We’re all smartphone and social media users. If we’re users, then these must be products and us the clients. Sadly, that’s not the case. Other than the smartphone, the vast majority of the software inside it is virtually free. The makers of these softwares have to pay for costs. Many of us know that this is done via advertisements. It doesn’t sound like a bad deal till you understand how psychology is being used to manipulate us in primitive ways beyond our smartest judgement.

It doesn’t matter how smart you are, you are being manipulated.

In this article, I explain how mobile apps are designed to manipulate our brain to get us hooked to their service, so that we keep coming back for more. They can then show ads to us, paid for by their real customers, the ad publishers. Don’t dismiss this article, because you think that you’re smart and you don’t fall for these things. Our psychological behaviors are very primitive and often beyond our control. Many people have compared it to taking a drug. If we don’t take the drug, we don’t get addicted. But, if we don’t know what it is and we try it, we cannot turn back once we get addicted.

Social Media Marketers can use these same tactics to win customers.

Trsitan Harris

But first, let’s find out what psychology is at play. In the CBS show, 60 minutes, Tristan Harris who is a former Google product manager revealed the “brain hacking” practices that are being used at many Silicon Valley tech companies. In the CBS show, Tristan Harris referred to the smartphone as a slot machine. Meaning, we check it every 15-minutes to find out, “What did I get this time?” Sometimes we get exciting notifications and this is the reward that we get for checking our phone. Over time, this action becomes a habit devoid of the reward. This is exactly how lab rats are studied. This is exactly how dogs are trained. A reward for performing an action till it turns into a habit. It happens completely subconsciously.

Getting likes on Facebook and Instagram, followers on Twitter are all reward mechanisms. It’s a popularity contest with instant gratification. You might think you’re indifferent to these actions but a like, a new follower means the same to your brain as it does to others. Your brain knows that someone who liked your post agrees with you and you are receiving direct gratification.


Here’s the reward mechanism for Snapchat: they have a feature called “streaks” which shows the number of days in a row that you have sent and received messages. Snapchat is particularly popular among teenagers and situations have been reported where teenagers had become anxious over losing their Snapchat streak. According to Tristan Harris, the game for Silicon Valley technology companies is to get attention at all costs. Therefore, a Silicon Valley programmer asks himself or herself, “What can I do to make you feel good so that you keep coming back?” A social media marketer should ask the same question.

Ramsay Brown

Ramsay Brown, co-founder of Dopamine Labs, created a computer code that gives the brain a burst of reward at the best time such that it makes the brain crave more. He explains that, in the case of Instagram, they’ll send notifications in bursts, such as, “here’s 30 likes on your post that we didn’t tell you about before.”

According to Brown, all users are treated as experimental subjects and an algorithm calculates showing what notification might improve their behavior and engagement. Each user is part of a controlled set of experiments that is happening in real-time across millions of users.

The more we look at our screen, the more data companies can collect and the more ads they can show us. Research has found that not checking our phone causes Cortisol build-up in our brain. Cortisol is a hormone that triggers fight-or-flight response to danger. This hormone is being generated when we don’t check our phones and we become anxious that something new might be happening. We then check our phones to get rid of this Cortisol build-up.

According to NYU professor Adam Alter, getting likes on an Instagram post is like taking a drug because of its unpredictable nature. We do not know if we are going to get likes. If we did, it would become boring really quick. The unpredictability makes it exciting and addictive.

So, how can social media marketers leverage what we have discussed so far, to their benefit?

You have to remember the following key takeaways.

  1. You audience wants to feel good. Give them a psychological reward.
  2. Make your audience feel like they are missing out. Build-up anxiety of missing out.

You have probably read numerous articles on the internet about content that works on social media. Well, it’s time to understand why they work and how you can tweak them to make them more effective. Many articles will tell you that trivia or quizzes do really well. Do you know why? I have encountered many viral quizzes which start with the headline, “90% of people fail to answer this correctly”. The result? A comment section swarming with people looking to be the 10%. That’s gratification. That’s a reward that makes them feel good that they are part of the 10%.

Fail to Answer

You obviously know that contests are a proven way of engaging people on social media. Well next time, you can put your own unique twist to your trivia or contest to make it original while still maintaining that feel of exclusivity. Commenters and winners will receive a dopamine rush which will get them hooked to your brand. This might sound like simple advice, but it’s the subtlety of the genius that makes for its greatness.

Sharing exclusive content is another way to get your audience hooked to your brand. You don’t necessarily have to even create content. As long as you are good at finding and sharing content that is very relevant to your audience is good enough. And remember, if you’re not getting the results you are quite hoping for, it’s not your fault. Facebook and Instagram are gamifying you as well. You might be posting great content but you are not getting likes and comments because they want you to crave it and keep coming back.

These technology companies collect various data on your behavior. If you hide your IP address and use a different account, you might get completely different results. These algorithms are sophisticated and adjusting constantly. However, the rewards are defined and people react predictably to the rewards. So, if you watch your niche closely, you can identify the common behavior patterns.

According to Dave Hawley of a San Francisco-based social media marketing firm, the challenge for marketers is to create content that validates the audience’s point of view. Dopamine is released in anticipation of reward. So, when content disagrees with the audience’s point-of-view, the brain learns to disengage with that content. The brain gets validation as a reward when the content proves their point-of-view, it then keeps coming back for more validation.

People share content on social media for the following reasons, in decreasing order of occurrence.

  1. The content has entertainment value.
  2. The content has financial value.
  3. The content helps answer a question.
  4. The content has emotional value.

Providing entertainment value is the best simply because the reward can be provided with relative ease. However, you cannot do giveaways for everyone. When people don’t win, it creates a negative feedback but they keep coming back in anticipation of winning. Therefore, use contests sparingly.

Let us know if this article helped you. If you want us to brainstorm ideas for your brand, send us an email.

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