Addicted to Your Phone? Science Has Good News.

Have you ever ignored your child, a friend, loved one, or group conversation after a Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat notification sucked you in rabbit hole of scrolling and browsing? Have you ever replied to a text while driving? Do you ever fall asleep clutching your phone? Have you felt offline anxiety rise on airplanes, and frantically rushed to find Wifi in airport terminals? Have you felt the gut-wrenching pains of ghosting as you wait for a message from that special someone or news of a job application? Have you ever felt anger and anxiety when someone reads your Facebook message, does not reply, then comments on someone else’s wall?

Unless you are a luddite, a Zen Master, or over 65, you have probably answered yes to most of these questions. If so, like most of us, you are addicted to your phone. In all probability, you are not just addicted to your phone: you know you are addicted to your phone, and you don’t feel good about it.

You might have tried different techniques to wean yourself off. You keep your phone on silent, in your pocket, or in your purse during dates and dinners. You have sought out weekend getaways without wifi or reception. You try to leave your phone at home. In moments of despair, you turn the Airplane Mode on, then off, then on again, then off again. Nothing has worked. You love and hate your phone. You hate that you love it. You love to hate it.

What to do?

In this post, I present a simple recipe to manage this common problem grounded in evolutionary anthropology and the neurosciences of addiction, expectations and mindfulness. I offer four liberating, but counter-intuitive steps that I unpack below.

Here is the very short version.

1. Embrace the Good News, and Love Your Cravings.

Find how it is not technology you are addicted to, but the social rewards of connecting with others. Find out how the evolved architecture of your mind makes you particularly prone to social media addiction.

2. Recognize the Pattern That Sets You Off.

Find out how inconsistent patterns of social rewards and expectations activate your addiction and anxiety, discover the weird recipe behind all addictions, and why cell phones are like gambling and abusive partners. .

3. Get to Know Your Cravings.

Recognize the specific groups and individuals who mediate your cravings, and find out why uncertainty is overrated.

4. Feed Your Hungry Ghosts

Learn the ancient art of feeding your cravings, and the benefits of making your expectations transparent. Learn how to set intentional communication cultures with others.

Now onwards for the full story.

1. Love Your Cravings.

It may seem counter-intuitive to love your cravings at all, or to learn to love them before getting to know them, but there is an overlooked factor of tremendous importance behind our addiction to mobile devices: there is nothing inherently addictive about technology or the information we gobble from our screens. Rather, it is the social expectations and rewards of connecting with other people that send us into frenzies of highs, lows, and longings. But there is a weird twist.

Normal, social cravings

Much has been said about internet addiction and the new media and technologies that connect us and make us lonely at the same time. The deeply prosocial nature of these mechanisms, however is often understated. This is where the good news comes in: our compulsion to grab our phones is always driven by a fundamental urge to connect with people, and a necessity to be seen, heard from, thought about, guided, and monitored by others that reaches deep in the normal workings of our minds and far in our evolutionary past.

Our phones, in other words, provide a potentially unhealthy platform for a healthy addiction. As we will see, they can also enable us to remember and celebrate the role of other people in making us who we are, and help us treasure the precious bonds that make us a uniquely social species. Once we understand this and relax a little, we can learn to do it all well.

To get a better sense of this picture, we should begin by examining the inner workings of our minds.

Imagined other minds guide our expectations

If you examine your mental life, you will become aware of two recurring dynamics: 1) you are often distracted from whatever task or context you are in, and 2) you are almost always anticipating something. If you look deeper into your mind, you will also find that you are almost always thinking about and through other people.

In a recent study that collected samples on people’s daydreaming experiences, psychologist Guilia Poerio and her colleagues discussed current estimates that up to 50% of our waking time is spent in mind-wandering episodes unrelated to our current tasks. They found that all but a small fraction of participants’ daydreaming involved social scenarios such as imaginary conversations, and concluded that this mechanism served an important purpose for our social and emotional adjustments. In a recent theoretical paper on the importance of shared attention and cultural context in guiding human behaviour, my colleagues Maxwell Ramstead, Laurence Kirmayer and I have argued that most of what we think, feel, and do is implicitly guided by our expectations about other people’s expectations of us.

Over the course of normal cognitive and social development, we learn to see the world through the perspective of other people, and we intuitively imagine context-relevant agents to guide us in most of our actions. From context to context and moment to moment, we outsource a large part of our thinking, feeling, and decision-making to sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit scenarios of the “what would so-and-so think, feel, or expect me to do” variety.

This reassuring feeling of being watched and guided by imaginary others has been hypothesized to play an important role in the evolution of cooperation, morality, large-scale social life and organized religion — on this view, often called the Supernatural Monitoring Hypothesis, we fashioned our Gods and Spirits to better flesh out the imaginary agents that guide our ordinary cognition, consciousness, and action. When this ‘other-minds’ mental system become hyper-excited and goes in overdrive for a variety of genetic and environmental factors, in turn, we experience delusions – about other people!

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