Endless possibilities for novelty keep millions permanently addicted to their phones

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Why are millions of people across the globe constantly glued to their phone screens? Researchers from the University of Copenhagen believe they have found out. They suggest that the root of our digital distractions may lie in our own innate desire for novelty combined with the ease with which technology delivers it.

In their study, scientists argue that our craving for novelty is a fundamental aspect of human psychology.

“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,” says Jelle Bruineberg, a philosopher at the University of Copenhagen, in a university release. “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.”

This desire for novelty, according to cognitive neuroscience, is deeply rooted in our minds.

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,” explains Bruineberg.

“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.'”

People staring at phone screens at dinner
(© ikostudio – stock.adobe.com)

So, what’s the cause of our digital distractions?

While it’s widely accepted that the symptoms of digital technology use include distraction and difficulty focusing on important matters, Bruineberg challenges the prevailing narrative.

“The current debate on the attention economy leans heavily on a particular way of conceiving of the interplay between attention and information,” notes Bruineberg. “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.”

Throughout history, various religious communities have emphasized meditative and contemplative practices to help individuals gain control over their attention and overcome everyday distractions. Rather than introducing distraction, digital technologies may offer different and more pervasive ways of being distracted. Bruineberg proposes that there’s a profound mismatch between how our minds work and the structure of modern digital technologies.

“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,” concludes Bruineberg. “For example, receiving emails only twice a day guarantees that there is no novelty to be found in your inbox in between those moments. Fifty 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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