Social media redefine quest for mental gratification

Posted by Deborah Petersen on November 10, 2013 

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Ajay Bhutoria checks his iPhone while at home in Fremont, Calif., recently.

LIPO CHING — MCT

It’s hard to know whether to thank or curse Wayne Chang. When he was 24, the Facebook engineer went home one night to his downtown Palo Alto, Calif., apartment, fired up his computer, pursed his lips together and recorded the popping sound he made.

His colleagues made a few electronic tweaks, and just like that, the first official Facebook notification “ping” was born.

The pings, plings and rings of social media have grown up along with Chang, now in Facebook’s Seattle office. But in 2008, he was simply trying to create a humanlike sound that was “not too annoying.”

These days, notification sounds have become as ubiquitous as the gratification they promise, instant cues to our insatiable need for likes, follows and alerts.

Technology has redefined what we find gratifying. We can binge on an entire season of “Breaking Bad” in a single night; Intuit, the maker of (yawn!) income tax software, designs its products to “delight”; and U.S. military bases have stopped selling Playboy mostly because troops can get all the satisfaction they seek online.

To watch the ping’s transformation is to watch our evolving love affair with instant gratification, sometimes healthy, sometimes not. While technology has made it effortless to bask in good vibes, it also has fueled an unlimited source of digital gratification that competes with the rest of our life.

Electronic pat on the back

Consider Ajay Bhutoria, a Fremont, Calif., IT strategist who recently promised his wife that he would shut off his phone at night because she is so weary of being awoken by the pings that beckon her husband at all hours.

“It’s just a habit that has built up,” he said of his constant drive to look at Facebook, and check for text and calls even at 2 a.m. “It’s a new way of showing your love and kindness,” he said of Facebook likes. “It gives you mental gratification, like someone patting you on the back, saying ‘job well done.’”

For Stephen Ferroni, who has been known to sleep with his phone next to his pillow, it’s the “cha-ching” tone that he finds irresistible. That sound tells him that he has made another sale on his eBay site, and his hand reaches for his phone as soon as he hears it.

“That is really the most gratifying of all sounds, the cash register sound,” said the owner of Play It Again Sports in San Jose, Calif.

Still, there’s a dark side to being a junkie to these adrenaline rushes.

“It’s almost controlling my life,” he said. “I am always looking at my phone. Enough is enough.”

Actually, enough is never enough.

“Constant and immediate gratification is the expectation,” said Jesse Fox, an assistant professor at Ohio State University who researches social media and their impact on relationships.

“It’s like a little toddler pulling on your pants leg all day long. It’s ‘Hey! Hey! Hey!' “ she said. “You can’t ignore it. It is a state of arousal all the time.”

When Robert A. Burton, a retired neurologist, gathers with a group of friends, including at least one Nobel laureate, they complain about not being able to get any thoughtful work done because they are so driven to check Google to see what someone has said about them or to log on to Amazon to see how their books are selling.

Pavlovian brains to blame

For an explanation, Burton, author of “A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us,” said we need to look no further than our Pavlovian brains. Humans are as vulnerable to classic conditioning as the dogs which Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov taught to expect food at the sound of a metronome. Eventually, the canines, just like monkeys in a more recent study, did not need the treat to react to the stimulus.

“Once you start listening to the ping of the email, you can’t stop; you are actually addicted to the ping,” said Burton, a Marin County, Calif., resident who can’t otherwise explain the people he sees staring down at their phones while hiking, even hugging.

For former Facebook engineer Mark Slee, the explanation is basic: “People have been drawn to communicate for as long as we’ve been on this planet,” he said. “We don’t communicate because these things exist. Rather, these things have all come to exist because of this strong impulse to communicate.”

But addicting?

Building on the Pavlov analogy, Slee argues that tech companies don’t make people want gratification, just as bells don’t make dogs want food. “Humans want gratification because gratification is good,” he said.

“In this narrative, I think it’s easy to paint tech companies as villains,” Slee said. “But when I zoom out, it looks like most of it is developed by people in response to what other people want to do.”

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