18 July 2022

How brands got us hooked on our phones

Guides & explainers
Millions of us know the feeling...

That moment you hear the ‘ding’ of Instagram or the chirp of Twitter.

It cuts through the noise and releases something inside you. “I must check it,” your brain screams until eventually you pull out your phone and stare at the notification with intrigue.

Most of the time it’s a post from that aunt, a tweet about some celebrity scandal, or Facebook telling you there are memories you just need to see. But what causes this necessity – this desire – to look at your device?

Well, along with the fear of missing out (‘FOMO’) you may feel, your brain releases a little dopamine hit to relieve the craving that our phones have us all chasing. Is it good or bad? Or is it not as black-and-white as that?

What is causing all this?

Now, let’s take it back to basics; what is dopamine?

Dopamine is an important brain chemical that influences your mood. Functionally, it’s a neurotransmitter that sends messages to and from nerve cells, playing a huge role in the sensation of pleasure and how we react to certain smells, sounds, tastes, and feelings.

There are countless benefits to having dopamine released into your body; not only does it make you feel good, but it can also help with memory and learning, while affecting the sleep pattern, creativity, and helping prevent illnesses like Parkinson’s Disease. Sounds great, right?

Not quite. Dopamine is closely associated with feelings of reward, which can be addictive. And going without it can start to affect the way you process things. Whether it’s motivation or your attention span that suffers, dopamine withdrawal can drive you to distraction until that itch has been scratched.

Think about the compulsion when you smell warm cookies fresh out the oven; the feeling as you eat the junk food you’ve been saving; or the need for relations when aroused. It’s simply a psychological association we have, and one that is deeply rooted in our behaviour – it’s nature’s way of rewarding the body; we’ve just adapted to our modern lives.

It’s not something new to us. Discovered in 1957, it’s thought that humans evolved from apes with dramatically more dopamine – giving an edge over primates and allowing homo sapiens to prosper.

Conditioning us to crave dopamine

Now, we’ll look closer in time, to a world of physiology, psychology, and Pavlov’s dogs.

During a study conducted in the 1890s, the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov was researching dog’s salivation patterns and the correlation to being fed. During his research, he noticed a pattern between the sound of his lab assistant bringing food, and an increase in salivation among his dogs. It rose as they got ready for the impending treats they were to get.

This video features a reconstruction of the experiement.

Pavlov discovered he could harness this power, conditioning the hounds by using a metronome whenever it was feeding time. Repeating this over a period of time, whenever they heard the noise, it would cause the drool to start, even when no food was coming – and this behaviour was coined a ‘Pavlovian response’.

But how does this relate to the average consumer?

Knowing that we get a little dopamine hit every time someone interacts with us (called ‘social stimuli’), the creators of the apps and websites we all know and love – Facebook, Twitter and others – have been known to replicate Pavlov’s tactics to keep people on their phones, laptops, and tablets as much as possible. The logic is simple: the longer you spend on their site, the more revenue you’ll generate for them.

Whether it’s a Like, a message, or a new post, Facebook et al have conditioned us to associate the sound of notification chimes with the dopamine hit triggered by social stimuli, firing that feeling of ‘reward’ through your body.

Negatives of too much dopamine

Too much of a good thing always has negatives, and consistently high dopamine levels can lead to anxiety, insomnia, aggression, stress, and even hallucinations. And with related conditions including addiction to other sources of reward (like narcotics and alcohol), it’s clear that like everything, excess can turn the good, bad.

When it comes to our phones, as time goes on, the stronger the association between notification chimes and reward becomes – and it’s easy to become ‘phone addicted’. In fact, almost half of people would consider themselves reliant on their device – with 47% of Americans considering themselves addicted, and 70% of Americans checking their notifications within five minutes of receiving them.

So what does that mean for your mind exactly? Lots of studies show how the population has grown less and less happy, despite dopamine-giving social stimulation becoming more accessible.

It’s a vicious cycle: the more dopamine we get, the more we crave it. So social networks do ever-more to keep engagement up, in order to activate the neurotransmitters as much as possible. And that’s why you’ll receive multiple notifications at seemingly ‘random’ times throughout the day.

Pavlovian response and its uses today

Brands need to stand out from each other, because they’re all competing for attention.

Just take a look at the sonic logos used by companies; WhatsApp has their trademark echo that’s synonymous with receiving a message, Skype has its notorious jingle, while Netflix has the low rumble that precedes your viewing experience. They all let you know what you’re about to receive; and just like Pavlov’s dogs, your body anticipates what’s coming without you even knowing.

It’s been drilled into us through years , and is a language that people across the globe speak.

Let’s look at dating apps. Online dating has come a long way in 20 years; in fact, in 2020, 270 million adults used dating apps globally. So why are they so popular?

Not only does the technology that makes it possible live literally in our hands, but using them provides instant relief, with both dopamine and serotonin being released when we find a ‘match’ – which, again, is about social stimuli.

Now picture the scene; you’ve spent a while swiping on potential matches, you put your phone away when suddenly a sharp chime can be heard letting you know you’ve got a match.

What’s associated with the noise? Our yearning for a connection is primal, so you don’t need a long, drawn-out jingle. Instead, what’ll hit home will be something short, distinctive and to-the-point. Whether you’re a devotee of Tinder, Bumble, Grindr, or another, you’ll find their chimes are distinctive enough to stand out from the crowd and give you a hit of dopamine – with frequent (and often unpredictable) rewards.

What your business can learn

We help businesses create the audio that’s going to help them stand out, whether that’s app notification chimes or unique music.

Because dopamine isn’t just linked to apps; it has a strong relationship with music – in fact during a a study by Dr Valerine Salimpoor, it was found that when you listen to music it releases the neurotransmitter.

The sensation you get when you hear your favourite song for the first time – and the way you try to claw back that experience for years to come; it’s all about chasing that first hit. Laura Ferreri  found that dopamine plays a direct part in rewards when listening to music. And Healthline even consider it a natural way to increase dopamine levels in your body, as helpful as maintaining a healthy diet and spending time outdoors.

If it’s such a natural way for the brain to release dopamine, then why can some music bother us so much? Take on-hold music for instance; often dull and repetitive, it can be a breeding ground of resentment as you wait to speak to someone about your query. And it’s a conditioned response – the result of past experiences on the phone when we’ve been made to wait and left frustrated; simply the act of being placed on hold can turn an otherwise pleasant call sour.

Your business can win if it provides a different hold experience. Rather than beeps or silence, or interminable library music, your business can overcome consumers’ Pavlovian response to being placed on hold by using appropriate, dramatic music and relevant messaging that reduces the perceived time spent waiting and keeps the caller engaged.

 

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