Because it’s commonplace, everyday behaviour is seen as normal and this description cloaks the fact that it is so revealing of our deeper motivations! This post analyses the unrecognised drive behind our endless search for ‘connection’, our browsing, tweeting and facebooking.
Thought experiments (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thought_experiment) are the technique I use to lift everyday behaviour out of the ‘norm’ and explore its often bizarre nature. For insight seekers, I suggest that even though your sessions or primary evidence might appear banal, normal, routine or dull, there is insight ‘gold’ locked away inside it if you know how to look.
Let’s take one of the most everyday pieces of bizarre behaviour – one we’ve all been amused or irritated by – checking our smartphone, tablet or computer every few moments. If you had told us twenty years ago that we would all be looking at a tiny screen 85 times a day and spending on average more than 7 hours each day looking at one kind of screen or another, we would have thought you were crazy. But that is what we do now.
Why is it that I feel some relief when I notice that the UK is only the 15th most screenbound nation! My immediate thought was, ‘at least we’re not the worst!’ So something is wrong here; is there anything else about the chart that strikes you?
I noticed two things, one that our nearest neighbour France, with better internet than us, is in 29th place and that NONE of the 5 happiest countries in the world are in the top 30. Here are the world’s happiest countries in 2016: Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Finland.
Canada is the only top ten ‘happy’ country in the top 30 of screen use! [at 25th].
Of course there is no reason why screen use should be related to happiness, except that if people are spending 7 hours a day on something while their overall happiness is not high compared to places where people spend less time on screen and are happier, then it’s worth discussing these facts and any possible connections.
If it’s not something that makes us happy, why are we so online?
One thing that insight seekers often forget is that as much of our behaviour is motivated by the desire to escape unsatisfactory states of mind as by attempts to reach pleasure or peak experiences. As Freud pointed out, our perfect state is freedom from compulsion, desire or fear – peace of mind – if you like. He called this idea of psychological balance, or homeostasis, the constancy principle. We are both pleasure seeking and pain (including psychological pain) avoiding.
Going back to our electronic behaviour, is much of our connectivity, believed by many to be the abiding passion of our times, driven by our desire to disconnect from unsatisfactory states, rather than our seeking of some quality or property inherent in the connection? That would make sense of why we have so many ‘friends’ who are not friends. They are simply less unsatisfactory connections than what we happen to be connected to at the moment!
In other words, we want to disconnect from the common moment rather than connect with a better place. This idea stands the connectivity debate on its head and suggests that all those social media moments are not driven by the wish to head towards something, but by the need to head away from something unsatisfactory. And that the reward is not the connection but the escape.
[As an aside for a moment, the Buddha noticed this 2,500 years ago in his three unequivocal pillars of the Nature of Existence:
- Unsatisfactoriness – even our happy moments contain a seed of dissatisfaction, since we know they cannot last.
Can we find an element of contemporary psychological theory to support or explain the idea that we are escaping rather than seeking? The answer is yes and is found in the concept of displacement.
Let’s try another thought experiment. If we are escaping from something, yet are not in physical or psychological danger, what might we be escaping from that could produce such incessant behaviour?
In Freudian psychology, displacement (German: Verschiebung, “shift, move”) is an unconscious defence mechanism whereby the mind substitutes either a new aim or a new object for activities or goals felt in their original form to be unpleasant, dangerous or unacceptable. More typically a drive to displacement arises when two conflicting emotions occur and fight for supremacy in a manner that gives rise to stress. An example:
In a meeting, your boss has impressed upon you the importance of your support in this setting. He is counting on your engagement and appreciation of his argument to bolster his standing in the meeting. However, his topic is not of great interest to you, it is his thing and you are bored and frustrated by the amount of time you have had to listen to the idea and his enthusiasm for it. And he has not recommended a pay rise or promotion for you, as he might have done at your recent review. You are nursing a growing resentment.
What is the likely consequence of this dilemma?
You find two conflicting feelings jostling for supremacy in your head, the first is the required engaged enthusiasm, supported by tone, gesture and body language, the second is irritation, suppressed frustration and a sense of impatience: ‘how long is this going to take?’
In other words you experience an emotional conflict that produces a need to escape. You are worried that the conflict will show up in inappropriate behaviour and reveal your true colours to your boss, in a public setting.
So you look secretively down at your smartphone held in your hand just below the table level and start to check your email. That way you look busy and avoid eye contact. And you have seen your boss do the same thing many times when you have been talking…
Sound familiar? Just look at the number of people checking in on their phones in the next meeting you’re in. Ever wondered what they’re bored or frustrated by? Could it be the topic just isn’t as compelling as everyone publicly professes?
We use displacement behaviour like checking our screen when we experience a challenging state of mind that is unsatisfactory. And in that moment we are running from not to, and seeking a distraction from our turbulent mind.
The insights from this explanation are fascinating:
- For much of our screen behaviour, the end benefit is not appreciating the content we find onscreen, but simply displacing a conflict or tension that is emerging in our minds. Your content may be significant only in that it is not something else.
- That makes sense of a trend analysis in 2014 that says: “Mobile advertising is still underperforming vs. time spent on mobile devices, whereas print is still significantly overperforming.”
- But more importantly and fundamentally, it appears that much of our daily time is unsatisfactory. Even though we are more prosperous, safer, better educated and healthier than ever before.
Let’s return to our happy countries that don’t spend nearly as much time on screens as we do. What are they doing that we’re not? The answer is surprisingly simple: they share stuff. These happy countries are the most equal in the world: Things are more evenly distributed there than here. The results show in their lower levels of crime, mental illness, teenage pregnancies, obesity, etc. You can find a detailed analysis of the effects of inequality here: https://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/resources/the-spirit-level There are ten health and social problems that are worse the more unequal a society is:
- Life expectancy
- Maths & literacy
- Infant mortality
- Teenage births
- Mental illness (inc. drug and alcohol addiction)
- Social mobility
So inequality is one source of our dissatisfaction.
We can look to the consumer society for another source of our discontent. Advertising, which we meet thousands of times a day is a form of ‘training’ – in the sense of a repeated stimulus – that leaves us feeling we are missing something, that we can only be complete once we have the product or service advertised. Endlessly we are subjected subconsciously or consciously to the idea that we don’t have enough, or the right stuff.
In other words, advertising feeds a constant state of dissatisfaction – which we displace through electronic connectivity. If advertising is part of the cause of our dissatisfaction, surely it is unlikely to be the solution? Are corporations the world over wasting money on electronic advertising because of their failure to observe and understand the fundamentals of drives, motives and behaviour?
The brilliant Ad Contrarian has a perspective on this that supports my point of view: The Golden Age of Bullshit!
Or if you can’t be bothered to watch 45 minutes you may not agree with, a summary pdf of Bob Hoffman’s ideas is here: Ten Amazing Facts about online marketing