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Six Behavioural studies highlighting the devil that may be unleashed by the digital you

As 'The Social Dilemma' documentary points out, processing powers of AI and technology have advanced a trillion times in recent times, yet our ancient brains have adapted very little. There's an interesting collection of historical psychological studies suggesting there's a devil inside of you that may be unleashed given the right circumstances: social media and digital addiction may well be a rather sizeable petri dish for propagation.

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Human beings are like onions. We acquire information, analyse and process it, come to conclusions, then relay decisions through actions to our external world. Our brains, evolved over thousands of years, are also wired as meaning making machines. Yet as smart as we are, our brains have limits and aren’t necessarily wired to cope with the unfair advantage of AI.

Amidst the layers of how we operate there are a handful of interesting historical psychological studies that suggest we may use caution in our daily practices leveraging newer technologies with our ancient brains.

Some digital age behaviours (ego centric, addictive, selfish and perhaps less desirable ones) are at risk of amplification through addiction. This is clearly pointed out in documentaries like ‘The Social Dilemma’. Chamath Palihapitaya, an early VP of growth for Facebook, expresses a feeling of guilt for helping create tools that are ‘ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.’ He’s not alone as many founders and innovators express similar, or worse, concerns.

As these studies suggest we all have a natural potential or propensity for both dark and light, so perhaps it’s a good time to re-evaluate how your digital fix may be amplifying your angel or demon!

1) The Stanford Prison Experiment 

This had to be halted early when those role-playing positions of prison guards let the power go to their heads. They began acting with malice, cruelty or even sheer evil towards fellow students role-playing prison inmates. The study-demonstrated a capacity, even minor, for meanness given the right circumstances. We see this escalated through commentary on social where little thought is given to the impact of our actions and words. At worst case digital stalking, trolling, bullying or even more general tearing down of others with little to nil accountability.

2) The Milgram Experiment 

In the experiment people would deliver what would prove to be fatal electrical shocks purely because someone in a position of power told them to do so. This 1961 experiment highlighted a lack of accountability in a high percentage of people. We might follow a course of action even where detrimental consequences are sure to follow. It also highlights, to some degree, how we may choose a slightly lower moral ground when faced with conflicting moral impulses and zero accountability. 

This is frequently reflected in worsening online behaviour. Healthy debate is often shortcut. Even some leaders encourage such behaviours from their online tribes. There’s no shortage of followers willing to take lower moral stances from behind the neutrality, anonymity or safety as a keyboard warrior. 

Incognito, it seems, means ones own mediocrity is confused for self-righteousness. Imagine the positivity that might be created if the same amount of energy or focus was instead channelled on healthy debates, discussions or social solutions with a positive focus.

3) Corruption of Power

There have been many studies suggesting we might be easily corrupted by power given the right circumstances. What’s more that power may make our actions riskier. In current social landscapes experts put themselves on pedestals, chasing self nominated titles simply to be seen as as more important. 

Many then leverage this newly perceived power with greater sense of entitlement. You’ll find a plethora of examples where ‘influencers’ demand services or goods for free or under threat of negative reviews if they don’t get their way. We also see people increasingly adopting riskier, even life threatening choices, in the race for power through popularity: capturing pictures from great heights or high speeds with little thought of accident, tragedy or even fatality.

4) The Marshmallow Test

Originating in the 60’s through to the 90’s, again in Stanford under direction of Walter Mischel, this experiment is famously known for highlighting any ability to delay gratification is a great trait for longer-term success!

There’s an irony when you layer that with current trends. People have become so impatient. Our threshold for self-control, tolerance or equanimity in online environments seems to be deteriorating. Often that impatience kills the very thing we actually would want to continually improve: skills, credibility or consolidated life experiences.

There are plenty of people willing to fake or lie about fields of specialty, rushing to get ahead. A quarter century ago one earned credentials. Nowadays self-proclaimed experts are kids on Facebook barely out of school. Social media is akin to the marshmallow test fail on a global scale.

5) Attention Deficit Studies

In the late 90’s a study conducted by Harvard demonstrated that we struggle to notice what’s right in front of us. They’d have strangers ask for directions then, mid way through receiving them, two men carrying a door would pass between as interference. The stranger was then swapped out. Often the person issuing instructions barely noticed even when physical appearances or  differences were obvious. A second example of selective attention is the classic gorilla test. People are so focused counting the number of times a ball is passed between players they completely miss the gorilla walking through the middle of the experiment thumping his chest. 

Given we already have this attention deficit it surely only deteriorates where people have their noses constantly buried so deep in devices they miss what’s going on in the real world around. Or we’re skim reading headlines and articles, picking bones, that context or depth of meaningful content is frequently lost even when it’s in plain sight.

6) Adult Study of Human Development

Perhaps the longest study of adult development, conducted at Harvard lasting close to 80 years, is worth most attention. They found the single ingredient to a secret, long, happy life to be, wait for it: yes, love! Being or feeling supported and surrounded by people you know you can rely on is what sets you up for a fulfilling, happier life.

In the digital age so many people willingly sacrifice real world friendships or quality time with people in their lives for the sake of looking good for strangers in a surreal digital world. Strangers that likely would barely notice if you’re profile were to drop off their feeds.

There are so many great studies given we have natural biases, fears and limiting beliefs, created through life experiences. The algorithms we’re increasingly allowing to feed us more of the same often only serves to fuel our insecurities and anxieties. Digital addiction makes letting go of out-dated behaviours that no longer serve us a tad trickier.

We’re even losing our natural ability for simply skills that we’ve developed as a sapien species over several millenia. Things like basic navigation, orientation or even ability to source food and nutritional sources. These days so many people can barely find a nearby cafe without google maps, fend or feed themselves with a delivery app.

So be careful with your digital addiction, not only may it send your capabilities, skills and intelligence backwards. It might also bring out the mean, power hungry, self gratifying, distracted, less pleasant, less present devil that lives inside of you!

Mark Carter is an international keynote speaker, trainer and coach. He has over 20 years’ experience as a global learning and development professional. His TEDxCasey talk ‘Paws and Effect: how teddy bears increase value perception was the movie trailer for his latest book Add Value.  You can contact Mark at www.markcarter.com.au or his book site addvalue.markcarter.com.au

Sources:

Stanford Prison Experiment:
https://www.simplypsychology.org/zimbardo.html

Milgram Experiment:
https://www.simplypsychology.org/milgram.html

Marshmallow Test:

Invisible Guerilla Experiment:
http://www.theinvisiblegorilla.com/gorilla_experiment.html

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