You’re walking along the street, and bump into a friend. After a quick hello, this friend compliments you. What do you do in response? Most likely, offer a compliment in return. Or, at the least, say thank you.
A few steps further down the street, you see someone drop a wallet. You pick it up and hand it to them. They say thank you. Your response: “You’re welcome.”
For most of us, interactions throughout each day are filled with social reciprocity. It’s instantaneous and second nature. Even chimps have been shown to engage in it. It can be a very good thing. But in recent years, digital distraction has turned it into a problem.
As I explain in my book Lifescale, many creators of digital platforms have studied psychology. Their goal has been to eat up more and more of our days. Through persuasive design, they’ve worked to manipulate human behavior.
After all, the attention economy is wildly lucrative. Our attention is the currency; it’s what we pay to use these platforms for free. It’s also finite, so there’s limited supply and great demand. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings once said his company’s number one competitor was sleep. “And, we’re winning!”
Having spent years in Silicon Valley as a digital futurist and adviser to many social media companies, I’ve seen the myriad ways the purveyors of these technologies work to get users addicted. They’ve been so successful that there’s even a term for fear of being without your cell phone, “nomophobia.” One trick that gets too little attention (pun intended) is the psychological hijack of social reciprocity.
In the digital world, interactions take place at an unprecedented pace. People like or share your posts and tag you in theirs. They send you connection requests or follow you, and often expect you to do the same in return. Notifications show people when you have read their messages, so they might find it rude if you don’t respond relatively soon. After you respond, you see those wavering dots of someone composing a reply to you, so you know the conversation is continuing.
All of this makes you feel anticipation and pressure to stay engaged, respond, check back and interact. Vice reported in 2017 that Snapchat’s elongating red lines displaying “the number of days of since two users interacted” even reportedly led some teens to ask friends “to babysit their streaks”—that is, to interact on their behalf—while they were on vacation.
This is the new norm. We’ve been fooled into believing we’re more connected, informed, productive, creative and happy. But in reality, this kind of social reciprocity eats away at our norms and values, and rebuilds them in harmful ways. As a former Facebook executive put it, “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.”
I know from experience what a toll this can take. Several years ago, I found myself struggling. I couldn’t concentrate on work, and often wasn’t fully present with my family.
I was totally distracted, being drawn to notification after notification. I’d tell myself not to reach for my phone. But within minutes (or seconds), I’d nevertheless be checking out a picture that a friend just posted on Instagram, and composing a response to let him know that I’d seen and enjoyed it.
A year went by before I realized I had to press pause on all of it. I wasn’t just losing productivity, but also my creative spark and even my ability to feel happiness. Worst of all, my relationships were suffering.
To tackle the part of your mind that feels—instinctively—that you owe it to people to reciprocate, I recommend two key steps:
1. Honor your right to disconnect.
In 2017, France officially gave workers the “right to disconnect” from e-mail after work hours.
What if we take that idea and broaden it out? We all have a right to disconnect from the bombardment of notifications. And that means we have a right to not reciprocate instantly to online interactions.
Thinking of it this way, as a right, can be psychologically empowering.
2. Focus on strengthening real relationships.
The other step is to focus on strengthening your relationships with those closest to you by carving out time for them.
In Lifescale, I explain the steps I took to overcome my tech addiction. One was to list the values most important to me and the actions I would take to honor them. As part of this, I vowed in writing to carve out uninterrupted time for family and help those relationships grow and thrive.
By keeping in mind that interaction online took time away from work or family, I learned to ease off the pressure of digital social reciprocity. I took back control.
So, yes, some people don’t hear back from me as quickly as they used to. I hear all the time from people who are genuinely upset with me about that. But my personal life and career have never been better.