Our Innate Novelty Cravings Amplified by the Digital Age

Summary: A recent paper shifts the blame for our tech-driven distractions from information overload to our minds’ innate craving for novelty. The research suggests that the ease with which digital platforms provide fresh, ever-changing content has magnified our predisposition for ‘checking habits’.

Historically, seeking attention control was a challenge, but today’s frictionless tech environment exacerbates this age-old issue. Researchers believe the solution lies in constraining our digital interactions.

Key Facts:

  1. Our mind’s inherent craving for novelty, coupled with the ease of access to new digital information, fuels our compulsive ‘checking habits’.
  2. The challenge of attention control has historical roots, with past societies seeking meditative practices to manage distractions.
  3. Constraining our digital environments, such as checking emails only twice a day, can counteract our susceptibility to digital distractions.

Source: University of Copenhagen

The most common explanation is that tech companies such as Google, Facebook and Apple are competing for your attention; and their digital platforms present you with an over-abundance of seductive content that makes you distracted and unable to pay attention for longer periods of time.

In his new paper in the journal Neuroscience of Consciousness, University of Copenhagen philosopher Jelle Bruineberg suggests that we should look for an explanation elsewhere – more specifically, in our own minds’ preference for novelty combined with digital technologies’ ability to deliver exactly that, everywhere, and all of the time:

This shows a woman on a cell phone.
So rather than introducing distraction, it seems more likely that digital technologies allow different and perhaps more pervasive ways of being distracted. Credit: Neuroscience News

“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,” says Jelle Bruineberg. He adds:

“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’.”

Mismatch between mind and technology

Most people agree on the symptoms that come along with the use of digital technologies: We get distracted and have trouble paying attention to the things that matter to us. But what it is the cause of this?

“The current debate on the attention economy leans heavily on a particular way of conceiving of the interplay between attention and information. The assumption is that there was a time before the advent of digital technology when information was scarce, and we were thus able to control our attention as we wanted.

“Now we live in times of information-abundance, and therefore controlling our attention has become more difficult. Following this idea, if only we were exposed to less information, the problem would be solved. But nothing suggests that controlling one’s attention has ever been easy,” Jelle Bruineberg points out.

Throughout history, he adds, many religious communities have laid an emphasis on meditative and contemplative practices which were designed to help practitioners achieve some control over their attention, and to rid themselves of the distractions of everyday life. So rather than introducing distraction, it seems more likely that digital technologies allow different and perhaps more pervasive ways of being distracted.

“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,” Jelle Bruineberg says and concludes:

“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.”

About this psychology and distraction research news

Author: Carsten Munk Hansen
Source: University of Copenhagen
Contact: Carsten Munk Hansen – University of Copenhagen
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Adversarial inference: predictive minds in the attention economy” by Jelle Bruineberg. Neuroscience of Consciousness


Adversarial inference: predictive minds in the attention economy

What is it about our current digital technologies that seemingly makes it difficult for users to attend to what matters to them? According to the dominant narrative in the literature on the “attention economy,” a user’s lack of attention is due to the large amounts of information available in their everyday environments.

I will argue that information-abundance fails to account for some of the central manifestations of distraction, such as sudden urges to check a particular information-source in the absence of perceptual information.

I will use active inference, and in particular models of action selection based on the minimization of expected free energy, to develop an alternative answer to the question about what makes it difficult to attend.

Besides obvious adversarial forms of inference, in which algorithms build up models of users in order to keep them scrolling, I will show that active inference provides the tools to identify a number of problematic structural features of current digital technologies: they contain limitless sources of novelty, they can be navigated by very simple and effortless motor movements, and they offer their action possibilities everywhere and anytime independent of place or context.

Moreover, recent models of motivated control show an intricate interplay between motivation and control that can explain sudden transitions in motivational state and the consequent alteration of the salience of actions.

I conclude, therefore, that the challenges users encounter when engaging with digital technologies are less about information overload or inviting content, but more about the continuous availability of easily available possibilities for action.

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