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Psychology in the Digital Age

Updated: Aug 16, 2018

"Psychology" is defined as the science of behaviour and mind . . . understanding how we think and behave. And work in the profession of psychology is understood to be aimed at helping people to re-shape their thoughts and behaviours in a healthy, positive and functional way.


Are our brains becoming "digitised"? (Image: KD Nuggets.)

Psychology was actually used as a tool long before it was even a "thing". We've long known how to understand and influence human thought and behaviour, even when we didn't have a name for it. Vikings used dragon-shaped boats to strike fear into their enemies. Bakers used the scent of bread to lure in customers. Roman centurions used reward and punishment to train their soldiers. Even basic consumer goods like cereals are packaged in boxes that use psychology to appeal to buyers.


But nowhere is the use of psychology more prevalent, and potentially more scary, than in the cyber-world. And what's scarier still is that . . . psychology (the science of understanding behaviour and mind) may no longer even be completely in the hands of human beings. We've passed the knowledge on to some extremely complex (and extremely fast-thinking) machines. And the rate at which these processes are becoming hidden and automated is almost the stuff of science-fiction.


(Don't worry, this is not some pre-apocalyptic rant about the evils of computers or the advance of "Skynet".)


I said earlier that the purpose of the profession of psychology is about helping people. But that's not the only thing it's used for. It's also about guiding people, shaping them, influencing their decisions, altering their behaviours . . . for ANY purpose. In today's digital age, the purpose is quite often that of making money for tech giants and social media moguls. (When's the last time you got onto YOUR piece of "tech" to look at something on YOUR social media platform? Well, right now actually!)


So, what am I getting at, you may ask? I recently read an article (thanks, P) that explains in some depth exactly what may be going on behind our backs (or under our noses), and to what extent this activity is manipulating the minds of children and teens. It's quite a lengthy article, but here's the link if you want to read it: https://medium.com/…/the-tech-industrys-psychological-war-o…


The author describes how psychology has been used to design and produce technology interfaces and social media platforms to specifically target young, malleable minds, and to create what we all know as "addictions". (How many of you know someone who is "addicted" to their mobile phone, or to Facebook? How many of you have observed someone who can't sit down to a meal without first sharing a photo of it on Instagram or Snapchat?) Children, teens and even adults are becoming increasingly reliant on their devices and platforms to inform them, direct them, shape them, guide their behaviours, reward their actions, validate their thoughts, influence their moods, and even decide their food choices. The extent to which these devices and platforms creep into daily life (during school, during work, during dinner, during conversations . . . or INSTEAD of any of these) is truly mind-boggling.


But here's the real kicker: whilst much of this might be done consciously (by clever or unscrupulous psychologists working to increase the profits of their tech/media employers), with a view towards getting YOU to read more, visit more, play more or shop more . . . it is increasingly done via algorithms that monitor your movements, your thoughts, your moods, your actions, your sleep habits, your meals, and every other human process . . . 24 / 7 / 365 . . . and fed into databases and servers that automatically react to then show you things that will guide your NEXT action or choice.


"We're listening!" The increasing array of "personal assistants". (Image: NASA FCU.)

(You KNOW this is true, right? How many times have you been chatting with a friend about something, and then an ad for something similar comes up on your Facebook feed, or your emails? How many times do you get "reminded" of memories, or "encouraged" to share or post? Do you think a PERSON is doing this? NO . . . . . it's a computer algorithm, telling you it's time to feed your addiction, so that you don't ever fall out of the marketplace.)


Some of you may have personally experienced (or seen in your children, nieces, nephews, grandchildren) the extent to which we are not only inundated with reasons to be "online and active" . . . but also the degree of angst, discomfort, anxiety and even anger that results when those devices become non-functional, shut down, or are taken away (e.g. as punishment by parents alarmed at atrocious school grades). There is no significant physiological withdrawal, but the mental, emotional, behavioural and social withdrawal symptoms that arise are often worthy of clinical intervention!


So this post is mainly designed to raise awareness, to stimulate thought, to arouse suspicion, to challenge accepted norms, to look a little further, and to question "Is there something I need to DO about this?" As with all addictions, it SEEMS to bring happiness, but it really brings misery. It SEEMS to involve freedom, but it is actually a prison. It perhaps SEEMS to be innocuous fun, but in reality, it is manipulation at its most insidious and scary. And like any addictive drug . . . it WILL get you, if you're not careful.

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