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How to Fix the Smartphone

Jonah Lehrer, my son and wonderful science writer, recently posted this blog. He gave me permission to copy it here. Between all of us, surely there is someone who can turn this eye-popping research into an actual product!

The astragalus is the heel bone of a running animal. It’s an elegant part of the skeleton, so curved it looks carved, with four distinct sides. It fits in the palm of your hand.

The astragalus is also one of the most common archaeological artifacts, found in ancient dig sites all over the world. The bones have been uncovered in Greek temples and Mongolian villages, Egyptian tombs and Native American cave dwellings. In Breughel’s masterpiece “Children Games,” two women toss astragali in the corner of the painting. They look like they’re having fun.  

The women tossing astragali in Breughel’s “Children Games”

The women tossing astragali in Breughel’s “Children Games”

Why are these small animal bones such a universal relic? The answer returns us to the peculiar shape of the astragalus. Because it has four sides, the bone can be used like dice: when thrown on a flat surface, it turns into a primitive randomizer, injecting a dose of uncertainty into the game. As the science historian Ian Hacking writes, these dice made of skeletons are so ubiquitous that “it is hard to find a place where people use no randomizers.” 

Of course, we don’t throw bones anymore. Now we have more advanced sources of randomness. Just look at slot machines, those money-sucking devices that enchant people with their unpredictable rewards. Although we know the games are stacked against us, we can’t resist the allure of their intermittent reinforcements. 

Or consider the smartphone. If the reward of slots is the rare jackpot, the reward of these devices is the arrival of a notification. As noted in a new paper by Nicholas Fitz and colleagues in Computers in Human Behavior, “In less than a decade, receiving a notification has become one of the most commonly occurring human experiences. They arrive bearing new information from or about a person, place, or thing: a text from your mom, news about Donald Trump, or a calendar invite for a meeting.” The ancients tossed animal bones to experience the thrill of random rewards. All we have to do is glance at these gadgets in our pockets.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with notifications. Unfortunately, their intermittent delivery (and the way they are constantly evolving to become more salient and sticky) creates a digital system that sucks up our attention, which is why the typical America spends 3 to 5 hours a day staring into small shiny screens. The end result is a permanent state of distraction, a mental life defined by its addictive interruptions.

Is there a better way? This urgent question is the subject of that new paper by Fitz et al. The scientists explore the potential benefits of creating smartphone notifications that are batched and predictable, arriving at regular intervals throughout the day. If our current smartphone experience is like a pocket slot machine, every random beep another reward, these batched notifications try to remove the twitchy uncertainty. We know exactly when the rewards will arrive, which will hopefully make them far less exciting.

To test the effectiveness of this setup, Fitz et al. recruited 237 smartphone users in India. Each of the users was randomly assigned to one of four conditions: 1) notifications received as usual 2) notifications batched every hour 3) notifications batched three times a day 4) or no notifications at all. The conditions were implemented using a custom-built Android app.

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Which setup worked best? It wasn’t close—batching notifications into three predictable intervals led to improvements across a wide range of psychological outcomes. (Hourly batching was less effective, though it did lead people to feel less interrupted by their phones.) According to the data, those who got three batches reported less inattention, more productivity, fewer negative feelings, reduced stress and increased control over their phone. They also unlocked their phones about 40 percent less often.

Interestingly, silencing all notifications tended to backfire, boosting anxiety without any parallel benefits in focus. (People were still distracted, just by their FOMO, not their gadgets.)

This research comes with enormous practical implications. In a little over a decade, the smartphone has transformed the nature of human attention, consuming gobs of our mental bandwidth. It’s a consumption we often underestimate. According to Fitz et al., most people think they get about thirty notifications per day. The reality is far worse, with the typical subject receiving more than sixty beeps, pings and buzzes. But if you ask them how many notifications are ideal, they give an answer closer to fifteen. In other words, we desire technology with limits, a smartphone that shields us from its own appeal.

And this brings us back to the power of intermittent reinforcement. Randomness has always been entertaining. The difference now is that we’ve engineered a technology that’s simply too irresistible—software evolves far faster than our hardware—which is why we end up spending more time staring at our phones than we do parenting, exercising or eating combined.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. One day, a gadget maker will give people what they really want: a machine that doesn’t hijack the brain. Based on this paper, a core element of this future gadget will be a default notification system that delivers its interruptions in predictable batches. That text can wait; so can the update from the Times and Twitter; we don’t need to know who liked our Instagram in real time.  

Sometimes, less is so much more.

Fitz, N., Kushlev, K., Jagannathan, R., Lewis, T., Paliwal, D., & Ariely, D. (2019). Batching smartphone notifications can improve well-being. Computers in Human Behavior.

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