Every damn day, a window pops up in the upper right corner of my MacBook.
Updates available. Do you want to restart to install these updates now or try tonight?
Inevitably, I’ll click “try tonight” and, since my computer is rarely plugged in, I’ll get another notification — a reminder that updates can only occur when the computer is hooked up to a power supply.
Research shows that notifications can destroy focus and even cause stress and anxiety.
Despite feeling like I just updated my computer a few months ago, I’m still plagued with update notifications that pop up when I’m busy with other tasks (or just scrolling through Twitter). It’s relentless: Just when I thought I was free from my notification prison, I’d be reminded to update before I click — again! — “remind me tomorrow.”
I’m not the only one enraged by my computer’s endless nagging. Tens of thousands of searches about disabling updates occur on Google every month, according to the platform’s keyword planning tool for advertisers. A 2017 Pew Research survey found that 14 percent of people never update their phone’s operating system, and 42 percent only do so when it’s convenient, despite these updates sometimes containing urgent security fixes.
Research shows that notifications can destroy focus and even cause stress and anxiety. While researchers have yet to turn their clinical attention to software updates specifically, it’s likely that the unwanted diversion I get from annoying email push notifications, robocalls, or overactive group chats causes the same neurological response as my computer’s daily reminder that I’m not taking good enough care of it.
Sara Thomée, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, described it in evolutionary terms. Our brains, she told me, are evolved to react to stimuli to protect us against danger; a corresponding rise in stress hormones, like cortisol, will better enable us to react to that danger. In a sense, she said, technological notifications act in a similar way.
“In a workday, where perhaps not many tigers are around, frequent notifications will probably raise our levels of stress and break our focus,” she said.
One 2016 study looked at the neurological effect of smartphone notifications on subjects involved in a task, and found that notifications had a notable impact on the concentration and task performance of those prone to smartphone overuse. Research from the Future Work Centre, based in the United Kingdom, found that people who utilize email push notifications on their phones and computers also reported feeling stress and pressure around email.
Part of that stress comes from splitting your attention between different things. Not only does switching your focus from one task (say, me writing this story) to another (a text message from my sister) require psychological energy; the inevitable switch back requires yet more energy, and that, Thomée said, delays productivity.
Even worse, wrote neuroscientist Daniel Levitin in The Guardian, the necessary decision-making that arises when a notification interrupts another task causes further stress and energy depletion. Regardless of whether or not I elect to follow my computer’s prompt, the energy required to make that decision, and countless other similar, notification-prompted choices, accumulates over the course of the day.
“It turns out that decision-making is also very hard on your neural resources,” Levitin wrote. “Little decisions appear to take up as much energy as big ones.”
Ultimately, as annoying and potentially risky as software update notifications are, it’s considerably more dangerous to leave your software out of date.
Thomée thinks guilt may play a part in this stressful energy depletion, noting that if we decide to go along with our technology’s demands, it could bring up anxiety about what that update will actually do to our devices. This fear isn’t entirely unwarranted: Apple is infamous for throttling older devices through iOS updates, and was hit last month with a $5.7 million fine from an Italian antitrust organization for slowing down phones with new software updates, as well as two class action lawsuits. Sony once released — and ultimately pulled — a PlayStation 3 update that completely broke some consoles.
One study from May looked at why users don’t update their software by surveying existing literature and polling hundreds of people via Amazon Mechanical Turk and Google Consumer Surveys. It found that 7.5 percent of participants cited “update risk,” including “data loss due to the update, and whether the update may be malicious,” as a significant concern, compared to 40.5 percent for update “costs” like time and storage space. Twenty-nine percent cited “necessity” — whether the user feels the update is important or needed.
Ultimately, as annoying and potentially risky as software update notifications are, it’s considerably more dangerous to leave your software out of date. Developers push updates in response to discovering vulnerabilities, so if you don’t update, you’re potentially putting your computer or phone at risk of being hacked.
Yet, it’s undeniable that the current system doesn’t quite work, at least where apps are concerned. Research shows that push notifications trigger a majority of app uninstalls, which could be bad for business. And further studies found that even people who identify as software developers or IT professionals often neglect to update their software, and that timing certainly plays a role: If an update notification comes while you’re watching a video or doing work, you’re liable to ignore it.
“Say you’re in the middle of talking to the board and your boss with this beautiful presentation you prepared for six months and then in the middle it says, ‘Please update your software.’ I mean, how stupid is that?” Nir Eyal, an author who specializes in the intersection of psychology and tech, said. Given the amount of data these companies have on us, Nir said, “they should be able to know when you’re in a meeting, when you’re using a piece of software and you don’t want to be interrupted.”
“Silent updates,” where software automatically downloads and installs new data in the background to avoid interrupting users, can help. But that’s not always possible. For example, game or iOS updates can be many gigabytes large — too much to download over a cellular network, unless you’re into data overages — and require quite a bit of time to install.
You can often opt into automatic updates via your device’s app store, and given how impactful those notifications can be, it’s probably wise to do so. There will always be some we must handle manually, however. Maybe we should also resign ourselves to the Sisyphean task of software updates as a price of admission in the modern world.