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Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Digital detoxes are all the rage, how behavioral economics can help

Let behavioral economics help you kick that monkey in your pocket: Digital detoxes are all the rage. But like their controversial non-tech counterparts, they’ve gained a reputation for being unattainable and perhaps even undesirable for anyone with a busy life. We can’t afford to spend all day meditating in the desert and drinking kale juice, after all. So Tim Harford’s long read in the FT is refreshingly clear-sighted in its aims: “to deploy everything I knew about economic theory and behavioral science, along with a few hard-won practical discoveries, to rebuild my relationship with the digital world from scratch.” He breaks down why our relationship with our smartphones is often so problematic and how we can reconfigure it without doing anything as extreme as going cold turkey.

It helps when understanding the roots of our phone addiction: The “endowment effect,” a term coined by Richard Thaler, posits that we place more value in things we own because we own them (we like our apps and social media); relinquishing them is hard). But the principles of opportunity cost dictate that everything we do is an implicit choice not to do something else (so those hours devoted to Twitter are not just empty time, but constitute a decision not to do something we might actually enjoy more).

…and why a notification is like a high: A hard-won discovery in behavioral psychology, as made by BF Skinner, teaches us that the “intermittent reinforcement” of sometimes getting a reward (and sometimes not) is actually a greater motivator than knowing for certain that your reward is coming —hence the compulsion to repeatedly check Facebook in the hope of having some fresh likes and the little dopamine kick they offer.

Back to basics: Harford recommends weaning off digital habits by substituting some of them with other activities and observing the concrete difference this makes in his health, mood and personal relationships.

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