Your brain's been hacked: how social media is pushing our buttons

Think you’re thinking your own thoughts as you challenge an online opinion? Algorithms have been designed to feed on your outrage

20 January 2019 - 00:00 By yolisa mkele
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What does the concept of free will mean in our digital age?
What does the concept of free will mean in our digital age?
Image: Keith Tamkei &

Free will - not the thing you get online from your bank, but the ability to make your own choices unimpeded - is the foundation of our society.

Sure, all types of philosophers and people who identify as determinists will drearily drone on about how free will isn't a thing, but one can always choose not to listen to them.

Besides, free will underpins how our democracy functions and how those mysterious markets work.

People choose governments and the brand of toothpaste to slather on their molars. Depending on which religious team you play for, your choices can get you sent to eternal good times in the sky or somewhere less fun, and we choose when to switch Tinder on and swipe right.

As a general rule we all think we have free will, but do we really? More importantly, in the 21st century, what are the potential consequences of a loss of that free will?


The documented debate over free will started more than 2,000 years ago when some Greek pederasts took some time away from their favourite pursuit to do some thinking. What followed was a back and forth that would last millennia and get so boring that the participants opted to die of old age rather than solve the problem.

Without wading too deep into the notoriously swampy philosophical weeds, determinism comes in two basic flavours, hard and soft. Technically there are more kinds, but you can ask your local philosopher about those.

Soft determinism believes human behaviour and actions are wholly determined by causal events but that free will exists if you want to define it as the ability to act according to one's nature. Your nature being the combination of your genetics, upbringing, socio-economics and experiences. Essentially, you have the ability to make choices but they are far from free.

Hard determinism, on the other hand, says that free will is snake oil. It believes that all your choices are entirely determined by external factors, thus absolving you of any accountability.

Both schools and their many variations have been engaged in a seemingly eternal struggle against the idea that, in varying capacities, human beings are able to choose their own adventures without interference.

The issue, however, is that no matter how many arguments you marshal about how genetics, upbringing, socio-economics and blah blah affect our ability to make free choices, we all feel our choices are our own. To be fair, the debate around it is moot because we all live like we have free will. If you commit a murder and argue determinism as a defence you're going to have a hard time staying out of jail.

"I do believe in free will, however I know that the correct use of influence psychology can help create boundaries in which one's free will operates," says mentalist and persuasion expert Gilan Gork, whose stage work makes an entertaining mockery of the idea that you are in control of your own brain.

By virtue of our being human, each of us is inherently susceptible to various hacks of our choice mainframe. In fact, attaching a couple of puppet strings and jiggling someone's choice architecture like Pinocchio's before he was a real boy is about as easy as creating an app.


Here's a fun question: what do mentalists like Gilan Gork and Derren Brown have in common with social media? Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google and founder of Time Well Spent (a movement aimed at getting technology platforms to "stop hijacking our minds and put our wellbeing first"), says the answer is "quite a bit".

"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 realising it . Once you know how to push people's buttons, you can play them like a piano and this is exactly what product designers do to your mind," Harris writes in a 2016 article about tech companies using "persuasion" techniques to keep people on their platforms.

In a podcast discussion on technology, Harris says: "People don't realise that when you are about to click on something there are 1,000 people on the other side of that screen whose job it was to get you to click on that."

The problem is that where mentalists like Gork use their powers to entertain, technology firms can be less well-meaning. Referred to by some as "the conscience of Silicon Valley", Harris has spent the past couple of years educating people on the insidious ways technology companies hijack your attention and intentionally create apps designed to be addictive.

In a YouTube video (see below) Harris explains how a lot of social media platforms use tricks common in the gambling industry as well as other clever psychological hacks to keep people online for longer and returning more often.

WATCH | Tristan Harris on why smartphones are 'slot machines'

For instance, by using the same principle employed by slot machines, app designers have essentially created an ecosystem in which we check our phones 150 times a day on average. Ever notice how many apps have the "pull to refresh" feature? This and infinite scrolling mimic the action of pulling a slot machine's lever.

According to Harris, once you link that action to a variable reward - for instance, how many likes of notifications pop up afterwards - and ta da! you have a digital slot machine that doles out shiny new notifications instead of money.

Gaming our psychological vulnerabilities is not restricted to tech companies. When you sign up for a supermarket chain's loyalty card, you inadvertently sign up to have that chain track your purchase history. Using that information, it can monitor what you buy, what items you buy together, when, where and at what frequency. Having the information that you often buy milk at 6pm in Bryanston, and that when you do so, you also get Oreos, it can design the store in such a way as to entice you into making purchases that you never really intended to.

Gork says the most common places he sees "clever tricks" are marketing campaigns: "Marketers know that our brains are hardwired to look for shortcuts to make decisions quickly. These shortcuts are called heuristics."

Companies will often use the idea of scarcity or a product's popularity to convince you that it must be a good product. Clothing company Supreme has used these concepts fantastically to sell people everything from T-shirts to Supreme-branded bricks for nonsensical amounts of money.

Supreme and its branded bricks, crowbars and clothes belong to a class of goods known as Veblen goods. These are essentially things that people like because they're expensive rather than because of intrinsic things like their quality. Supreme manipulates our need to overcompensate for crippling emptiness by flaunting expensive crap that supposedly displays taste and class but really only exhibits a gaudy lack of imagination and the propensity to be conned.

In short, then, much of the world is set up to behave like one of those shows in which the mentalist or magician on stage asks you to pick a random word from a newspaper, directs you to make a few more "free" choices and then stuns the crowd when he reveals that he had picked that word earlier in the show and locked the evidence in a box. The big question here is "so what?" People, governments and companies have used persuasion techniques for centuries - what's the big deal?


The big deal is that one of the major selling points in the democracy promotional material is the idea that we are all free to choose who we would like to govern us.

Modern social media seems to be in the process of turning democracies into a kind of mentalism show, one in which we have the illusion of free will but are in fact just choosing a preselected Trump. If we are not doing the selecting, who is? And why? Sure, this is not a new practice, but never before have the powers that be been so good at it. Rarely, if ever, have special interests been able to hack our thoughts so thoroughly.

Social media craftily reframes the questions we are asking by changing the menu of answers we can choose from to reflect something more likely to keep us online longer, which in our current climate means something that makes us angry.

For example, if you jump onto social media looking to understand the pros and cons of Brexit, you are more likely to come across polarising posts about how immigration is the devil or how racists are plunging the UK into crisis. Thus pushing you, often with misleading or false information, towards choosing a tribe rather than actually dealing with the original pros-and-cons question.

Once you have picked a particular side you have now also ascribed to yourself a certain set of values that are often viewed with little nuance. There are shades of grey among those who want to remain in the UK but they are all now tarred with the same brush and consequently often reviled for views they may not even hold. Most importantly, picking a tribe isn't what you went there for in the first place.

Our timelines are angry by design, not by our own free choice and that anger spills out into our everyday lives

It's easy to dismiss this as yet another call to lynch social media but that is not what this is. Social media connects us with ideas, voices and people that we may have never heard before. The problem is that social media platforms don't measure their success on connections - they measure it on engagements, likes and clicks, and the thing that scores highest on all those fronts is outrage. Our timelines are angry by design, not by our own free choice and that anger spills out into our everyday lives. The grievances are real and obviously merit redress but are too easily used as a tool to select an outcome that only a minority want. That's to say nothing of the rising rates of digital addiction and phone-induced anxiety that are the by-product of the design of the slot machines in our pockets.

It is safe to say that, to a large extent, free will is a figment of our imaginations. Our societies have, to varying degrees, always been designed to coax us into making choices that are not our own, but in a world where so many people are freaking out about sentient artificial intelligence and what it could mean for our future, perhaps we should be worried about giving what's left of our free will to the lowly algorithms goading people into electing bad choice A because we're angry at mediocre choice B.



Bright colours catch your eye. Birds know this and so do app designers. There is a reason why the little notification number above your app is red and why more apps are pivoting towards logos that pop. Greyscaling your phone thus makes you less likely to look at your phone, see something bright and shiny and decide to investigate.


Notifications are designed to mimic actual human interactions. So when you get a notification, your brain’s gut reaction is that you should attend to it because there is a person on the other end of it. Thus if there isn’t an actual person on the other end of it, turn the notifications off.


Ever noticed that you rarely go past the first page on Google but will scroll through Instagram forever? Infinite scrolling makes it harder to stop because it continuously loads new material to catch your eye.



How people respond to ideas can be influenced by the order in which you present them. If you ask, “Is it OK to smoke while you pray?” most say no; if you ask, “Is it OK to pray while you smoke?”, most say yes. Suppose you are pitching a product that has very high functional specification (and strong benefits), but also takes several weeks to deliver.

Although it might be counter-intuitive, research by Dr Robert Cialdini has shown that you should lead with the negative. By first mentioning that ‘This product may take a bit longer to deliver ...’ you give yourself the qualities of an open and transparent person. This gives you the credibility to go on to mention the strong benefits of the product.


If you ask yourself, “Why can’t I stop smoking?”, your mind responds by coming up with reasons why it’s hard to quit. This doesn’t help you at all. Alternatively, if you ask yourself, “How can I stop smoking?”, you start thinking of strategies that might help.


If you want something to sound dull and uninteresting, refer to it in the past tense. If you want to make it sound like a safe but not very exciting option, use the present tense. If you want make it sound exciting, use the future tense.

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