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What cognitive science can tell us about our social platform addictions

Social platform addiction described through behavioral tendencies, and design to counter this.


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Christian Leong

3 years ago | 9 min read

You are met with beautiful photos of Joe’s African Safari. You enviously take them in. On LinkedIn, you congratulate Nancy, on her newly attained promotion.

On Facebook, you see your childhood friends in a photo, together. Your heart skips a beat. How could they forget to invite…much less even tag me? You wonder.

But, you didn’t endure the heat or the sweat that Joe did. You didn’t see the thankless hours that proved Nancy was ready for the promotion. You skipped the awkward high school reunion when your childhood friends reconnected.

These snapshots in front of you are a façade of reality. But in your mind, they are so real, and this in turn slowly, devours you.

Approach-Avoidance Conflicts

In cognitive science, we describe this situation of returning to aversive conditions (returning to social platforms) as approach-avoidance conflicts¹. Succinctly, approach-avoidance conflicts happen when users are both rewarded and punished at the same time.

Users continue coming back to social platforms in search of rewards, only to get re-punished. Example rewards might include feeling part of many social circles, while example punishments might include feeling envy about the lifestyle of someone else.

The issue is that users return to social platforms in search of rewards, only to feel punishment magnitudes harsher than the rewards.

Collecting likes feels nice, but Tom’s new car makes me never want to drive my car again…and wish I chose work in a more lucrative industry.

The problem here is our rewards and punishments system hasn’t evolved to navigate the complex decisions needed to be made today. Millions of years ago, decision-making was very straightforward and making the wrong one usually resulted in death.

Evolution made sure we wouldn’t make the wrong decision, so it made sure punishment felt brutal. The problem is that this punishment feels very bad for situations that aren’t very bad.

Despite these punishments, we do come back to social platforms. They help us feel connected, they allow us to share updates about our lives, they entertain us… but only until we stumble upon that one post that scratches at our greatest insecurity.

Rewards felt earlier become fleeting and punishing feelings of inadequacy take us into the wee hours of the morning. This is the approach-avoidance conflict in social platforms, and this is dangerous.

Aversive Conditions & Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness — Learning that nothing can be done to prevent aversive conditions, leading to a passivity towards controllable stressors, i.e. social platforms.

Learned helplessness was first studied in the 1970s when rats were put through shock trials¹. Helplessness, induced in some rats was tested against rats with normal psychological states.

When the two groups were put through trials with an escapable shock, the helpless group never learned the avoidance pattern. The other group not only learned the avoidance pattern but cognitively accessed it quicker in subsequent trials.

Just like in rats, cognitive and motivational deficiencies appear in humans, when feelings of helplessness are realized.

For some users of social platforms, they’ve become trapped in the approach-avoidance conflict, and feelings of punishment cannot be avoided–this is grounds for learned helplessness and further, social media addiction.

This passivity traps certain individuals, who then become glued to seemingly trivial platforms.

Even scarier is that this passivity appears to be permeating societal attitudes towards social platforms. In the Social Dilemma, top tech figures speak of the disallowance of social platforms in their homes².

Isn’t the banishing of social platforms admittance of an uncontrollable aversive condition? Isn’t this learned helplessness?

As not all the world is going to banish social platforms from their household, social platform design must be improved for the wellbeing of users. The problem cannot be banished. It can no longer wait to be addressed.

Learnings From Other Approach-Avoidance Conflicts

Now I know what you’re thinking, this is the point when I start to ramble on about the societal consequences and don’t offer a solution. I do intend to suggest design solutions.

However, to understand solutions to the problem, it is important to compare this approach-avoidance conflict to other approach-avoidance conflicts.

Approach-Avoidance Conflict— when users return to an aversive stimuli, that has punished but also rewarded them in the past.

Dating

Whether you’re riding high with a new special someone, or going through the throes of heartbreak, dating is very rewarding and very punishing at times.

Interestingly, rewards and punishments pertinent to dating are very similar to those pertinent to social platforms. During unsuccessful dating periods, we might feel isolated and have lowered self-esteem.

During punishing platform sessions, we also might feel isolated and have lowered self-esteem. Both systems have transferrable social rewards and punishments.

But dating does not have the same lasting psychological punishments as social platforms. Why is this? Because there is an established coping mechanism.

After aversive relationships, all remembrances are deleted and the refreshed ex-lover can traverse the world with a clean mental slate. This leads us to our first potential design.

Design Solution 1: Content Management Control

In a similar fashion to dating, when aversive content shows up on our feeds, we need ways to clear it. Below are two interactions I created to achieve this.

Both interactions simply remove aversive content from the user’s device only, to free users from the aversive content.

I’m especially fond of the swipe interaction because in my head, it symbolizes swiping a rejection letter off of my desk.

An interaction I created to swipe content off your screen
An interaction I created to swipe content off your screen
Another interaction to tap content off your screen
Another interaction to tap content off your screen

Currently, some social platforms have the functionality to hide content, which acts similarly. However, the function’s implementation makes it feel more like a peripheral action, rather than a core action.

Hide content is shown in an extra features menu
Hide content is shown in an extra features menu

Cognitively, the extra features menu (denoted by 3 dots) barely registers as an action available to be made by me. Contrastingly, the function in question, removing aversive content, is a healthy action made all the time in the real world by everyone.

Hypothetically, what happens when your co-worker won’t stop blabbering about how great their weekend was? You tune out, you change the subject, you escape the stream of aversive content.

Featuring “hide” as an extra option, represents a disconnect from the real world, resulting in its low usage rate.

Considerations of Copy

What is your opinion of the copy “hide” (Comment your opinions)? To me, “hide” is very administrative and signifies hidden content in a development context — hamburger/collapsed menus.

The copy feels very technical to me, and seems to miss the mark in describing the actual action that describes my proposed function.

When considering new copy, we need to create a framework. “Delete” and “unfollow” obviously represent the most negative copy on these platforms, while “like” and “save” represent the most positive copy.

To describe this real-world action of removing aversive content, I would use a somewhat neutral term such as “clear”.

Execution

Initially, “clear” might make sense to pair with other platform reactions (like, laugh, love, etc). After all, you are reacting to the post.

However, the problem with pairing the clear functionality alongside reactions, is that it behaves completely differently than the aforementioned reactions.

My function privately clears content from the device rather than communicates reactions publicly.

Due to this potential mismatch of expectations, I have put the functionality as an innocuous button alongside the other core actions, and to the far right.

Similarly to leaving aversive conversations, clear innocuously allows users to remove themselves from aversive content
Similarly to leaving aversive conversations, clear innocuously allows users to remove themselves from aversive content

Design Drawbacks

The active removal of aversive content is unnatural. When two individuals interact, and one wants to end the interaction, the most common ways they’d do this are passive: A look towards the door, a gradual descend towards the door, or even a change in tone.

If these fail, only then, might they resort to actively telling the recipient that they want to leave the interaction.

Actively putting boundaries on aversive content is weird and can be difficult for anyone, especially those who are already suffering psychologically.

However, if this argument is viewed from a positive lens, the design gives those who are suffering the worst a great way to regain control over their social platform’s feeds.

What should be done about the “cleared” content? Throughout this whole article, I’ve avoided using the word delete, but that is essentially what is happening — users delete aversive content from their devices, at the benefit of improved psychological health.

If users want to access the content after clearing it, social platforms can keep bins of cleared content for the user.

The user can also revisit the original post from the poster. The post has just simply been deleted from their feed.

The Second Approach-Avoidance Problem: Sports

Circling back to the idea of approach-avoidance, sports represent an approach-avoidance conflict that is oftentimes coped with in healthy ways. After aversive outings, most sports teams come together, eat team dinners, and joke about their hostile opponents.

How might we incorporate this understanding of cognitive science, sports, and hostility into social platforms?

Simply put, you’re more likely to perceive posts by closer social connections as less hostile, compared to posts created by further social connections.

If there was a way to categorize posts as coming from closer or farther connections, social platforms can potentially limit the frequency and extent of aversive content.

Design Solution 2:

If social platforms can design a feed that prioritizes positive wellbeing, that should be the goal; this could hypothetically be done by changing the feed to prioritize content from closer social connections.

To do this though, social platforms would need to define close and far connections.

They’d need rounds of testing to identify which dimensions indicate closeness; i.e. interactions, interaction length, number of times their content has been cleared (😜). This would be a multi-year solution.

Different feed prioritizations could then be a feature surfaced in feed preferences. The default feed might prioritize wellbeing, while other options could include the classic feed, or feeds with popular posts.

A Quick Aside from Airbnb

Airbnb dealt with a similar issue — disproving the stranger = danger/hostile³ ideology.

Their solution was to design a reputation system where guests and hosts rate each other in secret after the transaction. Neither party knows what the other party put as their respective ratings.

This essentially removed the stranger=danger/hostile effect, and led the platform to the success it has seen today.

Although social platforms face completely different problems, understanding healthy ways of projecting non-hostility can be an avenue where the feed would not have to prioritize for closeness.

Design Drawbacks

Social platforms have mastered creating systems that cater to our deepest obsessions. This is great in theory, however, the problem is that sometimes these obsessions are unhealthy for us.

Models on Instagram represent body standards that we wish to hit someday, so we follow their accounts. When we consume our next fast food meal, seeing their content then leads to lower self-esteem. But would we have it any other way?

I’m not sure we would, which makes this design a hard sell for both consumer and business interests. The design effectively flattens the type and source of content, to posts from inside your close social circle.

To ultimately get this design to work, a hybrid model of close connections, and outside sources is needed. The challenge is to understand how to incorporate healthy outside sources.

Conclusions

If you’ve made it this far, you’re either a close connection of mine, or have a substantial interest in designing for stronger user health, in the context of social platforms. Shoot me a LinkedIn connection and I’d love to hear your opinions on the subject.

Just as cognitive science can help understand human behavior outside of tech, its fundamental principles are just as applicable from within.

Through the gradual breaking down of each behavioral component, I hope I’ve been able to make this problem a little bit less intimidating and elucidate ways we can attack it.

I hope to hear from you and am ready to begin designing a better world together. I can’t wait to get started!

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