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Nir’s Note: This guest post is by Erik Johnson. Erik applies behavioral design principles on The Behavioral Insights Team at Morningstar.
Six years ago, I was in a position that many people early in their careers find themselves in: I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. My first job out of college took good care of me and was interesting enough, but I knew it wasn’t the career I wanted in the long term. I needed something else, so I started reading and exploring what was out there. One day, as I was reading a blog post on psychology, I discovered a book called Nudge that caught my eye. I bought it immediately and devoured it. The book opened a whole new realm of psychology and economic thinking that I had no idea existed me in a way nothing else had. This was what I was looking for in my search.
Around the election, in a desperate search for answers about our nation’s future, I found myself scrolling, reading, and watching everything I could. I was trapped in an endless pull-to-refresh cycle of consuming more news, tweets, posts, and videos than was good for me. I told myself that I was staying informed, that this was part of my civic duty—and that not staying up-to-date 24-7 would leave me politically ignorant and impotent.
I’ve since changed my mind. In fact, I’ve decided to give up consuming news online, and I think you should consider doing the same. Here’s why:
The subject line read: “did you see this?” The message was from my editor Jen. “Nir, I saw the headline on this story and thought it might be written by you—but no!” she wrote. “Very weird.” I instantly clicked on the link she’d sent.
Not so long ago, my after work routine looked like this: After a particularly grueling day, I’d sit on the couch and veg for hours, doing my solo version of “Netflix and chill,” which meant keeping company with a cold pint of ice cream. I knew the ice cream, and the sitting, were probably a bad idea, but I told myself this was my well-deserved “reward” for working so hard.
Psychological researchers have a name for this phenomenon: it’s called “ego depletion.” The theory is that willpower is connected to a limited reserve of mental energy, and once you run out of that energy, you’re more likely to lose self-control. This theory would seem to perfectly explain my after-work indulgences.
All products and services, everything we buy and use, have but one job—to modulate our mood. The fundamental reason we use technology of all sorts, from stone tools to the latest iPhone, is to make us feel better. To prove the point, consider how perception of relief is tantamount to actual relief. Consider the so-called placebo button.
Take, for example, the lowly crosswalk button. When we find ourselves at an intersection, waiting for a light to change, we tap the button, sometimes more than once. Most people believe these buttons are connected to some master control box that will signal the light to change so we can cross the street. In truth, these buttons often do nothing.
Recently, I needed to book a lunch meeting. To help coordinate, I asked Amy to assist and cc’d her on the email. “Amy,” I wrote, “please help us find a time to meet. Let’s plan for sushi at Tokyo Express on Spear Street.” Amy looked at my calendar, found an open time suitable for everyone invited, and booked the meeting.
Amy works just like a human assistant, except she’s not human. It’s an AI bot made by X.ai, a company specializing in scheduling assistants that respond to natural language. Amy is so good at what she does that I find myself thanking her for booking a meeting, forgetting she needs no more thanks than my microwave.