The Psychology Behind Technology

The topic of this article may be confusing for some of you, because you may wonder how this, a field in biology called psychology can be used in the technology field? Let’s discuss that today. Before moving on to the uses of phycology in the technology field, let me briefly introduce what psychology is. According to Kendra Cherry¹; a psychology expert at About.com, “Psychology is the study of mind and behaviour. It encompassed the biological influences, social pressures and environmental factors that affect how people think, act and feel.” Now we have a fair knowledge about what psychology is, therefore let’s move on to the main topic of the article, ‘Psychology in Technology’.

Uses of phycology in the technology field

  • Video Games and Psychology

First of all, let’s talk about video gaming, especially MMO’s (Massively Multiplayer Online) Games, and how theories of psychology used when developing them. Did you ever wonder why video games are so addictive? There are several reasons for that and one of the reasons is that the use of theory in psychology called ‘contingent conditioning’.

For those who do not know about ‘Contingent Conditioning’, let me give you a brief introduction. Contingent conditioning is a theory found by a famous American psychologist called B.F. Skinner. In a nutshell, it means that changing the behaviour of an animal (human or other) by giving a reward or a punishment according to the contingency of their behaviour. He tested this theory using rats.

As shown in the above image he put a hungry rat to the above-shown setup (later this setup called the Skinner Box). How this setup work is that when the rat presses the lever a food pellet will come out through the dispenser. Since the rat is hungry it will figure out this connection and will press the lever to get a food pellet. After that, Skinner thought to study the behaviour of the rat in two different environments. They are,

  • In an environment where the reward ratio is variable (Ex. A food pellet will come if the rat presses the lever an average 5 times, sometimes a food pellet will come from single press and sometimes it may take up to 7 presses).
  • In an environment where the reward ratio is fixed (Ex. A food pellet will come if the rat presses the lever exactly 5 times).

The results of this experiment are given below.

As you can see when given a variable reward ratio, the engagement of the rat with the lever is very consistent rather than in constant reward ratio environment. According to Skinner, it is because the environment gives the impression that, a reward (in this case a food pellet) could come in any minute, therefore it will keep pressing the lever hoping to get the reward. This is the same thing that happens in video games (especially in MMO’s), they use a random interval reinforcement schedule which keeps players in the game because they never know when that extra skill point is coming or how many points you’ll get for that battle². You may have seen games where you can buy treasure boxes and the way that you buy the box is with real-world money. Rather than giving a reward in fixed intervals that says every 3 treasure boxes you buy you get a reward, what they are doing is that they make that interval a variable one just like what Skinner did with the rats, then that mystery of not knowing when the reward will come, makes you keep buying treasure boxes, and subsequently empty your pockets³. This is just one theory of psychology that is used when developing games and there are many more. I think now you have a slight understanding of why video games are so addictive.

  • Social Media and Psychology

Now let’s move on to the second example, that is how social media platforms use theories of psychology. Have you ever felt the need to check your Facebook newsfeed every five minutes even without a notification saying that you have received a message or a comment? That is because you are being HOOKED to use it that way. This was done by using a model called the Hook Model which is based on the theory that we discuss in the above example. This model was introduced by an Israeli-born American author and behaviour design consultant Nir Eyal⁴.

As we can see in the above image the hook model has 4 steps, the first step is ‘trigger’. The trigger prompts the user to use the product (in this case the social media platform). There are two types of triggers,

  • External Triggers
  • Internal Triggers

External triggers are the environmental factors that lead you to use the product. It can be a friend telling you about this great new app, Advertisements that says “buy now!” Or “click here” etc. This trigger is what leads you to try the product and see the product with your own eyes. We will come back later to discuss internal triggers. These triggers prompt us to make an ‘action’; which is the second step, which is the habit itself. It can be opening Facebook, scrolling through your news feed, search on google, push the play button youtube etc. These actions we do are done by little or no conscious is to seek a ‘reward’, which is the third step. These rewards are cleverly arranged in such a way that it will leave a mystery to the user about the reward that will come when he next uses the product, which precisely the variable reward ratio that Skinner used to keep the rat continually engaged with the lever. Up to now, you may feel like this is exactly like contingent conditioning but the fourth and final step, ‘investment’ is the main difference between the hook model and contingent conditioning. In the investment step, the user is prompted to put something into the product in anticipation of a future benefit. The main purpose of this step is to increase the likelihood of the next pass, for an example let’s think that you posted a picture of you and your friends to Facebook (which is the investment) and when your friends see that picture they may like it, comment about it or share it, which gives you a notification saying that someone made a commented on the picture (which is an external trigger) which again prompts you to go Facebook. Overtime with successive cycles through these hooks we tend to use these products with a need, for an example, you are using Facebook or Instagram when you feel lonely, you are Googling something that you do not understand, you post a picture on your Instagram that you took on your soccer match etc. These are the internal triggers which are the second type of triggers in the first step of the hook model. Finally, it can come to a stage where you cannot keep your eyes out of your social media account for five minutes. I think now you have a good idea about how social media platforms are using the hook model to keep their users continue using their platforms.

Conclusion

In this article, I discussed two instances where psychology is used in the field of technology and you can find many more on the internet and books as well. There is another issue coming from these uses, are they ethical? I will finish the article with that question. If you found this article useful please share it with your friends and colleagues.

Thank You!

Undergraduate | Computer Science and Engineering at University of Moratuwa , Sri Lanka