Evolutionary traps: How screens, digital notifications and gaming software exploits fundamental survival mechanismsPosted: January 17, 2020
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?
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.
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
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 Practice, 91(3), 345-362.
“I felt more motivated to get things done.”
“After practicing this exercise for a week, my productivity significantly increased.”
“I felt more in control of my life in a fun way that made me feel successful.”
“Every time it increased my mood, confidence and energy levels.”
— Reports by participants after practicing “transforming failure into success”
Putting off something we set out to do can leave us feeling unproductive, drained of energy, and guilty. Procrastination can also contribute to dysphoria, depression, and self-recrimination. When people reflect on their own activity, they often using blaming language such as “I should not have done that,” “That was stupid,” or “What was I thinking.” The challenge is how to change this blaming language — through which the person continues to rehearse how they have failed — to positive and empowering language and images.
For many years, we have taught students a useful daily practice,Transforming Failure into Success, to transform the self-blame into optimizing performance. When the students as well as athletes practices this for a week, they report significant improvement in study habits, dealing with anger, and even sports performance. This year we systematically measured the effect of this practice and compared it to a control group. The students, just as previous athletes and clients, reported a significant decrease in procrastination and increase in productivity and energy as compared to the control group as shown in figure 1.
Figure 1. Change in self-report of procrastination, productivity and energy level. Reprinted from: Peper, E., Harvey, R., Lin, I-M, & Duvvuri, P. (2014). Increase productivity, decrease procrastination and increase energy. Biofeedback, 42(2), 82-87.
When we procrastinate or blame ourselves, we increase our chances of repeating that same behavior. We often forget that our ongoing thoughts and framing of past experiences become the template for our future behavior. It is easy to look back and criticize yourself for not having done something you feel you should have done, or having done something you later regretted doing. Unfortunately, this strategy only strengthens the memory of the mistake. The more you mentally rehearse/imagine yourself performing the desired (or undesired!) behavior, the more likely you will actually perform that behavior.
Thus the first step is to accept that what we actually did was the only thing we could have done given our history, training, maturity, and circumstances. The key is to rehearse what you would like to do or achieve. This practice is illustrated by a golfer who hits a ball into the pond. Instead of cursing himself and constantly repeating, “I should not have hit the ball into the pond,” the golfer acknowledges the problem and then asks , “What was the problem?” He then considers that he might not have hit the ball hard enough or that he might not have accounted for the cross winds. Or, he did not know the cause of the problem and needed to ask a consultant for suggestions. He decides that he did not account for the cross winds and then asks, “How could I have done it differently to get the outcome I wanted?” He then imagines exactly how hard and in what direction to hit the ball. He mentally rehearses the appropriate swing a number of times, each time seeing the ball landing on the green just a short putt away from the fifth hole. As he images this perfect swing, he feels it in his body. Later that day when his golfing partner asks him what happened when his ball went into the pond, he answers, “It went into the pond, and let me now tell you how I would hit it now.” Thus, the past error becomes the cue to rehearse the desired behavior.
Instructions for transforming failure into success
Each time when you observe yourself thinking, “I wish I’d done that differently,” Stop! Give yourself credit that you did the only thing you could have done and that you could NOT have done it any differently given your history, skills, and environmental factors at that moment. Accept what happened and recognize that you are now ready to explore new options. Next, breathe and relax, then ask yourself, “If I could do this over, how would I do it now given the new wisdom I have gained?” Then imagine yourself doing it in the new way.
Each time you observe an action which upon hindsight could have been improved, mentally rewrite how you would like to have behaved. Use the following five-step process:
- Think of a past conflict or area of behavior with which you are dissatisfied.
- Accept that it was the only way you could have done what you did under the circumstances.
- Ask, “Given the wisdom I have now, how could I have done this differently?”
- See yourself in that same situation but behaving differently, using the wisdom you now have (rehearse this step a number of times). When rehearsing, it is important to see and feel yourself completely immersed in the situation. Be very specific, and engage as many of the senses as you can.
- Smile and congratulate yourself for taking charge of programming your own future.
The more senses you invoke in your imagination and visualization, the more real the experience will feel and the more it will be become the new pattern. Imagine every small step, sensation, and thought—everything that would occur when you actually do the task. How you image the task is not important. Some people see it in living color while others only have a sense of it. Just take yourself through the new activity. Rewriting the past takes practice. During the mental rehearsal the old pattern often reasserts itself. Just let it go and practice again. If it continues to recur, ask yourself, “What do I need to learn from this; what is my lesson?”
This practice only applies to one’s own behavior–you can only change yourself. Remember that others have the freedom and the right to react in their own way. In your imagery, see yourself changing. Others may also change in their response to your change; however, they have the right NOT to change.
Finally, there are many settings in which we had no control and, regardless of our behaviors, nothing would be different (e.g., being abused as a young child). In such cases, the adaptive response is to acknowledge what happened, reaffirm that you are no longer the same person as when the experience occurred. Then take a deep breath and relax, and let go while knowing that this personal experience has taught you a set of coping skills that have nurtured your own growth and development.
This blog is adapted from our recent published article, Increase productivity, decrease procrastination and increase energy, which describes the background, methodology and research findings.