All organisms, including humans, face the fundamental challenge to interact with the environment in a manner that maximizes rewards while minimizing situations that lead to harm or such that cause boredom. Our reward system motivates us to primarily engage in activities that provide us with positive reinforcements. Fully aware of our biological traits, the strategy of the major media outlets is intended to disturb our values, make thinking seem unnecessary, and withdraw money from our bank accounts. But we don’t argue. We comply. And as I’ll argue below, this blind pursuit towards gratifying stimulus can be harmful to us.
This piece is a bit over 4000 words.
And right from the start, I can safely say that you don’t want to read it. Or maybe you do, but the mere thought that you’ll have to consume – manually go through – all of these pretty 4000 words surely make your head spin.
As I’ll explain below, you want to read something shorter. Something with more pictures and less text. Something with less friction. Actually, it will be best if this text magically transforms itself into a video that also plays in your native language.
I know this for a fact. I know this because I’m too, like everyone else, suffering from the degenerating ability to concentrate.
Recently, I wrote a whole article about our desire to receive regular doses of feedback. While there I cover a lot of ground that is similar to the thesis below, it’s only scratching the surface on how the concept applies to our lives in the current times.
Reportedly, our attention span is getting shorter and shorter.1 But instead of the content that is being produced to help us increase our concentration, most platforms and publications do the opposite, they tailor their content to our inability to concentrate for more than 10 seconds. And instead of adjusting our media to the content, we adjust our content to the media.
What does this mean?
Well, in short, you don’t see a lot of websites or video creators that produce long-form pieces of content. Instead, we see most people focusing on producing and later sharing short, sweet, bite-size-type of content.
Why are such channels and platforms booming?
In our current reality, in order to sell something, in order to get people to watch and to make them pay attention to what you offer, you need to avoid complexity at all costs. Keep everything brief. Provide constant stimulation through variety, novelty, and movement. Don’t strain the attention and focus heavily on visuals and verbal precision.
These tactics make a lot of sense. After all, we’re bombarded by tons of news and other media on a daily basis. Thanks to the internet and emerging technologies, people around the world can now easily create content which means that the content available for consumption has quadrupled in less than 10 years.2 And since our time per day remains more or less the same – 24 hours – it’s only logical to try to make content bite-sizy in order to save people some time and give them the opportunity to “taste” more opinions while still having a couple of minutes per day to shower and prepare food for themselves.
Plainly, long-form content is hard to fit into our days. That’s why platforms that provide ways to share short snippets of text, photos, and videos are booming.3
This popular ambition everyone is aiming towards – to shorten everything and to fiercely remove all thinking barriers – is worsening our situation in the long-run.
We think that collecting viral tweets and saving Instagram carousels is making us smarter and intellectually more resilient, but we are simply further degenerating our already heavily fragmented attention.
If you’re still here after this too-long-for-most-people-to-consume introduction, let’s start my thesis where I’ll argue that the modern tools that focus on bite-sized-type of content and stripping away thinking are actually damaging our lives (not to mention preventing us from completing our long-term goals).
How Our Brains Are Structured to Operate?
My argument starts by sharing my findings in regards how our brains are wired to approach the surrounding environment.
According to neuroscience, we are mainly stimulus-driven creatures.4 We pursue rewards and behavior that will give us faster a sense of accomplishment and at the same time, require less computational resources. Put in a 21st-century language, “move fast and break things.”
That’s why we’ll often hear people say that “I want to feel better and move closer to pleasure by moving further away from pain and suffering.”
This often translates to: focusing on tasks that give returns now, in this very moment, and disengaging your participation in tasks that require too long to receive some sort of gains.
And it makes a lot of sense.
After all, if you are starving, if you are in a difficult financial situation, you will most likely do “any kind” of work, regardless of your long-term ambitions and goals.
The reward, money, in this case, which is actually the means to get food, is an absolute must for us to survive. And when the situation is complicated, we want to get it fast.
But it’s not only money. All of our senses are focused towards obtaining rewards as fast as possible. After all, for the brain to operate, and for the body to feel that what it’s doing is aligned with its main goal – to survive in the world for longer – a constant feed of reinforcements must be established otherwise you’ll question your actions and existence.
And that’s not all, along with physical survival – avoiding harm – we also want emotional prosperity – feeling good.
To rephrase, you want to get praise for what you’re doing. This praise while a lot of times from the outside perspective main seem vain and unimportant – think of social media likes and badges of honer – give to the brain important food. You see the likes and the nice words from others in your social media profile as what you’re doing is correct and that you’re worthy of living here – on the planet.
This is clearly visible in the actions of children.
From an early age, all they do is attract attention. Actually, in the book The Evolving Self, Robert Kagan explains that children are “designed” to be attractive. He states, “Among the ways an infant draws another to him, none is more powerful than his eyes.” After all, when born, we’re small and fragile. We need others to adore us. But most importantly, to stick around, so they can take care of us.
That’s why your children will interrupt you every time they make a new drawing or every time they create something new with their toys. But the new doodle or the new lego-tower constructed is not that important for them. They don’t simply invite you to play with them or to look at their creation, they want you, to tell them, that they matter. They are attached to you not only because you’re their biological parent, or the person providing food and other means for them to live. They also see you as the main source for their valuation. Thanks to the praise they receive from you, they feel valued.
The more frequent the praise, the better they feel.
This trait doesn’t go away when we grow up though.
We Are Always Looking For Ways to Feel Valuable
If we can put the above in one line, it will be perhaps the following: “Am I worthy?”
But let me expand this further so it can make more sense: “Am I spending my time, my resources, my mental capacity, in a way that will give me rewards that will ultimately reinforce my perception of worthiness?”
All the time, we’re asking ourselves this question. It can take different forms and shapes in different situations, but the core goal is always getting a firm yes to the question “Am I worthy?”
Here are some examples:
- Do you love me?
- Do you like my project?
- Do you like my new hair?
- Do you like what I posted on my social media account?
These questions are often not directly asked, of course. We transform them in some sort of actions.
For example, we won’t ask our spouse all the time “do you love me?” But we’ll do a lot of other things hoping to trigger sensations in them that will eventually get back to us in a form of food for our ego: We’ll prepare dinner hoping that he/she will like it and kiss us on the cheek which basically means, “You are worthy!”
We’ll share pictures of ourselves wearing fancy pajamas online hoping that others will like them. The more likes and comments we get, the more this means that “we are worthy and that we matter!”
Of course, there is more…
We’ll fine-tune our projects, arrange our desks, clean our rooms, buy expensive watches and designer-clothes, hoping that others will notice so we can get a nice dose of the “I matter” syrup.
The more the better.
And since the more the better is our guiding force, we focus on doing things that give us quick returns as opposed to doing things that will take years to accomplish.
Like in this picture:
This means that we’ll rather buy an expensive item that will immediately provide us with feedback about how we look and who we are instead of investing or exercising for 6 months, losing weight, and gaining bigger results but waiting for longer.
Since we now get the concept of how we operate, let’s look at how our modern media is tailored.
How Modern Media Platforms Are Designed to Operate?
In 1984, Neil Postman explained that society is oppressed by its addiction to amusement. The following year, a book was published in which the author further elaborated on the topic.
The book I’m talking about is called Amusing Ourselves to Death. Inside, Postman explains that media is designed to make thinking seem unnecessary.
According to him, TV programs, shows, and everything else that is broadcasted is deliberately stripped of complexity to make the program interesting and fun to watch. The less mental capacity it takes the viewer to get something on TV, the better.
After all, you don’t want viewers to err every time they see, or hear, something on the screen. You want them engaged so they can participate behind the screens. That’s why, your program must be designed in such a way that people will feel like you are holding their hand while showing them flashy scenes and later making attempts to withdraw funds from their wallets.
Neil Postman was right. Similarly, everything that was later created and widely adopted by the masses was built based on the assumption that things should be frictionless for the user.
The design of the apps we use and the websites we visit nowadays are tailored to keep us inside for as long as possible and automate our behavior by providing us with quick feedback loops (in form of likes and other notifications).
The more we participate in platforms that provide frequent rewarding stimuli, the less we become interested in involving ourselves in tasks that require more time and effort to finish.
To understand this better, I want to compare how people nowadays view the following two tasks: reading a book compared to reading a Twitter thread.
Say you’re reading a book. The copy you’re holding is close to 400 pages. There are not pictures – no visual cues that will give you additional pleasure – there is only text.
For most people, while I don’t believe that it’s widely considered, people view the reward coming from reading a book the following way:
We expect the reward of reading to arrive when we finish the book. Sure, you might get a sense of completion when you complete a chapter, but the real reward will unravel when the whole book is finished.5
In contrast, this is how we consider reading a tweet or as I mentioned above a Twitter thread:
We consider every tip shared in each separate tweet as a separate little positive nudge that gives us an emotional sensation. The sense of completion comes faster because the content is shorter.
If we can view the two tasks in one graph, we can quickly realize why reading tweets online is far more popular than reading books – the “emotional” benefit is bigger and for a shorter period you get more rewards.
This perfectly correlates with the above where I mentioned that people want to interact more with the environment in a manner that maximizes rewards while minimizing situations that lead to harm. In this case, the environment of social media is full of things that seem like rewards. Conversely, when we compare the two, the environment of reading is considered “harmful.”
Internally, we think something like this: “Why bother reading a whole book when I can read a bunch of tweets (for less than 5 minutes) from smart people?” And not only that. Emotionally, we feel a lot better because each and every tweet is giving us sensation compared to one big dopamine hit at the end of the book. It’s something like the synergy effect but working against us in the long-term.6 We consume more short-form content and we (falsely) believe that we’re getting smarter.
Sadly, the pleasures we get from reading 240-word messages are quickly forgotten not to mention intellectually weakening. Not that there aren’t smart people online that offer great food for thought – there are. But the whole environment is making even the greatest short messages unapplicable.
Let me elaborate.
There is No Room Left For Thinking Inside Modern Channels
One of the reasons social media platforms degenerate our minds is not because of the creators inside.
The place is crowded with smart people who can teach us a lot of things about different topics.
The people are not the problem, the ecosystem is.
Everything is intentionally designed to keep you inside.
You scroll. You see a picture (or a video or a short text). The pictures and/or the videos are beautifully designed. You consume the content. You get a quick dose of accomplishment. You want more. Your scroll down.
The cycle is repeated quite a few times.
But even if what you consume, at this very moment, is interesting, there is no rest for the mind. There is no gap between the tweet you previously read and the one you are reading right now. There is no room for thinking not to mention applying what you’ve just read. The feed that is tailored by the great algorithm is carefully set based on your wants and needs and shape-shifts to make the next visual objects as good as the previous – if not better – so you can stay inside.
In a sense, the platform wants you to move in a straight line and consume, consume, consume.
But things, thoughts, ideas, to be considered, and to evolve in your head and potentially become businesses or new behavior traits that will improve your life, need room. Room for consideration.
This cannot happen while online.
The virtual world is carefully designed to keep you inside for as long as possible. And this is true not only for the design of the platform itself, the creators who are putting content on the most famous platforms are following the best practices proposed by media giants – keep viewers engaged, or else we’ll punish your channel/site/blog. That’s why the average length of a shot on a video is only 2.5 seconds, so that the eye never rests, always has something new to see.7
In contrast, if we read, for example, while there are words that are awaiting. There isn’t this rush to scroll down and to see what’s next. There is only text. And the meaning of the text itself is what satisfies the reader. But the reader is not pressured. There are no flashy images and no videos that are auto-played. The person behind the book can peacefully pause and consider what is written.
For the individual to thrive in the 21st century though, it’s not enough to merely consume books – or fully unplug from the grid. Important information about our lives is constantly being shared and if we want to stay ahead sort to say, we need to spend time in front of the computer.
This type of media dependency creates the following paradoxical situation:
The Paradox We’re Facing Nowadays
People will always prefer pictures instead of text.
As the famous saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.
The more visual something is, the more likely it is to be easily consumed and understood by the other person.
That’s why books are less popular compared to trendy apps that are intended for picture sharing and viewing. The brain sees words as lots of tiny pictures. And since every “picture” requires mental effort to be consumed, consuming a single picture will always be preferred.
Or in other words, we see reading as a chore.
Paradoxically, the more we read books, the more we grow intellectually. But since the brain is prone to engage in activities that offer quick returns, we are more likely to leave the book, grab our phone, and scroll online.
And it is not only with books, we tend to neglect everything that requires more effort and prioritize easier activities.
This creates the following absurdity: To thrive, we have to engage in activities that are not providing immediate feedback while we’re surrounded and living in an environment that offers countless ways to get immediate feedback.
We can unfold this even further and state that: We need to avoid feeling good now so we can feel better later.
It’s a difficult task. We not only have to work on a project that will likely take us years to accomplish, but we also simultaneously have to tell our brain, all the time, that we don’t have to check social media while we actually do want to check social media. Also, constantly repeat to ourselves that we don’t need others to tell us that we’re worthy even though the brain craves to hear praise from others.
This is quite a feat to be accomplished. Even for people who have stoic-like abilities and are fully aware of all these negative traits resulting from pursuing quick returns.
I mean, even I, the person writing all of this, the person who is fully aware that opening Twitter, for example, scrolling and reading super-duper smart threads by famous entrepreneurs that pretend to have all the answers in the universe will not help me at all. Nonetheless, I still do it more often than I care to admit.
How To Function in a World Full of Quick Feedback Loops?
When I’m writing an article, or when I’m reading a book, and I’m doing this activity for let’s say 1 hour straight, at some point, a nagging urge emerges. A desire to get something in return for my efforts arises. I want to see some gains.
Or as I suggested above: I want to feel that I matter!
And since the article is still not yet finished, so I can feel good about me finishing it. Or, I still have 300 pages to complete the book I’m reading now, for example. I look at other sources to get a dose of pleasure.
I go online and do what everyone else does – check memes and watch stupid but extremely amusing short videos.
I picture it as follows:
My concentration declines in proportion to the time spent working on a task.
At the same time, the following is also true:
The more time I spend without getting positive feedback about my existence, the more the desire raises.
If we cross-reference the two graphs, we’ll get the following:
With time, my urge to get feedback is so uncontrollably vast that writing or reading is no longer perceived as worthy for the brain to participate in. I hear my inner spirit screaming, “Are you sure you’re alive, dude?”
That’s why, my mind starts to wander and imagines how I’m on a stage and everyone is applauding me for my versatile personality.
Of course, this imaginary scene only deludes me from reality by giving my brain what it wants – “I want to feel that I matter!”
As we concluded, this is not beneficial for our long-term stay on the planet. Interestingly, this is not something we can completely eliminate from our system. The brain wants what it wants. And there is no escaping.
Then, how can we stay on track while working towards achieving our long-term goals while still feeling that we’re worthy citizens in a world crowded with quick feedback loops?
Apart from the obvious and cliche-like advice that everyone presumably heard at least a thousand times in the last week – stay away from social media and block your internet while you do important work – I found only the following technique to work well: the Pomodoro technique.
Not revolutionary, I know. This is, too, widely-known by everyone interested in increasing productivity.
But let me tell you why this works.
As explained, the brain can’t function a lot of time without getting some sort of gains – otherwise, you’ll immerse in a melancholic-like state where you feel that you don’t deserve respect or attention.
That’s why, after working for around 25 minutes, or even longer – 30, or 40 minutes on a task – it’s best to involve yourself in something amusing. Something that will make you feel good about yourself. Something that will provide you with immediate feedback.
Still, it’s important to keep the doses short and set limits. Yes, if you’re into checking filtered photos and if they make you feel good, be my guest, do it. Still, if you’re during a working session, keep these emotional nuggets brief. Set a timer for 5 minutes and after 5 minutes, drop the scrolling and go back to your task.
Of course, if you allocate the 5 minutes where you have permission to goof around online with more interesting things – for example, watch a quick video about improving your writing while you’re in a writing session – the better.
The point is that when you apply this concept, you will improve your concentration. Not only because you will regularly rest, but also because you will give your mind what it wants – to feel good about its existence.
In addition to the above, I also do the following: I write stuff down.
I’m not a robot. I wear headphones and play background noises while I write hoping that my flow state won’t be interrupted. But I still have sensations that generate scenes in my brain and try to lure me into doing tasks that are not important at this very moment – check how much money I spent last year and compare the amount with this year and see what can be improved for example.
When I write down these totally out of context to what I’m doing right now thoughts, I handle two problems: 1) I stop thinking about this – get this out of my system; 2) I give myself the opportunity to check what I wrote later.
Since what my mind created, regardless of how bizarre it might be, is somehow (I believe) interesting to me – otherwise, why would my mind create the thought in the first place? I spend my 5-minute break going through my list of random thoughts.
Some Closing Thoughts
You might be thinking that after reading the above, after realizing that you crave regular doses of feedback and short-term stimulus, you will become less inclined towards consuming trivial news feed but that’s not the case.
You will still want to read and watch short and sweet videos and filtered photos. These serve as tiny pops of vitamins that make you feel good about yourself. Finally though, at least you will now know why you’re constantly reaching for your phone when you’re exhausted or when there is nothing interesting to do.
Furthermore, you will see and get why people do what they do online (they want to feel good about themselves too) and hopefully, more often praise others for their actions because you’re now aware that these tiny praises matter for them. They matter for all of us.
Who knows, probably your approval can finally convince your loved ones that their deeds are enough to start what they always wanted and stop hiding behind their fabricated online persona. Or worse, behind the fabricated persona of other people online.
- This statement is based on the study done by Nature Communications, Abundance of information narrows our collective attention span.
- Based on recent reports, the average daily time spent consuming information is now six hours and 59 minutes, which includes phone, TV, and other forms of digital media.
- Hey, even I do it! My book summaries present the main lessons from big books without you having to read the whole text.
- Based on Learning, Reward, and Decision Making.
- People are more inclined to read books with short chapters and more pictures compared to books that are composed of longer chapters and fewer pictures. Why? The short chapters give you the said doses of accomplishment.
- Synergy is an interaction or cooperation giving rise to a whole that is greater than the simple sum of its parts. Or in the example of the tweets.
- That’s according to Wired magazine and other online resources.