the Menu, You Control the Choices
Western Culture is built around ideals of individual choice and freedom. Millions of us fiercely defend our right to make “free” choices, while we ignore how we’re manipulated upstream by limited menus we didn’t choose.
This is exactly what magicians do. They give people the illusion of free choice while architecting the menu so that they win, no matter what you choose. I can’t emphasize enough how deep this insight is. When people are given a menu of choices, they rarely ask:
“what’s not on the menu?”
“why am I being given these options and not others?”
“do I know the menu provider’s goals?”
For example, imagine you’re out with friends on a Tuesday night and want to keep the conversation going. You open Yelp to find nearby recommendations and see a list of bars. The group turns into a huddle of faces staring down at their phones comparing bars. They scrutinize the photos of each, comparing cocktail drinks. Is this menu still relevant to the original desire of the group?
It’s not that bars aren’t a good choice, it’s that Yelp substituted the group’s original question (“where can we go to keep talking?”) with a different question (“what’s a bar with good photos of cocktails?”) all by shaping the menu.
Moreover, the group falls for the illusion that Yelp’s menu represents a complete set of choices for where to go. While looking down at their phones, they don’t see the park across the street with a band playing live music. They miss the pop-up gallery on the other side of the street serving crepes and coffee. Neither of those show up on Yelp’s menu.
Yelp subtly reframes the group’s need “where can we go to keep talking?” in terms of photos of cocktails served.
The more choices technology gives us in nearly every domain of our lives (information, events, places to go, friends, dating, jobs) the more we assume that our phone is always the most empowering and useful menu to pick from. Is it?
The “most empowering” menu is different than the menu that has the most choices. But when we blindly surrender to the menus we’re given, it’s easy to lose track of the difference:
“Who’s free tonight to hang out?” becomes a menu of most recent people who texted us (who we could ping).
“What’s happening in the world?” becomes a menu of news feed stories.
“Who’s single to go on a date?” becomes a menu of faces to swipe on Tinder (instead of local events with friends, or urban adventures nearby).
“I have to respond to this email.” becomes a menu of keys to type a response (instead of empowering ways to communicate with a person).
All user interfaces are menus. What if your email client gave you empowering choices of ways to respond, instead of “what message do you want to type back?” (Design by Tristan Harris)
When we wake up in the morning and turn our phone over to see a list of notifications frames the experience of “waking up in the morning” around a menu of “all the things I’ve missed since yesterday.”
A list of notifications when we wake up in the morning how empowering is this menu of choices when we wake up? Does it reflect what we care about? (credit to Joe Edelman)
By shaping the menus we pick from, technology hijacks the way we perceive our choices and replaces them with new ones. But the closer we pay attention to the options we’re given, the more we’ll notice when they don’t actually align with our true needs.
Summary And How We Can Fix This
Are you upset that technology hijacks your agency? I am too. I’ve listed a few techniques but there are literally thousands. Imagine whole bookshelves, seminars, workshops and trainings that teach aspiring tech entrepreneurs techniques like this. They exist.
The ultimate freedom is a free mind, and we need technology that’s on our team to help us live, feel, think and act freely.
We need our smartphones, notifications screens and web browsers to be exoskeletons for our minds and interpersonal relationships that put our values, not our impulses, first. People’s time is valuable. And we should protect it with the same rigor as privacy and other digital rights.
Tristan Harris was Product Philosopher at Google until 2016 where he studied how technology affects a billion people’s attention, wellbeing and behavior.