Becoming a “better” human in the digital age

You might have read the widely shared New York Times feature about how Uber uses psychological tricks in its app to influence its drivers’ behavior in order to get them to work exactly as needed.

If you have been following the developments in the tech sectory, this report won’t surprise you. Large parts of the consumer tech industry have been built based on learnings from evolutionary psychology and experiments in the booming field of behavioral economics. The success of the sector is also a success in exploiting loopholes in the human brain (scroll to the bottom for a reading list). Whether the goal is to make people constantly and almost unconsciously open an app, whether it is “nudging” you into choosing one price plan over another, whether it is to produce outrage in order to gain attention, or whether it is the targeted manipulation of an individual’s or a group’s political identity and world view through propaganda and fake news  – in the digital age, the approach with which one can get there is always the same: Leveraging ancient evolutionary behavioral patterns and thinking processes that evolved in humans over hundreds of thousands of years – and that increasingly are becoming a burden for the individual. Simply put, the world we live in today is not the world our brain was built for.

After pondering on this problem for a long time, I have concluded that a crucial “skill” for thriving in such an environment is the enhanced ability to go against one’s nature and primal instincts.

When I write “nature” I consider it to be a neutral term. It is neither good nor bad. It refers to the evolutionary programming which is there to ensure our survival and reproduction. Our evolutionary hard wiring has equipped us with all kinds of mental and physical tools to increase the chances for survival of the species, which is great. But it also wants us to harm (or even kill) the person who has upset or hurt us, for example. Which is not so great. In modern civilizations, we have found ways to incentivize people not to do this (through a mix of laws, moral codes, and personal philosophies and religion). Thus going against one’s nature is sometimes part of what it means to be a civilized, intellectual human being. It is possible, and it is necessary. It is what differentiates humans from animals.

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With the rise of information technology and global connectivity, additional requirements to resist one’s nature emerge: Becoming much better at fending off attempts by external actors (commercial ones, political ones, malicious ones) to exploit these processes that were initially advantages for survival but nowadays appear to create vulnerability rather than strength. This has of course been necessary at least since the rise of capitalism, for example in the case of a simple decision whether to choose water or sugary soda. But information technology and particularly the little connected computer in our pocket has upped the level by orders of magnitudes.

Achieving mastery in resisting one’s nature in the digital age is a massive challenge and struggle. But the alternative is so much worse. It would be to become puppet to the online networks, large consumer companies, populists and relentless outrage-producers. It looks like we are almost halfway there. So it is about time.

Here is my personal action plan:

  1. Learning about how the human mind works, about behavioral economics and evolutionary biology (books I read and can recommend: Thinking, Fast and Slow; The Moral Animal; Sapiens; On Being Certain; Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior; Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products; Predictably Irrational; there are many more).
  2. Becoming aware of one’s problematic thinking patterns and flaws. It is a good time to develop intellectual humility and to learn meditation (as an instrument to become aware of one’s thoughts).
  3. Developing tactics and strategies to better identify and fend off external attempts to exploit those problematic thinking patterns and flaws. That can be short-term “hacks” such as putting your phone in flight mode when you need to concentrate, mid-term solutions such as forcing yourself to reduce social media usage (for example) or news consumption, or long-term “life improvement” projects such as replacing bad habits with good/healthy ones, to utilize mental models (which can help to make better decisions and to remain alert to interference), and to generally master mental strengths.

Genetics and personality might play a role in how far one can get with this. But what reason would there be not to try? Ok, maybe one prefers to wait for Elon Musk’s brain computer

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