Psychological tips for resisting the Internet’s grip

“22 of the Cutest Baby Animals,” the headline said. “You won’t believe number 11!”

Despite an impending deadline – not to mention my skepticism (how cute could they possibly be?) – I clicked on the story. I’m only human, after all. Yet this failure in self-regulation cost me at least half an hour of good work time – as have other clickbait headlines, bizarre images on my Twitter feed or arguments on Facebook.

The insidious, distracting suck of the Internet has become seemingly inescapable. Calling us from our pockets, lurking behind work documents, it’s merely a click away. Studies have shown that each day we spend, on average, five and a half hours on digital media, and glance at our phones 221 times.

Meanwhile, the developers of websites and phone apps all exploit human behavioral tendencies, designing their products and sites in ways that attract our gaze – and retain it. Writing for Aeon, Michael Schulson points out:

“Developers have staked their futures on methods to cultivate habits in users, in order to win as much of that attention as possible.”

Given the Internet’s omnipresence and its various trappings, is it even possible to rein in our growing Internet consumption, which often comes at the expense of work, family or relationships?

Psychological research on persuasion and self-control suggests some possible strategies.

Tricks for clicks

It’s important to realize some of the tricks that Internet writers and web developers use to grab our attention.

The strange number 22 in the headline is an example of the “pique” technique. Lists are usually round numbers (think of Letterman’s Top 10 lists or the Fortune 500). Unusual numbers draw our attention because they break this pattern. In a classic study, the social psychologist Anthony Pratkanis and colleagues found that passersby were almost 60 percent more likely to give money to panhandlers asking for US$0.37 compared to those who were asking for a quarter.

People in the study also asked more questions of the panhandlers who requested strange amounts, compared to those who begged for a quarter. The same thing happened when I saw the headline. In this case, the skepticism that caused me to ask the question “How cute could they possibly be?” backfired: it made me more likely to click the link.

An attention pique (such as asking for $0.37 or calling out photo #11) triggers us to halt whatever we’re doing and reorient to the puzzle. Questions demand answers. This tendency has been dubbed by psychologists as the rhetorical question effect, or the tendency for rhetorical questions to prompt us to dig deeper into an issue.

These tricks exploit built-in features of our minds that otherwise serve us well. It’s clearly advantageous that unexpected stimuli capture our attention and engage us in a search for explanation: it might stop us from getting hit by a car, or alert us to sudden and suspicious changes to the balance in our bank account.

So it wouldn’t make sense to turn off that kind of vigilance system or teach ourselves to ignore it when it sounds an alarm.