In the Name of Love

Paula LabrotBy Paula Labrot      October 15, 2021

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In the Name of Love
There are so many articles to write for you. I just want to send a more personal message this time. I was thinking this morning that, all over the world, thousands of people go to work every day with the sole purpose of generating content that causes people to become angry with their fellows. What a horrible way to make a living! Scott Barsotti, writing for Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon University writes, “Without dropping a bomb or firing a shot, nations can do tremendous harm to one another through cyberwarfare. But even without, say, hacking into a power plant or weapons system, malicious actors can erode trust in institutions and breed an atmosphere of contempt, distrust and even violence among citizens.” All for power and profit. It’s not like this should be news to anybody. In my efforts to encourage digital literacy, I wrote about internet trolling a couple of years ago. Outrage and anger rule the social media sites. Families and friends can’t find common ground. People’s jobs are taken from them if they express a “wrong” opinion. Diversity? Not a chance! How can people still be buying into this crap? Well, there is a reason. Governments and private companies have spent a lot of money on research to develop the ability to hack your brain. How Your Brain Gets Hacked First, you must understand that all social media neuroscience research and development is purposed to create techniques to keep you engaged. The more time you spend on social media, the more advertising the companies can sell and the more money they make. It’s that simple. “Our evolved biology serves us brilliantly in many ways but also includes vulnerabilities that can be exploited. Persuasive technology that shapes attitudes and behavior, pushes many of these buttons, leveraging our vulnerabilities to generate engagement and, ultimately, corporate revenue,” according to the Center for Humane Technology. The Center states that “social media presents a special case of persuasive technology where psychological levers are poked and prodded again and again, often without our conscious awareness. We don’t click randomly: many designs deliberately leverage our deepest vulnerabilities by promoting compulsive behavior that compromise s our autonomy and well-being.” Dr. F. Perry Wilson of the Yale School of Medicine lays out a simple algorithm for social media. “It’s how social media leads us away from what is true. Social media actually exploits some really well-researched cognitive biases that affect us all. At the heart of the issue is the algorithm.” According to Wilson, “Social media algorithms are all designed to show you stuff similar to stuff you’ve engaged with before; they are designed to maximize engagement with the service, not to provide you with truth or what is best for you, or what will make you happy. The goal is to keep your eyes on the website. All the problems…spring from that one dark well. But maybe if we start to recognize the biases being exploited, it will help solve the problem.” It’s just so cold, isn’t it? And so dangerous in the hands of the world’s bad actors. A Few Brain Hacking Techniques The Center for Humane Technology lists several brain hacks based on persuasive technology. Making the Trivial Seem Urgent. Because our attention is a limited resource, at any given moment our brains need to determine what is important. The “salience network” of the brain, which includes the anterior insula and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, helps us do that. When the salience network is activated, we are alerted to threats and opportunities. Acting as a kind of circuit breaker, the salience network signals when the brain should direct its resources to some new, external source. Notifications (vibrations, red dots, flashing lights, banners) constantly trigger the salience network, effectively fooling us that something new but trivial is urgent. Of course, there are occasions when we get an important notification that needs to be highlighted, but most of the time, social media notifications act as false alarms, compromising our ability to attend to what is important. Encouraging Seeking Without Fulfillment. We want things, and when we get them, we enjoy them. However, the brain circuit involved in wanting (mesolimbic dopaminergic system) is much more powerful than the brain circuit involved in enjoyment. The feeling of wanting something can be so strong that even when we find what we want, we don’t get much satisfaction. Sometimes, the wanting networks in the brain become hypersensitive and we get addicted: endless loops of seeking. In addiction, what we want becomes dissociated from what we enjoy. Technology often capitalizes on the potency of wanting, providing endless possibilities for seeking but few experiences that satiate. We might find fleeting pleasure, but no enduring satisfaction. Our “tolerance” increases, and we need more to achieve the same effects. The result: we keep clicking and scrolling, mindlessly consuming content, often with minimal oversight from cognitive control regions of the brain. Weaponizing Fear and Anxiety. Two decades ago, researchers wrote an influential paper where they famously concluded “bad is stronger than good.” Negative information garners more attention and shapes emotion and behavior more powerfully than positive information. Our brains process negatively valenced information, especially fear-related stimuli, more quickly and thoroughly than they process positive information. This makes evolutionary sense: in the pursuit of survival, the potential loss involved in a singular experience of threat outweighs the gain involved in singular experience of pleasure. It is unsurprising that social media content generating fear, anger, and disgust spreads much faster than positive content. We marinate in this negativity and it propels deeper engagement. Fear and outrage become the norm and can erode our sense of goodness and shared humanity. These are a few examples of the neuroscience at work every time you sign onto social media sites. This is why it is so important to limit the time children and teens spend online. Stop…..In the Name of Love! Stop being a tool. Stop being so reactive. Stop being mean. Stop being one-sided and monolithic. Stop letting your humanity get ripped out of you. Enjoy diversity. Embrace it! Educate others. If you want a better world, let it start with you. An Ocean is Made of Drops —Mother Theresa Vamos a Ver!
Paula Labrot

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October 15, 2021

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