Tristan Harris: Fighting Skynet and Firewalling Attention – The Tim Ferriss Show

Check out The Tim Ferriss Show Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • Humans are prone to biases from invisible constraints
  • Don’t believe everything you think
  • Here’s an exercise that makes it easy to see how one little thought can totally transform your entire experience of reality:
    • During a stressful moment in which you form a belief, ask yourself the following:
      • Is this belief true?
      • Can I be absolutely sure the belief is true?
      • How do I react and feel when I believe this belief to be true?
      • Who would I be in this moment without the belief?
      • Next – List the opposite of the belief
      • Then ask – Is there any way in which this opposite of this belief could be true?
    • In summary:
      • “We live in utter certainty about a world that’s highly uncertain. Whenever stress comes about, we might be able to downregulate a lot of that stress by not taking our thoughts and beliefs quite so seriously.”
  • “Each of us has a map in our brain of how we see reality. We’re not actually directly in touch with reality; we’re living through this mediated map.”
  • Spend the time to become aware of what the voice in your head is telling you all day long
  • Advertising-based business models of giant tech companies incentive them to go after human attention in ways we’ve never experienced before
    • To change the script, financial success has to be decoupled from capturing human behavior
  • Tech tips:
    • Put your phone in grayscale mode – here’s how
    • Take every app off your phone’s home screen (except tools – Uber/Lyft, messages, calendar, etc.)
      • Then – train yourself to pull down + type into the search bar every time you want to use something like Instagram or Twitter
      • This puts a small bandpass filter between you and your phone, thus preventing unconscious/mindless scrolling
    • Create a custom vibration signature for different kinds of notifications

Books Mentioned

Intro

The Best Life Choice Tristan Ever Made

  • Tristan once attended a retreat in Bali, Indonesia on hypnosis, pickpocketing, and magic
  • “That’s what I find fascinating about magic and pickpocketing; they [magicians and pickpockets] were kind of the first applied psephologists.”
  • These sorts of practitioner arts are really about the limits of human attention
    • “The thing about magic that I always found most interesting: your level of being inoculated from the effect has nothing to do with your intelligence.”
      • “Magic isn’t about intelligence… it’s about the weaknesses, blind spots, and biases we’re all trapped inside. We’re trapped in a mind-body meat suit that has a set of bindings and bendings to how we see the world.”
    • Pickpockets do NOT grab things when you’re not looking – they’ll stand next to you, talk to you, and even touch your pocket
      • “It happens right underneath your nose”

If You Control the Menu, You Control the Choices

  • Tristan was recently the lead witness in a Senate hearing on persuasive technology
  • “We tend to live in a Libertarian culture that’s all about celebrating and accepting the freedom to make our own choices. At a very deep level, we’re not also taught to question who controlled the menu of choices we’re picking from.”
    • This is important in the realm of technology, society, and culture in the way choices are presented 
      • “Any way you choose, you’re still choosing within a menu that has other people’s interests behind it”

How to Identify Invisible Constraints

  • What are invisible constraints?
    • The assumptions we may not be aware we’re making, the box we’ve created for ourselves in some fashion or adopted from our parents, etc.
  • Ask yourself: “Am I even asking myself the right questions?”
  • EVERYTHING we choose to do is the result of habit 
    • We repeat our same mental patterns everywhere we go (and often in ways that are invisible to us)
    • “All these processes that are sitting inside of us, happening all the time, are often invisible and not available for introspection; they basically run our whole lives”
  • As far as how to see these constraints, try doing this exercise from Byron Katie (Byron came up with a set of 4 questions you can ask yourself during any stressful moment:
    • Tim says – “It takes a little getting used to. It can seem strange and nonsensical at first, but if you’re willing to force yourself through the thought exercise of contorting the beliefs, the statements you take to be true, the exercise is super valuable.”
    • “Our brains are living inside a 24/7 magic trick; whatever thought pops into our mind we believe. We automatically step into it and see the world through the assumptions of that thought.”
      • Byron’s 4 questions let you see the exact opposite of that belief which then encourages you not to take your beliefs/thoughts so seriously
    • As an example, say someone cuts you off in traffic and you become absolutely sure that the person who did it is a jerk:
      • The 4 questions you’d ask yourself:
        • Is this belief true? (Is my belief that he’s a jerk true?)
        • Can I be absolutely sure the belief is true? (Can I be absolutely sure he’s a jerk?)
        • How do I react and feel when I believe this thought to be true? (How do I react when I believe the thought that he’s a jerk?)
          • A potential answer: “I see him as naive, thoughtless, and I don’t care about him”
          • The point of this question: You see that believing one little thought totally transforms your entire experience of reality
        • Who would I be in this moment without the belief? (Who would I be without the thought that this guy’s a jerk?”)
          • This question helps you not to identify so much with your thoughts
      • Next – List the opposite of the belief (This guy is very nice)
      • Then, ask yourself – “Is there any way in which this opposite of this belief could be true?”
        • What if this guy’s on the way to the hospital?
    • Tristan adds :
      • “This exercise shows you something fundamental about the way our mind traps us, almost in a permanent set of glasses that occupies the way we see the world”
      • “When you see this, you stop taking your thoughts and beliefs quite so seriously and realize that even in those moments when you’re stressed and convinced it’s because the world is doing this thing that pisses you off, you see that maybe you’re actually doing it to yourself”
      • This exercise will allow you to realize how quickly the mind steps in to some new belief with utter certainty
        • “We live in utter certainty about a world that’s highly uncertain. Whenever stress comes about, we might be able to downregulate a lot of that stress by not taking our thoughts and beliefs quite so seriously.”
    • Tim adds:
      • A subset of the third question you can ask yourself – “Do any obsessions or addictions begin to appear when I believe that thought”
        • “It’s like fractal levels of running away from anxiety. Running away from anxiety creates an experience that triggers an addiction [like taking absurd amounts of caffeine] that then creates more anxiety that we then run away from.” – Tristan

Let’s Relate the Above to Technology

  • “Technology is this false belief factory; it generates all these false beliefs moment by moment”

WAKE UP

  • “Each of us has a map in our brain of how we see reality. We’re not actually directly in touch with reality; we’re living through this mediated map.”
    • “It’s ALL artificial; it’s all arbitrary. It’s just coming from our own mind organizing these rules and obligations which are self-constructed. It’s through Byron Katie’s work that you can actually play with all this. You realize that you’re living in this fractal hall of mirrors in your mind that makes you believe all these things that are just distortions self-constructed out of invisible parts of your brain. Waking up is the process of shattering some of those glasses so you can see more clearly.”
  • “Waking up is simply becoming aware of your habitual processes. It’s like stepping out of the movie itself in which you’re the lead actor or actress and stepping into the audience, becoming the observer of your own behavior.”- Tim
  • As B.J. Miller has said, “Don’t believe everything you think”
  • “Your mind is living inside this selection filter that is pre-selecting certain bits of information to reach your conscious awareness and then hiding lots of others… and you don’t even know why”

The Soundtrack of Our Inner Lives

  • Imagine having an amplifier or voice output for all the thoughts running through your head:
    • “This is what constitutes our inner lives; this is the soundtrack. We don’t even notice we’re repeating these things because it doesn’t have audio.”
    • People spend their WHOLE lives not looking inward, failing to examine the constant stream of thoughts that occupy their minds (don’t be one of these people)
  • The takeaway: Spend the time to become aware of what the voice in your head is telling you all day long

Language Shapes Everything

  • Tristan highly recommends The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing
    • “Marketing is all about using language to manipulate perception”
    • Another related book recommendation from Tim – Words That Work
      • An easy example from the book: “climate change” vs. “global warming” (the latter is much more powerful because the climate’s always changing)
  • Check out Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson
    • The book discusses the commonly-used metaphor of the U.S. (our nation) as a family; here are some examples:
      • Not sending our “sons and daughters” to war
      • Not wanting missiles in our “backyard”
      • Our founding “fathers”
    • Language, like the above, conjures up a whole bunch of assumptions and structures entire politically beliefs
      • “Language is profoundly shaping not only our own mental lives, but also world history, whether or not we tackle climate change, and whether or not we go to war”

Persuasion as it Applies to Technology

  • How can technology persuade people’s attitudes, beliefs, and behavior?
    • A pioneer in the search for an answer to this question – BJ Fogg, a psychology professor at Stanford who previously ran the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab
      • Tons of alumni have come out of this lab, from Tristan to Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger
    • It’s about delving into the code of the human mind and determining what humans find persuasive
  • BJ likes to say B = MAT
    • Behavior = Motivation x Ability x Trigger
    • Whether or not someone performs a behavior (like going to the gym) involves them first being motivated, second – having the ability, and then third – being exposed to a trigger (i.e., a reason or perhaps a reminder)
  • In the 2016 election, Cambridge Analytica utilized technology to display customized persuasive messages based on an individual’s characteristics (based on personality traits, individuals were shown different political messages)

The Power of Incentives | How can companies be incentivized to do the right thing when it comes to using easily abused persuasive technologies?

  • As E.O. Wilson has said – “The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions, meaningful institutions, and God-like technology”
  • Tech companies are fueled by advertising models and have cognitive neuroscientists, PhDs, and armies of highly intelligent people developing highly intelligent/trainable tech to predict us better than we can predict ourselves
    • To give you an idea of the extent of the problem: Tim recalls reading that in 2018, if you were a teen girl watching a dieting video on YouTube, the algorithm next recommend anorexia videos because those were better at keeping attention
  • It’s not technically the fault of the advertising business model, it’s more the engagement business model – these tech companies depend on us engaging
  • So what can be done?
    • First, know that people enter the tech industry out of a desire to create greater good and build empowering tools
    • Somewhere along the way, the incentives at play forced human behavior to be monetized
      • Realize:
        • Success with the first Macintosh didn’t depend on how many people were clicking notifications or engaging
        • There’s no problems with things like Microsoft Word or Adobe Photoshop – they’re not tilting the world towards conspiracy theories or dying for engagement
      • “The fundamental place that we went wrong is when we attached financial success directly to the capturing of human behavior”
        • “That’s when we went wrong, when we tied business success and billions of dollars to the amount that we captured attention”
    • BUT now – “We have to go through a mass decoupling between business success and capturing human beings. That’s going to be an uncomfortable transition.”
      • Humans need to become the customer, not the product
    • How will this happen?
      • We need policy that helps this decoupling process happen
      • We need shareholder activism
      • We need internal employees at tech companies advocating for this change

The Extent of the Problem

  • There’s a monopoly on human attention (owned by Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram)
    • These are the products that run the “public square” and the world’s belief systems
    • YouTube gathers more than 1 billion hours of daily watch time (there’s 2 billion people who use the platform daily)
    • Facebook has ~2 billion users (if you add in WhatsApp and Instagram, that’s another billion)
    • “This is an INSANE level of psychological influence”
  • “Apple is the government of the attention economy; they’re like the central bank. They control the dials on what it means to get attention form people.”

What can be done? | Let’s Look at the Energy Companies

  • The way things used to be: they made more money the more energy their customers used
    • They were incentivized to have people leave their lights on, run water excessively, etc.
  • Then – many states in the U.S. went through a decoupling regulation
    • With this, energy companies profited (as they did prior) up until a certain point of energy use
    • But after this point was reached, the energy companies began to disincentive using more energy by charging more
      • However, only a percentage of the profit gained from the cost increase went to the energy companies – a large portion of it was reinvested into a renewable energy fund
  • Imagine if we did the same with tech:
    • Up until a point, allow tech companies to make more money the more attention they gather
    • Beyond that point, direct a portion of profits into some sort of “renewable attention” fund
      • Perhaps it’s a fund dedicated to alleviating mental health issues among teens

Let’s Go Back to the Early Days

  • It’s totally possible that social networking apps NOT have an adverse effect on mental health
    • Instagram, at the very beginning, was all about friends keeping up with each other’s lives – it didn’t have the focus on celebrities, the discover tab, influencers, a significant focus on brand deals, etc.
      • Instagram chose this route because they HAD to, they were forced to grow once they were acquired by Facebook
  • Tristan adds:
    • “I’m all for technology being an empowerment tool. There are beautiful things that can come from technology when it’s operating as a tool. But the business model of advertising and engagement is the anti-tool; it doesn’t want to be a tool; it wants something from you.”

Big Brother is Watching

  • Tim recalls a quote:
    • “Big Brother isn’t watching. He’s singing and dancing. He’s pulling rabbits out of a hat. Big Brother’s busy holding your attention every moment you’re awake. He’s making sure you’re always distracted. He’s making sure you’re fully absorbed. He’s making sure your imagination withers. Until it’s as useful as your appendix.” — Chuck Palahniuk from Lullaby: A Novel
  • Relayed – Check out Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman
    • Tristan recalls a few quotes from the book:
      • “We were all told to keep an eye out for1984 [by George Orwell]. We thought the dystopia we would get would be the Big Brother one, but alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was this older and slightly less well-known, but equally chilling vision, of Huxley’s Brave New World.”
      • “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books; what Huxley feared is that there would be no reason to ban a book because there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information; Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we’d be reduced to passivity. Orwell feared the truth would be concealed from us; Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared that what we feel will ruin us, Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.”
  • In summary:
    • Humans have an unlimited desire for distraction
    • There are two ways to fail:
      • 1) The authoritarian/Big Brother/censorship way (AKA information being limited and controlled)
      • 2) Being overwhelmed in irrelevant information and distraction
      • Tristan adds: “Human choice, which is unique to the world, is that thing sitting between those two worlds. That’s where we, as a human civilization, have to be.”

How to Defend Against Invasive Technologies by Managing Your Attention

  • Tristan has said in the past – “I spend a lot of time thinking about how to spend my time”
  • When writing on his Mac, Tristan uses the zoom feature to slightly zoom into the text field to prevent external screen distractions
  • Put your phone in grayscale mode – here’s how
    • The idea is that when your phone has colorful rewards, it’s INSANELY addictive – “It’s like showing the chimpanzee part of your brain a banana”
    • As a side effect, this also increases battery life
  • Take every app off your phone’s home screen (except tools – Uber/Lyft, messages, calendar, etc.)
    • Then – train yourself to pull down + type into the search bar every time you want to use something like Instagram or Twitter
    • This puts a small bandpass filter between you and your phone, thus preventing unconscious/mindless scrolling
  • Create a custom vibration signature for different kinds of notifications
    • Tristan has his iPhone set so that any time one of his contacts messages him, his phone buzzes three times in quick succession
    • “Your phone is like a slot machine; it’s buzzing in the same way every time which forces you to say, ‘Oh, I wonder if this could be that thing I was waiting for.’ This then forces you to get sucked in.”
  • Phones should:
    • Let you see the top 3 kinds of notification you’re getting and let you set up a unique vibration signature for each (or disable them entirely)
    • Let you schedule texts to be sent
    • Let you send an autoresponder to select groups of people

The Books Tristan Gifts/Recommends Most Often

Parting Thoughts

  • “When you see big problems, recognize the way that our instincts would bias us to put our head in the sand. Ask instead, ‘What if there’s no one else who can solve these problems but us?'”

Additional Notes

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