How Smartphones Exploit an Evolutionary Need

We evolved to want variable rewards. What happens when smartphones give them to us?

Zander Nethercutt
Jan 13, 2018 · 6 min read
Credit: ljubaphoto/iStock/Getty

The millennial generation gets written about a lot. We are “better behaved and less hedonistic nowadays,” according to an article from The Economist. We also may have been “ruined by smartphones,” according to a well-read piece in The Atlantic that I, as a millennial, found hard to read and, because of that, compelling. There are other words used to describe millennials too. “Isolated” is a common one. “Selfish” is another. “Smartphone-obsessed” is not a word, but someone should come up with a word for it, like “iPhoned” or a name for the condition of smartphone addiction, like “deviciosis.” Either way, people love talking about millennials both because to do so is to care about society’s health more broadly, but also because to lament the shortcomings of a generation is to normalize one’s own. And articles written about millennials get read even more if they’re dark, disparaging looks into the world we occupy. So here I am, a “selfish,” “isolated,” “iPhoned” millennial, writing another one.

In broad strokes, my main point is this: Millennials are “better behaved and less hedonistic” because we have been pacified by the most effectively designed amalgamation of variable reward schedule-based systems ever: smartphones. The smartphone — and the consortium of variable reward schedules buried within it — is the most effective tool of human censorship and pacification.

The Variable Reward Schedule

Identified in an experiment conducted by psychologist and behaviorist B.F. Skinner in the 1950s, the variable reward schedule is a system designed to unpredictably distribute rewards in response to an action. In Skinner’s experiment, there were two groups of mice. The first group was given a system where they would press a lever and randomly receive either a large treat, a small treat, or nothing at all. The second group of mice received the same size treat each time they pressed the lever. The mice in the control group (no variance in reward), unsurprisingly, showed no compulsive need to press the button. Their lever was nothing more than a light switch: uninteresting after the first use because the same action associated with the same result is boring at worst and predictably useful at best. The mice in the first group, however, pressed the button with a reckless fervor. Their lever was like a Las Vegas slot machine: compulsively addictive in no small part because of its deliberate design as a variable reward distributing mechanism.

Systems like this are addictive to most species — humans included — because they appeal to what was, at one time, an evolutionary strength: pattern recognition. Consider the human brain, specifically, as an algorithm digesting inputs and expelling outputs. (If “________,” then “________.”) A humanoid species running on an algorithm with the logic “if [random noise], then [run]” would have had a far greater chance of survival than a species whose logic was “if [random noise], then [who knows?].” We know, then, that humans, and other species still around today, are evolutionarily primed to seek patterns to the point of creating them where they do not exist; in fact, the very existence of our species in the current era is a result of having done so. Casinos have understood this for generations, and many examples of addictive, deliberately unpredictable systems are found within their hazy confines: craps tables, slot machines, roulette. These games are patternless and addictive — there is no way to know when or if you will win, only that you may, which is more than enough. Crafting systems like these exploits the human compulsion to find systems of cause and effect even where they do not exist, and variable reward schedules are the one place where they assuredly do not. No device, however, presents us with more variable reward scheduling — either with its own applications or those downloaded to it — than the smartphone.

The smartphone may be one of the most important devices of this generation. It is both an amalgamation of information the likes of which our world has never known and a conveyor of status. It’s a physical representation of the digital self that allows us to perceive our lives — at once complex, often painful things — as captured within the confines of a river stone: smooth to the touch and comforting in a way that the often unknowable chaos of reality is not. That so much of the lives of so many exists within the confines of these devices is a testament to both the marvel of their engineering and the imaginations of designers and artisans the world over. It is also a testament to the human desire to reframe the chaos of our lives in something physically beautiful, such that we may find ourselves not as we are, but as we wish to be.

Beyond this repackaging, however, exists something more nefarious: The same variable reward schedules Skinner used to compel mice to pull a lever are at work within smartphones. To doubt this is to have never felt a compulsion to pull out your phone with no real reason to do so — in a line, on a bus, at dinner, or in a conversation — or to have never found yourself deeply off task while using one. The pull of the variable reward schedules within smartphones — email (new messages ,“Who needs me?”), social media (likes , “How many? How am I being perceived?”), news (“What have I missed?”) — keeps us coming back over and over, even when we know there’s nothing there. Mundaneness — once, simply a part of life — is suddenly optional. Who would embrace the mundane over a lever that the very traits responsible for the evolutionary fitness of our species we’re compelled to tug?

What is the result of all this? Multitudes of datasets — as well as the far less empirical but almost more convincing evidence of simply watching people correlate smartphone use with the pacification of and consequent mental health crises being experienced by an entire generation. Visionaries like Aldous Huxley are visionaries for a reason. Brave New World was written in 1931, and 87 years later, our desire — not the hand of some “Big Brother-like figure” — has given way to a world where over two-thirds of adults own a device whose objective success is due in part to it being the most comprehensive presentation of variable reward schedules ever.

In the oft-cited preface to his landmark book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman explains it like this:

Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think…In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

Our capacity to find patterns, once an evolutionary benefit, has been exploited beyond what Huxley could’ve ever imagined. We are a more peaceful species, yes, and millennials — that oft-mentioned and over-coached generation — may be “better behaved and less hedonistic” than those who came before, but we may also be profoundly lost. Our natural inclination to find comfort with one another has been perverted by the devices where we now find one another. It is easy to point fingers — at parents, media, institutions — but to do so is to embrace the Orwellian view: a world where people are controlled by the infliction of pain. In reality, Huxley’s view is far truer: smartphones control us not by inflicting pain, but by inflicting pleasure; not by forcing us down an unfamiliar path, but by accompanying us down the one we know.

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mistaking correlation for causation since '94; IYI, probably | 🧓Chicago, IL | ✍️. @ | GET IN TOUCH: zander [at] zandercutt [dot] com

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