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Digital distraction: Our phones are irresistible because we crave novelty

The pull of your smartphone isn’t just driven by endless streams of information. A new study suggests it’s all about our craving for novelty.

The world of online information can be very distracting, and many people blame tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Apple for our dwindling attention spans.

However, in a recent paper, philosopher Jelle Bruineberg from the University of Copenhagen presents a different perspective. He suggests that the real issue might not be the abundance of digital information, but our intrinsic human desire for novelty. And if it’s novelty the brain craves, digital technology is certainly able to deliver. 

Checking habits 

“When we get this inner urge to check our email or the latest notifications on Facebook, it is not because we are overwhelmed by information; often, we are not even engaging with our mobile phone when the urge comes. But the action of checking our phone affords us easy access to a very satisfying reward: a piece of novel information. This craving for novelty is, according to cognitive neuroscience, a basic aspect of the way our minds work,” explained Bruineberg.

“Digital technologies provide us with the means to achieve this reward with hardly any effort. We only need to move a couple of fingers around on our phone.” 

“If I were in a library, which also contains vast amounts of information, it would not make sense for me to develop a checking habit with respect to a particular book. It would be too much of a hassle, but moreover the information in a book is static, it does not suddenly change in the way that information in the digital realm changes. It is the combination of effortless access and changing content, that makes us so susceptible to develop ‘checking habits.'”

Historical perspective

Bruineberg also questions the modern narrative around the attention economy. The prevailing belief is that in a bygone era, when information was sparse, people could focus better. Today, we’re inundated with information, leading to our current attention crisis. 

Bruineberg challenges this view, noting that maintaining focus has historically been a challenge. As evidence, he cites religious groups’ emphasis on meditation and contemplation, designed to aid individuals in gaining control over their wandering minds.

A profound mismatch 

“The idea I put forward in this article is that there is a profound mismatch between the way our minds work and the structure of modern digital technologies. But it is not about us getting swamped by loads of information,” said Bruineberg.

“What it boils down to is that we – and our minds – are not equipped to deal with environments that allow for frictionless engagement and task-switching, practically infinite amounts of easily available novelty and rewards. And the only way to counter this development is to heavily constrain our digital environments.”

“For example, receiving emails only twice a day guarantees that there is no novelty to be found in your inbox in between those moments. 50 years from now, we probably look back in horror at how complex and unconstrained our current digital environments are.”

The study is published in the journal Neuroscience of Consciousness.

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