Unit 3: Adventure and The Hero’s Journey

Article: Resisting the Internet’s Grip

image
by Gerd Leonhard on Flickr, \ccbysa

Before You Read

Discuss the following questions with a partner or in a group.

  1. How much time do you spend each day using the Internet?
  2. What do you do on the Internet?
  3. Do you use the Internet to do work or study for classes?
  4. Do you try to avoid using the Internet or your phone while you study? If yes, what strategies do you use to avoid using the Internet or your phone?
  5. What are other situations in which you should avoid using your phone or the Internet? Do you still use them anyway?
  6. Skim the next reading. What do you think is the author’s purpose of the text: to inform, entertain, or to persuade? How will that affect the way you take notes on the reading?

Vocabulary in Context

The following sentences are from the article you are about to read. Guess the meaning of the words in bold.

  1. 22 of the Cutest Baby Animals,” the headline said. “You won’t believe number 11!”
  2. Studies have shown that each day we spend, on average, five and a half hours on digital media, and glance at our phones 221 times.
  3. The developers of websites and phone apps all exploit human behavioral tendencies, designing their products and sites in ways that attract our gaze – and keep it.
  4. Unusual numbers draw our attention and pique our interest because they break this pattern.
  5. Is it even possible to rein in our growing Internet consumption, which often comes at the expense of work, family or relationships? Psychological research on persuasion and self-control suggests some possible strategies.
  6. A study found that passersby were almost 60 percent more likely to give money to panhandlers asking for US$0.37 compared to those who were asking for a quarter.
  7. Scientists who study self-control are starting to see tools such as precommitment and software that blocks out websites not as “hacks” that circumvent the system but instead as integral pieces in the self-control puzzle.

Vocabulary Building

For this exercise, find the word in the paragraph given. Use the synonyms and definition to help.

  1. P1: upcoming, approaching (adj.) __________________________________________________
  2. P1: doubtfulness (n.) ______________________________________________________________
  3. P1: website whose goal is to get more attention (n.) _________________________________
  4. P3: take unfair advantage of (v.) ___________________________________________________
  5. P3: risk, gamble (v.) _______________________________________________________________
  6. P4: being widespread or constantly encountered (n.) ________________________________
  7. P6: have the opposite of the planned effect (v.) _____________________________________
  8. P7: a question asked to provoke thought or discussion ______________________________
  9. P9: powerful (adj.) ________________________________________________________________
  10. P14: avoid, get around (v.) _________________________________________________________

Psychological Tips for Resisting the Internet’s Grip

Adapted from an article by Elliot Berkman, Associate Professor of Psychology, University of Oregon for The Conversation, \ccbynd

“22 of the Cutest Baby Animals,” the headline said. “You won’t believe number 11!”

Despite an impending deadline – not to mention my skepticism (how cute could they possibly be?) – I clicked on the story. I’m only human, after all. Yet this failure in self-control cost me at least half an hour of good work time – as have other clickbait headlines, strange images on my Twitter feed or arguments on Facebook.

The sneaky, distracting suck of the Internet has become seemingly inescapable. Calling us from our pockets, hiding behind work documents, it’s merely a click away. Studies have shown that each day we spend, on average, five and a half hours on digital media, and glance at our phones 221 times.

Meanwhile, the developers of websites and phone apps all exploit human behavioral tendencies, designing their products and sites in ways that attract our gaze – and keep it. Writing for Aeon, Michael Schulson points out, “Developers have staked their futures on methods to cultivate habits in users, in order to win as much of that attention as possible.”

Given the Internet’s omnipresence and its various features and usages, is it even possible to rein in our growing Internet consumption, which often comes at the expense of work, family or relationships? Psychological research on persuasion and self-control suggests some possible strategies.

Tricks for clicks

It’s important to realize some of the tricks that Internet writers and web developers use to grab our attention. The strange number 22 in the headline is an example of the “pique” technique. Lists are usually round numbers (think of Letterman’s Top 10 lists or the Fortune 500). Unusual numbers draw our attention and pique our interest because they break this pattern. In a classic study, the social psychologist Anthony Pratkanis and colleagues found that passersby were almost 60 percent more likely to give money to panhandlers asking for US$0.37 compared to those who were asking for a quarter.

People in the study also asked more questions of the panhandlers who requested strange amounts, compared to those who begged for a quarter. The same thing happened when I saw the headline. In this case, the skepticism that caused me to ask the question “How cute could they possibly be?” backfired: it made me more likely to click the link.

An attention pique (such as asking for $0.37 or calling out photo #11) triggers us to stop whatever we’re doing and pay attention to the puzzle. Questions demand answers. This tendency has been dubbed by psychologists as the rhetorical question effect, or the tendency for rhetorical questions to prompt us to dig deeper into an issue.

These tricks exploit built-in features of our minds that otherwise serve us well. It’s clearly advantageous that unexpected stimuli capture our attention and engage us in a search for explanation: it might stop us from getting hit by a car, or alert us to sudden and suspicious changes to the balance in our bank account. So it wouldn’t make sense to turn off that kind of warning system or teach ourselves to ignore it when it sounds an alarm.

Binding ourselves to the mast

Content on the net isn’t only designed to grab our attention; some of it is specifically built to keep us coming back for more: notifications when someone replies to a post, or power rankings based on up-votes. These cues trigger the reward system in our brains because they’ve become associated with the potent reinforcer of social approval.

Not surprisingly, Internet use is often framed in the language of addiction. Psychologists have even identified Problematic Internet Use as a growing concern. So what can we do? Like Odysseus’ strategy for resisting the temptation of the sirens, perhaps the best trick is to commit ourselves to a different course of action in advance – with force, if necessary.

Odysseus had his men tie him to the mast of their ship until they were out of the sirens’ range. This is an example of “precommitment,” a self-control strategy that involves imposing a condition on some aspect of your behavior in advance. For example, an MIT study showed that paid proofreaders made fewer errors and turned in their work earlier when they chose to space out their deadlines (e.g., complete one assignment per week for a month), compared to when they had the same amount of time to work, but had only one deadline at the end of a month.

The modern-day equivalent of what Odysseus did is to use technology to figuratively bind oneself to the mast. Software packages such as Cold Turkey or the appropriately named SelfControl allow you to block yourself out from certain websites, or prevent yourself from signing onto your email account for a prespecified period of time. Research supports the reasoning behind these programs: the idea that we often know what’s best for our future selves – at least, when it comes to getting work done and staying free of distraction.

Ulysses and the Sirens, by Herbert James Draper, circa 1910, \ccpd

Coming out with your commitment

Precommitments can be much more effective when they’re announced in public. Researchers have found that people who publicly commit to a desired course of action such as recycling or being sociable are more likely to follow through than people who keep their intentions private. We are deeply social creatures with a fundamental need to belong, and publicly declaring a plan puts one’s reputation at stake. Between the social pressure to live up to expectations and any internal punishments we self-impose, public precommitment can be a powerful two-pronged attack against self-control failure.

More and more, scientists who study self-control are starting to see tools such as precommitment and software that blocks out websites not as “hacks” that circumvent the system but instead as integral pieces in the self-control puzzle. For example, a recent study tracked the everyday lives of a large sample of people on a moment-by-moment basis, asking them questions about their goals, temptations and abilities to resist them.

Contrary to expectations, the people who were generally good at self-control (measured with a reliable questionnaire) were not the best at resisting temptations when the temptation presented itself. In fact, they were generally pretty bad at it.

The key is that self-control and resisting temptation are not the same thing. Odysseus had one, but not the other. Instead, good self-control was characterized by the ability to avoid temptations in the first place. We often think of self-control as the ability to fight temptation, but studies such as this one indicate that self-control can also be as simple as planning ahead to avoid those traps.

The next time you need to get something done, consider precommitting to avoiding the Internet altogether. Like Odysseus, realize that if you find yourself facing temptation directly, the battle may already be lost.

Comprehension and Critical Thinking Questions

Answer the following questions according to the article. Compare answers with a partner.

  1. According to the article, what is one way that website developers try to get more clicks on their website?
  2. The article says that “Developers have staked their futures on methods to cultivate habits in users, in order to win as much of that attention as possible.” Why do you think winning attention is so important to these web developers?
  3. What did researchers learn from the panhandler asking for 37 cents instead of a quarter?
  4. Are there similar lists on websites in your country/language like the “22 cutest baby animals”? Do you click on these lists to take a look?
  5. According to the article, what are two ways that Internet usage affects the brain?
  6. What two pieces of advice does the author give to try to avoid Internet addiction?
  7. what is the difference between self-control and resisting temptation?
  8. One of the software packages mentioned in the article has an interesting name: Cold Turkey. What does it mean to stop something “cold turkey”?
  9. Do you use any software, apps or other strategies to curb your Internet or phone usage?
  10. If you don’t, do you plan to “tie yourself to the mast” now? What is your plan?

CEFR Level: CEF Level C1

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It’s All Greek to Me! by Charity Davenport is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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