Evolutionary traps: How screens, digital notifications and gaming software exploits fundamental survival mechanisms

Erik Peper and Richard Harvey

If athletes, psychologists, business executives, actors, students, politicians, job seekers and others use mental and actual rehearsal to improve their performances, would repeated watching of violent and aggressive streaming-videos, or playing hours and hours of first-shooter computer games be a form of rehearsal for aggressive behavior?

Arguably, mental and actual rehearsal is positively associated with improving health, such as preparing for an athletic competition or an academic exam and is negatively associated with health when playing aggressive, violent first-person shooter video games, or continuously watching aggressive or violent content on a variety of streaming platforms. Rehearsal–whether physical or in our imagination–impacts our health and performance in school, sports, therapy, politics, business and health.  Choose to rehearse activities that improve health and well-being.

  • Athletes use mental rehearsal to improve sports performance (Peper & Aita, 2017; Schenk & Miltenberger, 2019).
  • Surgeons use mental rehearsal and actual practice to improve performance (Spiotta et al., 2018).
  • Psychologists use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) rehearsal techniques to reduce anxiety and depression (Dobson & Dobson, 2018; Yamada et al, 2018; Cook, Mostazir, & Watkins, 2019)
  • Successful business executives rehearse presentations before a staff meeting (Couch & Citrin, 2018).
  • Actors and performers spend hours and days rehearsing their roles so that they portray and act it realistically during the performance .
  • Students take practice exams so that they will perform better on the actual exam.
  • Politicians, lawyers, and many others rehearse and practice being able to answer unexpected questions.
  • Job seekers rehearse elevator pitches so that they transmit in a few words what is important

Mechanisms of rehearsal

Both mental and physical rehearsal strengthens neurochemical connections in the brain so that the rehearsed behaviors become more automated, fluid and unconscious.  There is a saying in neurosciences,  “Neurons that fire together wire together.” –the more you rehearse a task, the more those specific neurological pathways are strengthened, leading to automatic and efficient outcomes.

We now spend hours a day being exposed to digital displays on our phones, computers, gaming consoles and other digital devices, immersing ourselves in content reflecting life promoting, positive behavior and sometimes violent, negative behavior. Children and adults spend much of their free time looking at screens, texting, playing computer games, updating social media sites with moment by moment accounts of sometimes trivial activities, or going down the rabbit hole by following one hyperlinks after another.  As we do this, we are unaware how much time has frittered away without actually doing anything productive. Below are some recent estimates of ‘daily active user’ minutes per day that uses a screen.

  • Facebook about an hour per day
  • Instagram just under an hour per day
  • Texting about 45 minutes per day
  • Internet browsing, about 45 minutes per day
  • Snapchat, about 30 minutes per day
  • Twitter, about 25 minutes per day

Adolescents interact with media for over 40 hours per week, or around 6 hours per day!

In spending much of our time with the screens, we rehearse a variety of physical body postures as well as a variety of cognitive and behavioral states that impact our physical, mental, emotional and social health.  Many researchers have lamented the loss of some social skills that develop during physical face-to-face contact.  The colloquial phrase, Use it or lose it, raises several questions about what is being lost when we spend so much of our waking time interacting with screens instead actually with other people?

It is almost impossible not to be distracted by the digital screen.  The powerful audiovisual formats override our desire to do something different that some of us become enslaved to watching streaming videos, playing computer games or texting. Moreover, the ongoing visual and auditory notifications from our apps interrupts and/or capture our attention. Why is it difficult to turn away from visual or auditory stimuli?  The answer has roots in our survival.

To attend to stimuli is an automatic evolutionary survival response. If we did not attend, we would not survive–Is the slight movement to the far right, just at the edge of our peripheral vision, a predator ready to attack?

tigera

Tiger in Kanha National Park, Madhya Pradesh, India 

Each time a stimulus occurs, we need to check it out to see if it is friend or foe, safety or danger. The response is so automatic that we are unaware that we have reacted until after we have responded. We all have experienced this. When a computer screen or cellphone screen is held by the stranger next to us, we automatically look at their screen and we may even begin to read their emails. Although we know that peering at some else’s screen is not proper, we are still feel compelled to do it!

Similarly, screens displaying computer games and other media can capture or hijack our attention by the rapid scene changes, primarily because the content is programmed so we receive intermittent rewards for our responses.  For example, the sound or visual notifications from our apps, cellphone messages, or social media trigger an impulse to scan the environment for information that may be critical to our survival. Even without receiving notifications, we may anticipate or project that there may be new information on our social media accounts, and sometimes we become disappointed when the interval between notifications is long.  One student talking to another might say: “Don’t worry, they’ll respond; It’s only been 30 seconds.” Anticipating responses from the media can interrupt what we are otherwise doing.  For example, rather than finish our work, we check for updates on social media, even though we probably know that there are no new important messages to which we would have to respond right away.

The mechanisms that help us survive by scanning our environment for predators may  now become an evolutionary trap and is exploited  to capture as many eyeballs as possible to increase market share, advertising revenue, and corporate bottom line.

We usually blame the individual for lack of self-control instead of blaming the designers of the digital apps, games and displays who have exploited this biological survival mechanism.  We expect that children have voluntary control as their brains are developing–but how could they not react to the stimuli that for thousands of generations, helped them to survive. It is similar to asking children to have control and say “No” to fast foods and sweets. The foods that were previously necessary for survival represented by moderate amounts of ‘salt, fat, acid, heat and sweet’ tastes are often found in excess in our modern commercial or packaged ‘fast food nation’ making it likely that people may fall into an evolutionary trap related to what they eat.

Presently, high levels of exposure to violent and aggressive streaming videos and computer games can be harmful as they provide the practice to rehearse violence, killing and aggression mentally. It would be too strong a statement to assert that everyone who plays violent video games will become delinquent, criminal or homicidal in an extreme form of aggression.  According to the American Psychological Association Task Force on Video Game Violence in 2017, it may be asserted that high frequency, long duration, high intensity interactions with violent video games or similar media content is highly associated with angry and aggressive thoughts, desensitization to violence, and decreases in empathy or helping others (Calvert et al., 2017).  Some forms of social media interactions also lead to a form of social isolation,  loneliness (phoneliness) (Christodoulou, G., Majmundar, A., Chou, C-P, & Pentz, M.A., 2020; Kardaras, 2017).   Digital content requires the individual to respond to the digital stimuli, without being aware of the many verbal and nonverbal communication cues (facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, eye contact, body language, posture, touch, etc) that are part of social communication (Remland, 2016). It is no wonder that more and more adolescents experience anxiety, depression, loneliness, and attention deficit disorders with a constant ‘digital diet’ that some have suggested include not only media, but junk food as well .

The negative impact of watching digital media was prescient by Jerry Mander, one of the leading visionaries of the 20th century, in his 1978 book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, as well as by Joseph C. Pearce, author of books on human development and child development, in his 1993 book, Evolution’s End.

More recently, two superb books detail the harm that the digital revolution has brought, along with recommended strategies for how to use modern technologies wisely and live successfully in an e-world.  We are not saying to avoid the beneficial parts of the digital age.   We are saying to be aware how some material and digital platforms prey upon our evolutionary survival mechanisms.  Unfortunately, most people —especially children– have not evolved skills to counter the negative impacts of some types of media exposure.  It may take parental control and societal policies to mitigate the damage and enhance the benefits of the digital age. We highly recommend the following two books.

Glow Kids by Nicholas Kardaras, PhD describes the impact of excessive texting and computer gaming as well as strategies how to use digital media wisely

Deep Work by Cal Newport, PhD describes the impact of constant interruptions and offers rules for focused success in a distracted world.

book covers

References:

Calvert, S. L., Appelbaum, M., Dodge, K. A., Graham, S., Nagayama Hall, G. C., Hamby, S., Fasig-Caldwell, L. G., Citkowicz, M., Galloway, D. P., & Hedges, L. V. (2017). The American Psychological Association Task Force assessment of violent video games: Science in the service of public interest. American Psychologist, 72(2), 126–143. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0040413

Christodoulou, G., Majmundar, A., Chou, C-P, & Pentz, M.A. (2020). Anhedonia, screen time, and substance use in early adolescents: A longitudinal mediation analysis. Journal of Adolescence, 78, 24-32.

Cook L, Mostazir M, Watkins E, (2019). Reducing Stress and Preventing Depression (RESPOND): Randomized Controlled Trial of Web-Based Rumination-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for High-Ruminating University Students. J Med Internet Res, 21(5):e11349

Couch, M. A., & Citrin, R. (2018). Retooling leadership development. Strategic HR Review, 17(6), 275-281.

Dobson, D. & Dobson, K.S. (2018). Evidence-Based Practice of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, 2nd ed. New York: Guilford Press.

Kardaras, N. (2017).  Glow Kids, New York: St. Martin’s Griffin

Mander, J. (1978).  Four arguments for the Elimination of Television. New York: William Morrow Paperbacks.

Newport, C. (2019). Deep Work. New York: Grand Central Publishing

Pearce, J. C. (1993). Evolution’s End. New York: Harper One

Peper, E. & Aita, J. (2017). Winning the Gold in Weightlifting Using Biofeedback, Imagery and Cognitive Change. Biofeedback, 45(4), 77-82

Remland, M.S. (2016). Nonverbal Communication in Everyday Life, 4th ed.  London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Schenk, M. & Miltenberger, R. (2019). A review of behavioral interventions to enhance sports performance. Behavior Interventions, 33(2), 248-279.

Spiotta, A.M, Buchholz, A.L., Pierce, A. K., Dahlkoetter, J., & Armonda, R. (2018).  The Neurosurgeon as a High-Performance Athlete: Parallels and Lessons Learned from Sports Psychology. World Neurosurgery, 120, e188-e193

Yamada, F., Hiramatsu, Y., Murata, T., Seki, Y., Yokoo, M., Noguchi, R., … & Shimizu, E. (2018). Exploratory study of imagery rescripting without focusing on early traumatic memories for major depressive disorder. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice91(3), 345-362.

 

 


One Comment on “Evolutionary traps: How screens, digital notifications and gaming software exploits fundamental survival mechanisms”

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