Technology, Health, And The Psychology That Binds Them.
Technology plays a large, seemingly unavoidable role in our lives and as such, has a major impact on our well being. To understand these impacts, we must first talk about psychology.
When I was an undergrad, I became fascinated by the way humans think, feel, and make decisions. First, there are the basic concepts like heuristics. A heuristic is a mental shortcut that allows a person to make quick decisions without full analysis. Another basic concept is cognitive dissonance, which is the tension of holding multiple incompatible thoughts in your mind. They are beliefs that negate or make you question your beliefs. There is a nearly universal human desire to limit this dissonance. From there, I began studying influence and persuasion. In essence, that is the leverage of heuristics, cognitive dissonance and other human tendencies, to achieve a goal. This is where it really starts to get interesting. These concepts are extremely powerful and virtually silent.
Another opportunity for influence and persuasion is when we are deciding who to believe and trust. Maybe you resonate with an influential person on an issue that is very meaningful to you, something that you feel strongly about. Therefore you trust them (a heuristic shortcut). Then, that same person shares a belief that you are uncertain about or disagree with. For most people, this is an uncomfortable moment where you experience cognitive dissonance. Maybe you are thinking that you are the person who in moments like this holds your ground, you're not swayed to change your belief unless presented with solid evidence. I’m sorry, but you are not that person and neither am I. As much as we like to think of ourselves as being in control of influences that affect our beliefs, tendencies of human psychology are deeply ingrained. With the speed at which information now moves, these cognitive processes have never been more busy. And as the quantity of information we receive goes up, the quality of our processing goes down. Think of it this way. If you needed to read 10 pages for work by tomorrow you probably have time to read every word and analyze the paper thoroughly. If you had 10, 10 page papers to read by tomorrow would you do the same? Maybe you would rely more on titles, subject headings, and abstracts to get the gist of the material. Is this sounding familiar? Think of scrolling through Facebook or Instagram.
So, what happens when technology companies take advantage of basic human psychology?
Looking at the evidence behind these fundamental and nearly invisible social tendencies is sobering. Even more sobering is that companies pour millions into research universities, marketing, and product design in order to perfect and capitalize on these concepts. It is working, and it has found its happy place in screen based technologies. Take our experience of visiting a webpage for example. You click on the page, it loads quickly, it is aesthetically pleasing and guides us to our next step with minimal need to search through text. This is a pleasant experience and we view the company in a favorable light. A pleasant webpage experience becomes a heuristic, a shortcut, for deeming the company credible, which encourages companies--credible or not-- to invest heavily in webpage design.
So where does this fit into a blog about health? Everywhere. Screen based technologies, like the one you are viewing this sentence on, encourage traits built into our minds that act like sugar. Fast, efficient, and satisfying. Like any good marketing strategy or abusive relationship, they’ve made themselves indispensable. Would you give up having a cell phone completely? It seems almost impossible, given how deeply ingrained they are into our culture. Yes, there are great things about having a cell phone, a computer, or a smart watch. However, have we stopped to ask whether these things have delivered what was promised? Did they give us a happier life with a thriving community and an informed public discourse? Did they create healthier lives and access to financial stability wherever broadband can reach? Public health data and economic forums would lead us to believe otherwise.
What can we do about it? How can we limit the unwanted influence of technology in our lives? Check out the folks at the Center for Humane Technology. They are a group of former tech bigwigs who have ideas on how to make technology more humane. Or, seek perspective on your own and with your community. A few techniques I have found personally helpful are:
1) Tech Shabbat-- Thanks to our Jewish brothers and sisters for the terminology here. Take a day, perhaps Sunday, to forego the use of screen based technology.
2) Technology elimination diet-- Remove one or more pieces of technology that you use regularly for a matter of days or weeks. Then, reintroduce them one by one. Keep a diary of how you feel when they are gone and how you feel when they have been reincorporated into your routine. You may also note what other activities you enjoyed or did more of when you limited your options.
3) Think of an activity that you love doing but have done less because of technology. For example, when was the last time you knocked on a friend's door unannounced? For me, I love showing up at peoples door to say hello when I’m around town. If they aren’t home, I might leave a note. If they are home, they might say hello for a minute or have an hour to talk. I also appreciate surprise guests at my own home. It’s fun!
Technology is in our lives and it is powerful. It is possible to maintain a healthy relationship with technology, but it takes intention. There are many psychological influences at work behind the scenes. As a community, let’s start developing the skills to understand our relationship to it and make it work for us as compassionate, fallible humans.
And if I can be of any assistance in your process, reach out or come to the office. Every week I see patients whose symptoms (physical or otherwise) are related in some way to tech use.