The ironic thing about our digital devices, is that they promise constant stimulation . . . and yet we find they end up making us feel numb. Numb in terms of struggling to be present. Numb in feeling overloaded with information and choices. Numb in feeling like we often view even our own experiences from a third-party perspective.
My guest today, Dr. Charles Chaffin, has written a book called Numb: How the Information Age Dulls Our Senses and How We Can Get Them Back, which explores the various ways internet-induced numbness manifests itself, from FOMO to choice overload on dating apps. On the show today we focus in particular on how the news media and social media can negatively alter the way we experience life and what to do about it. We first discuss how recovering our sense of engagement with life begins with thinking about the fact that our attention is a finite resource, and being intentional about how we direct that resource. We then discuss how to deal with what Charles calls the “attention panhandlers” who vie for our engagement online. Charles talks about the phenomenon of compassion fatigue, where there are so many worthy causes you could take up, that you end up doing nothing at all. We then discuss how Instagram can change the way you experience life in an age where we can all feel like content creators. We end our conversation with how to wrest back control of your attention, and use it towards action rather than distraction.
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in the Podcast
- AoM Article: Attention Please! What Every Man Ought to Know About Focus
- AoM Podcast #420: What Makes Your Phone So Addictive & How to Take Back Your Life
- Operant Conditioning
- B.F. Skinner’s idea to use pigeons to guide missiles
- AoM Article: Is There Any Reason to Keep Up With the News?
- AoM Article: Let Sympathy Turn to Action (includes quote by William James mentioned in the show)
- AoM Podcast #479: Becoming a Digital Minimalist
- The Cadillac Ranch
Connect with Charles Chaffin
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Now, the ironic thing about our digital devices is that they promise constant stimulation, and yet they finally end up making us feel numb. Numb in terms of struggling to be present. Numb in feeling overloaded with information and choices. Numb in feeling like we often view even our own experiences from a third-party perspective. My guest today, Dr. Charles Chaffin has written a book called Numb: How the Information Age Dulls Our Senses and How We Can Get them Back, which explores the various ways Internet-induced numbness manifests itself from FOMO to choice overload on dating apps. On the show today, we focus in particular on how the news media and social media can negatively alter the way we experience life and what to do about it.
Brett McKay: We first discuss how recovering our sense of engagement with life begins by thinking about the fact that our attention is a finite resource and being intentional about how we direct that resource. We then discuss how to deal with what Charles calls the attention panhandlers who vie for engagement online. Charles also talks about the phenomenon of compassion fatigue, where there’s so many worthy causes you could take up but you end up doing nothing at all. We even discuss how Instagram can change the way you experience life in an age where we can all feel like content creators and we end our conversation with how to rest back control of your attention, and use it towards action rather than distraction. After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is/numb.
Brett McKay: Alright, Charles Chaffin, welcome to the show.
Charles Chaffin: Thanks, thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: So you have a new book out called Numb: How the Information Age Dulls Our Senses and How We Can Get Them Back. So, this book was inspired by this realization that you just felt like the Internet was making you feel numb. When did that start happening? And when did you start noticing it?
Charles Chaffin: Yeah, it started really thinking about… But my area of study is attention, so obviously thinking about the attention… Economy that we live in and devices and whatnot that are competing for our attention, but one of the other elements that was key to this book is the notion of compassion. And I started thinking about the regular access that we have to stories of human suffering and tragedy, and some of the sensationalism or vivid pictures and videos that we see all the time on news and social media, and I started to think about, well, given… Seeing all this all the time, how does that affect our ability to be compassionate and responsive to the people that are around us, to people in our lives? And then gradually, as I started thinking about this from a more 360 degree view, I wanted to look at not only attention, which is the basis for so much of Numb, but I also wanted to think about all the by-products of this information age. Which is everything from FOMO, confirmation bias, and choice overload, loneliness, and even porn and dating sites, and really look at how all of that, all of the things that are grabbing our attention and also creating what I’ll call processed experiences that impact our lives in some way, shape or form.
Brett McKay: I think all of us experience that, that numbness, the feeling of just like, I just can’t… I can’t process anything anymore, I don’t… Like, you read stuff and it’s just you feel dull when you read it, you don’t wanna do anything. How would you describe that numb feeling of information overload?
Charles Chaffin: I think it is an element of separating what is real and what isn’t on some level, right? It kinda goes back to what I mentioned earlier, is that this idea of processed experiences, that we read about something, whether it’s an event, whether it’s political, whether it’s interpersonal or it’s a video, or even if it’s pornography. And it starts to… We start to have a difficulty in separating what is real and what is a depiction of reality, and how that impacts how we interact with the world around us. So, I see the element of Numb and where the title came from, is this idea of just constantly having these waves of new information, new videos, new processed experiences washing on the shores of our attention, if you will, that creates this feeling where we start to not be able to separate what’s real from what’s not, what’s relevant from what’s irrelevant.
Brett McKay: Alright, so as you said in your book Numb, you walk readers through different ways information overload from the Internet can make us feel discombobulated, sort of the detachment from lived experience instead of processed experience. But as you said, underlying all this feeling of numbness is a… What you would say is a mismanagement of attention, and this is your area of expertise. So, start us there, what is attention? I think we might know what we think it is, but how… In your line of work, how do you define attention?
Charles Chaffin: Yeah, we throw that word around a lot, but attention at the very highest level, it’s the pathway to our consciousness. Everything that we work, everything that we experience or sense is via our attention. You can think about it this way, if we want something to go well, or we wanna experience it, we focus our attention on it, or maybe better stated, if we don’t want something to go well, we don’t focus our attention on it. And with that, it’s kinda like this… The vivigery of kind of a spotlight where we’re shining it on a specific experience, a specific item at the expense of other things. And so, given where we are in the information age, where we have so much of that coming at us, that spotlight or where we manage that spotlight becomes incredibly important. Added to that, we only have a fixed amount of it. So if I’m focusing all of my attention or resources on something I’m really focusing, I don’t have more to add, I can’t add it or separate it into some element of multi-tasking. So, given the fact that it’s the attention to all… Or it’s the gateway to all we experience and that it’s fixed, it is… In my world, it’s the most important commodity that we have.
Brett McKay: I think it’s an important point that attention is fixed, because I think the way we often treat it, at least I… I’m just speaking from my own experience. That attention is infinite. You always have attention, you might have… Your money is finite, because you can see it and hold it, but attention, oh well, I’ve got plenty of attention.
Charles Chaffin: Yeah, right. Maybe the greatest example of the idea of fixed attention is distracted driving, right. So you only have so much attention when you’re driving if someone or something even if it’s texting or whatever it is, it’s taking away from the amount of fixed attention you have, you don’t… When you’re driving, you don’t say, “Okay, I’m gonna find more attention, keep the same amount attention on the road and my vehicle and add more to texting or talking to someone.” And we all think, of course, that we can multi-task when we effectively can’t, this essentially becomes an element of a cognitive bottleneck that have where the tasks don’t happen simultaneously, but they happen one after another. And so we are constantly thinking that we multi-task and that we multi-task well, but in reality, we don’t. We at best can switch our attention between two things at once.
Brett McKay: And that attention switching, that can be tiring, that’s probably what contributes a lot of the numb feeling, it’s like, “I just feel like a haze in my brain.” Well, yeah, that attention switching, that expends energy, you can’t do that all the time.
Charles Chaffin: That’s right, you can’t do it all the time. And you’re, again, you’re constantly… If you’re working on something and you’re really focused on a report or whatever it might be, and you’re distracted in some way, it can take upwards of 15 or 20 minutes for you to get that same level of attention back to where you were before you were distracted. So if you think about two or three distractions any given day, and that really, really adds up. So it does come at a incredible cost, whether it’s devices or other humans or whatever it might be that take away from this valuable cognitive resource.
Brett McKay: So if you look back at human history, people have been complaining about their attention being mismanaged or they can’t focus, you see monks doing this, and you think monks wouldn’t have a problem with staying focused ’cause they’re cloistered in some cell, but… So this is a universal human problem, but you make the case that our digital technology just exacerbates this problem, how does digital technology disrupt our attention?
Charles Chaffin: Well, you think about it in terms of we have devices and platforms that are designed to grab and keep our attention. So at a 30,000-foot level, living in an attention economy where in essence, getting your attention is actually more important than getting your wallet, because I can’t get your wallet, or if I’m trying to get your work or your affection from you, or whatever it might be, I can’t get that until I get your attention first. So these devices and platforms are developed really, really well to disrupt our attention. And it happens through a couple of different ways, so push notifications is always the most famous example where we get some sort of sound or we get some sort of site trying to take our attention to a platform, one platform or another.
Charles Chaffin: But one of the bigger elements though that comes in many of these platforms is something called operant conditioning, and that is basically where we have a reward system that can keep an individual engaged in something. So for example, on social media, where there’s a lot of attention panhandling going on, whether it’s between the platform or individuals, but essentially, if we give a reward structure where what’s called a variable reward structure, meaning if I want you to do something one time, I will give you a reward after you do it once: If I want you to do it continuously, I’m gonna do this variable reward strategy, meaning you could do it three times and get the reward, you could do it 10 times and get the reward, you could do it 30 times and get the reward, but you don’t know when it’s coming, and so you constantly are repeating that action or that behavior.
Charles Chaffin: And it’s most famously, it goes way back into BF Skinner, who was a famous psychologist from the middle part of the 1900s, he did this with pigeons and with all kinds of animals, and in fact, you could go on to YouTube and watch him, he trained pigeons to peck at the enemy ships, to guide missiles, and he hooked up electrodes to the beaks, and he got Navy funding to do it. It was right before… Whatever you call it, missile-guided systems, but he gave those pigeons and there were rats and other animals, these variable reward structures to have them continuously repeat this behavior so that not knowing when the reward was gonna come. And that’s what we see on social media, we also see it in things like slot machines and whatnot, but we don’t know when that like or that attention panhandling, going back to that, that reward, we don’t know when it’s gonna come, so we’re constantly revisiting those sites, we’re constantly posting and re-posting to get that reward.
Brett McKay: No, and speaking of the companies using that variable reward to their advantage, I know Instagram does this, they will, when you check to see how many likes you have, sometimes they’ll wait until you have a bunch of likes built up, and then they’ll show you, “Oh, 100 likes, this is great.” And then… So you wanna check, but then the next time, it’s only 20. “Oh, okay.” And then they build it up, “No, it’s a 100.”
Charles Chaffin: It’s even to the point where the notifications are in red, right? And I mentioned slot machines. It’s the same thing, so if you go into a casino and you play even a penny slot, you may win a nominal amount of money at one point, but it’s celebrated as a huge victory. So that it’s gonna have you continuously playing and at a timeless place with no clocks, but again, you can find ways to hold back those rewards to get you to continuously repeat that behavior again and again and again, and when it comes to things like social media, this kinda goes back to where we started here with the tension that comes at an enormous cost when we see people who are on these platforms for two, three, four hours a day. And what I tried to do with Numb, it wasn’t to say to people, “What you’re doing is wrong and this is all bad, you should go on a dopamine fast and forget it.”
Charles Chaffin: But what I wanted to do is lead the reader through a reflective process and ask, “Is this working for me? At the end of the day, at the end of the year, at the end of my life, the two, three and four hours a day that I’m spending in this artificial reward platform and getting into… ” And it’s the same thing, by the way, when we’re talking about breaking news and all of the… And many of the elements of outrage, but at the end of the day, was this worth it for me? Was this a good investment of my time? Did it lead me to more productivity or more authenticity or better relationships? And so I hope that having a better understanding of what these platforms are designed to do, folks can make that decision on their own.
Brett McKay: Well, speaking of breaking news, one of the chapters in the book, you devote to how the media uses our understanding of what grabs our attention to their benefit and the way the media companies make their money through ad dollars, a lot of them moving to subscription, but still ad dollars, a big part of that.
Charles Chaffin: Sure.
Brett McKay: But in those ad dollars, like you said, they need our attention first, so knowing that, how do media companies use what they know about what grabs our attention to get our attention?
Charles Chaffin: Well, I’ll tell you what doesn’t work. What doesn’t work is if you’re watching cable news and someone says, “Well, coming up, I just wanna let you all know everything is fine here.” Right? So the best way to do it is to showcase some element of threat or outrage, which activates our amygdala, that part of our brain that helps keep us safe and detecting from threats and makes us more engaged. And so any element of sensationalism or opinion is gonna drive people towards either coming on to the platform or staying onto the platform. And what I asked the reader to do in Numb, is to think about an element of transparency and reporting of their outlet. So I don’t advocate, what many people say as, listen to parts of the left and listen to parts of the right and have a cocktail of opinions, but rather, look for transparency.
Charles Chaffin: And then secondly, think about how much time are you consuming this news and information. Are you stuck on cable news for two hours or are you arguing with people on Twitter about conspiracy theories for hours a day? But finding out, okay, where have I reached this point where I’m starting to get this what’s called headline fatigue? Where I have just too much. Finding out that I’m informed as a voter or as a citizen, as an investor, or whatever it might be, I’m informed and I can move on without having it take over my life.
Charles Chaffin: But with this topic of news and information and many of these other platforms, it really is understanding that there’s a Venn diagram between what these platforms are trying to do, which is bringing our attention and deliver us to marketers as the product. And what we’re trying to do in this case, to be well-informed and realizing, “Okay, there’s a crossover there, but this isn’t solely designed to just keep me informed and I have to manage it without it managing me.”
Brett McKay: Well, speaking of social media, a lot of the outrage that you see on social media that people are just tired of is caused by these stories that are negative-based, because again, that’s what grabs our attention, we have a negativity bias. When things are good, we don’t even… It’s not even on the radar when things are good. But what is it about social media that tends to have people just continually wanting to be outraged and just say hot takes and get in fights, is it something about the platforms themselves that encourage that, or is that just… Or just do the platforms manifest our innate human nature?
Charles Chaffin: We always say, We want good news, but in lots of research studies, individuals are presented with good news and bad news, and they’re just drawn to the bad news, and it goes back to this idea of detecting threats. But I think when it comes to social media, a lot of this has to do with attention panhandling. So we tend to connect on social media with like-minded individuals. Whether it’s politically, socially, it could even be geographically, and with so much of this, there is a currency of attention and we want… We’re seeking attention from others, I use that term, attention panhandling. And so in order for us to get attention, we can do that in a lot of different ways, and we could do that through selfies, we could do that through engaging other people and being funny, but when it comes to outrage, the best way for us to do that is to either A, be a source of information that we think is gonna outrage the other people within my tribe or within these like minded individuals, or secondly, that I can articulate that I have the highest amount of outrage than anyone else around.
Charles Chaffin: So I always think about the analogy of the weight room in the gym. And if I want attention in that weight room and everybody’s in there, lifting weight, I need to lift the heaviest weight to show that I’m the… I’m gonna get the attention and be the most devoted here within this platform, which I can’t even come up with that example, well, ’cause I’m not a… I don’t lift a lot of weights clearly. But we don’t get attention on social media by saying, “Let’s think carefully about this and let’s weigh both sides of the issues.” We basically have to showcase we’re the most devoted, we’re taking the most moral high ground and being the most upset, right? And there’s some of this that has to do too with fear, and people are scared when they see these new sources talking about threats, and there’s elements of loneliness but in reality, it really goes back to getting attention and we could be the most outraged and get the most attention, and the by-product of that can be conspiracy theories or people moving to even more of the fringes of our society regarding a lot of different topics.
Brett McKay: Yeah, you highlight research by Jillian Jordan, who explored people who get upset on behalf of other people. So, they’re claiming some offense on behalf of some other person that, they’re not the victim. And what they found is that people who do that, who found that… Third party punisher is what they’re called, they gain trustworthiness by signaling some sort of offense, it is a currency, that’s how you can get attention, is by being offended for yourself or on behalf of someone else.
Charles Chaffin: Yes and of course, there’s a downside to that even in that study, where if you take it too far, then you suddenly lose that currency. You take it too far in your language and whatnot on social media, and you actually start to… It starts to work counter-intuitively as a diminishing return. But absolutely, if I wanna show that I am the most devoted to the cause then I’ve gotta be the most upset to get that attention, absolutely.
Brett McKay: And do you think we… At some level, humans like to feel outraged, like it feels good to be outraged?
Charles Chaffin: I find it difficult to imagine that people enjoy being upset all of the time, and I also think too, if… And in the book, I talk about a couple of pieces that ran and a few years ago, talk about the year of outrage, and they outline all… 365 days, what was the most outrageous thing that people were so upset on Twitter about. And you look back upon those things now, and there were a few big things, one was 2014, and there were a few major issues that happened in that time and events that required action, but so much of it was just meaningless and trivial looking at it, even from a couple of years… A couple of years removed. So, I think people can experience outrage fatigue, but again, it’s no different than people who are attention panhandling and changing their life experiences to be a content creator on Instagram. It’s kind of the same thing, and it goes back to an ROI, is this investment of my attention and all the things I’m trying to do on social media, is it really working for me? And I think most folks with outrage, I think they would argue that it isn’t.
Brett McKay: Have you figured out a way to use social media without getting outraged?
Charles Chaffin: Well, there’s a few things. So first and foremost, who we’re engaging is critical for a lot of different reasons. So, we talk about Dunbar’s number, which is about 150 people that we tend to be able to have relationships with, and that could be anything from high school classmates to co-workers and family members. And so, I’ll answer your question kind of at a 30,000-foot view and say, “If we’re using social media to engage issues with people who are in our lives and strengthen those relationships, then it’s a really good thing. If it’s to just voice some sort of frustration with strangers and do it in this kind of anonymous way on Twitter then it’s again, it’s really not paying off.” So, I think how we manage within the bubbles that we’re on, on social media could be helpful. And for the most part, most of the data suggests that the people who are most outrageous, most outraged rather, on these platforms tend to be the one that are spending the most time on it. So, there’s an element of getting off of these platforms and not being on Twitter for an hour or two hours at a time, arguing with people.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. You make the case that one of the consequences of constantly being bombarded by negative sensational news, the outrage you see on social media, is that people develop what you call compassion fatigue, what is that? And is there a way to avoid compassion fatigue?
Charles Chaffin: Yeah. So, compassion fatigue is a term that was developed by researchers who were looking at those that are working in the medical field or even journalists. And they were people who were exposed to the suffering of others on a regular basis and somewhat like attention, people that study this area will tell you that the amount of compassion that we have is actually fixed. Well, that same element of compassion fatigue can occur when we’re watching sensationalism all the time, and we’re seeing this… Again, as I mentioned earlier, this constant suffering of others, and then the added element of that is a feeling of powerlessness, that we can’t really help the situation, so in… I profile a doctor who was a resident in the early ’80s in Atlanta when the AIDS crisis was really starting to become a major part of our healthcare crisis. And he took up that cause seeing how terribly patients were treated then, because there was so much fear out there. And when he treated those patients over the, I think 10 or 12 years that he did that from the mid… Or early ’80s to the mid ’90s, him and his staff experienced a great deal of compassion fatigue, most notably, because not only are they seeing people suffering with a terrible disease, but they couldn’t really help them, there really wasn’t…
Charles Chaffin: Medicine wasn’t advanced enough to really help them along. And so, when you think about compassion fatigue, when it comes to us watching the suffering of others on social media or on cable news or whatever it might be, if we have that feeling of helplessness where we can’t help that suffering, then we’re more likely to experience compassion fatigue, and we can address that by picking one cause. So, if we see five terrible incidents that happened over the course of an hour of cable news and we pick one, maybe it’s helping animals at a shelter or giving to the Red Cross or another charity or whatever it might be, that can help us realize that we can make a difference and kind of address the element of compassion fatigue and obviously managing our own reaction or lack thereof to seeing that suffering and saying, “It’s time to turn this off, I’m informed, I understand the situation. I don’t need to sit and watch this for another 20 minutes or two hours or whatever.”
Brett McKay: William James, the father of Psychology, he wrote a lot about attention, and he actually wrote about, I think compassion fatigue. He had this quote, I’m gonna read it here. He says, “There is no more contemptible type of human character than that of the nerveless, sentimentalist and dreamer, who spends his life in a weltering sea of sensibility and emotion but who never does a manly concrete deed.” So, same sort of thing, you feel a lot of things but then you don’t do anything. And it sounds like his solution was, “Okay if you feel something for something that happen… Even if it’s far away, well go do something, go help your neighbor, go call your mother, do something, don’t just let that emotion go to waste because then you become numb to the emotion.”
Charles Chaffin: That’s right. And compassion is an active entity, it’s not passive. So, you have to do something in order to respond and with social media, hitting like or making a comment that it’s bad is not active, that is still passive. And so, absolutely take one thing and devote your energy to it to make that difference. Yeah, William James was right way back then, and it still holds true today.
Brett McKay: And then what do you do about people, one of the problems of being on social media is that everyone has their cause, they think is the most important. And sometimes they feel like, “Well, if you’re not with me, you’re against me.” And it’s like, “Well, I don’t have time, I’m gonna focus on… This is my thing.” Any tips on managing that?
Charles Chaffin: Well, I think everybody has a cause on social media, but we don’t have to respond to it and we don’t have to doom scroll through what everybody’s saying on social media about their cause. If we’re saying, my response to this terrible tragedy that’s happened is to give money or volunteer, that’s away from social media, and I don’t have to post about that, I could just go do that. And so to me, it’s managing the amount of time that we have on social media. If we see what other people’s causes are and we become interested in it, because we have a Facebook friend or family member, whatever it might be, that’s saying, “I was really affected by this disease, and I’m hoping that everybody that’s my friend or a connection here can walk for the cause or whatever.”
Charles Chaffin: All of that’s great, but it just seems to me that so many people seemed to think that they’re checking the box and responding because they’re hitting Like and creating this kind of artificial reward again on social media, and it’s not doing anything. I always laugh when they say these folks… And this is probably very cynical, but these folks are like, “This man’s a decorated World War II veteran. Can we give him a 100,000 likes?” Is that really… Well, what exactly is that doing? I’d rather tell him thank you in person or write him a letter. We can, we go back to this artificial currency and it’s not getting us anywhere.
Brett McKay: Right. So, do a manly concrete deed. That’s the antidote.
Charles Chaffin: Do a manly concrete deed. I’m not saying you shouldn’t hit Like for the World War II veteran, but we could probably do a little more than just hit Like, right?
Brett McKay: Right.
Charles Chaffin: And how much is he really on Facebook, by the way?
Brett McKay: Yeah. He probably doesn’t even know, and his grandson will tell him, he’s like, “What the hell does that mean?”
Charles Chaffin: Right. What the hell is a Like, anyway? Yeah.
Brett McKay: What is that? So let’s talk about… You have this chapter about Instagram and you highlight all this research that Instagram, when we use Instagram, it can change the way we experience life, and we typically think of, we are using Instagram to catalog our life, but you’re saying that no, Instagram actually changes what we do in life. How so?
Charles Chaffin: Yeah, I mean at a 30,000-foot level, it makes a lot of people… I won’t say everyone, but it makes a lot of people become content creators. If I see myself as a content creator and I’m going back to the reward structure of getting likes and good comments, then I’m gonna pick experiences through the lens as a content creator. So I may say, “You know, I know I really should have lunch with my grandparents, but you know, my Instagram followers, they’re not gonna care for that picture of Nana, and Pop Pop, and Meatloaf, and me. I need to do something else to get those likes. Or I go on vacation, and I really wanna do A, B and C, but D, E and F are gonna get more likes, so I’m gonna go do that.” So, that’s one of the pieces, that we… Is we actually start to change the things that we… The decisions, the behaviors that we would like to do, we change them to be subservient to this role as a content creator. But even thinking about photos in general, our memory changes when we take a lot of pictures of something, we don’t remember things as well, ’cause going back to this idea of attention, we’re fixated on our device, we might be changing the environment to make it better for our Instagram crowd.
Charles Chaffin: So, I use the example of a family reunion, so we might be thinking, “Okay, what’s a good shot that’s gonna put my family in the best light? I’m not gonna take a picture of my grandfather who’s asleep drooling on the Barcalounger, but I’ve gotta alter experiences so that it looks better.” And the other part about that too, is that when we post pictures of events, whether it’s vacations or family reunions or whatnot, we’re inviting our followers into that experience, which may or may not be welcome to other people that are part of that experience. So we essentially… It’s great to take photos for memories, for us to remember things that happened in the past, but when we start talking about posting them, it changes the whole dynamic. And it also changes it too because we tend to post them during the event, and now we’re in the dopamine loop during the event, we’re posting while the event is still going on, and we’re going back to check Instagram, “Did I get any likes?” Now I’m back to my variable reward schedule. It’s okay to post after, if it’s the actual event, but again, I think we have to ask ourselves, “Okay, did I change my vacation because I wanna be a content creator? Or did I do the things that I wanted to do and now, I’m gonna share that with people on Instagram?” That’s healthy, but if it’s changing what we wanna do in our lives, that may not be healthy.
Brett McKay: I was wondering too, you highlight research, so not only when you take pictures for Instagram of an experience you’re having, not only do you remember that experience less because you’re so focused on getting the right image and then you’re posting it and you’re looking for… So your attention is diverted from actually experiencing that moment, but then also, people when they look back on the experience, they actually remember it less fondly, they had a bad time in a negative light, compared to those who just, “I’m just gonna enjoy this experience and not gonna spectate, I’m not gonna take a third party view to see what this would look like on Instagram.”
Charles Chaffin: Yeah, it’s as simple as saying, if I sent you to an experience that you really wanted to go to and I said, “I want you to work this device throughout that great experience.” You’ll be like, “I don’t wanna do that, I wanna enjoy the experience in and of itself.” Right? So, it goes back to this idea of our attention and the amount of attention we have to devote to certain experiences, and it also, again, goes back to what it is that we actually want to do and not altering that based upon what we see ourselves as a content creator. And by the way, there’s research out there that shows that even when it comes to our devices and experiences, we have 10% of people say that they picked up their phone during sex, I don’t know if they’re posting pictures on Instagram of it, but… We’re altering our experiences because of this element of attention and dopamine. And I don’t think there was data that talked to the other partner, that was part of that, but I can’t imagine that it was seen favorably.
Brett McKay: No, I imagine not. And speaking of how our behavior has changed because of… ‘Cause we’re doing it for the gram. Last week, my wife and I we drove to New Mexico, went to Santa Fe for a few days. On the way there, we’re passing through Amarillo and in Amarillo, there’s this thing called the Cadillac Ranch. Have you heard of the Cadillac Ranch?
Charles Chaffin: I have, yes.
Brett McKay: Yeah, so you know these Cadillacs, they are buried at an angle, like the nose in… And I used to go to New Mexico all the time as a kid, ’cause I got family there. And you drive by the Cadillac Ranch and no one was ever there. It was just like these… It’s like this is a goofy thing. I drove by last week and there was this ginormous line, just a huge line of people, there was a taco truck, and I guess it’s become this Instagram destination, people take pictures of themselves in front of the Cadillac Ranch, and I just thought it was so bizarre. If it weren’t for Instagram, I don’t think anyone would be standing in line to check this stuff out.
Charles Chaffin: Yeah, and you would love to ask those same people a year from now, “So, what was your experience like at the Cadillac Ranch?” And they might talk to you about how they drove way out of their way to get there, and how much of an effort it was. Are they gonna… And nothing against the Cadillac Ranch.
Brett McKay: Nothing against the Cadillac Ranch.
0:34:26.7 CC: Are they gonna say that it was a great experience? I mean, again, it goes back to this ROI. “Well, it’s on Instagram, how many likes did you get?” It goes back to that artificial reward.
Brett McKay: Okay. So, with Instagram; be a little more thoughtful. You don’t have to… Enjoy the experience for what it is, snap a picture, a few. And then… I found for personal experiences, I only share pictures with close friends and family, I don’t have a public-facing personal Instagram account because I just want that stuff for me and my family, and I don’t know, that seems to work for me, other people’s mileage may vary.
Charles Chaffin: And that’s… Most people, most researchers would say the approach that you’re taking is exactly right, that whether it’s Instagram or Facebook, if we’re using the platform to share and strengthen relationships with people we know and people that we care about, sharing that we went to X, Y and Z is a good thing, right? Or sharing part of our day, that’s a good thing. But the whole dynamic changes when we start engaging and sharing with people that we don’t know and we didn’t talk much about FOMO here. But, if I know people on my Facebook and they start posting these curated versions of their lives that it seems like they’re on vacation all the time. You know, I can say to myself, “Well, you know that’s John. You know John’s always… I know John, John’s life ain’t that great, he’s using filters there, and he goes on vacation once every two years, and he spreads out those photos.” That’s… Okay, that’s fine.
Charles Chaffin: But when we have people we don’t know, now FOMO starts to come into the picture where we start to say, “Well, wait a minute, look at their lives, and why isn’t my life like that?” And we actually start to question our own choices, we start to say, “Well, wait a minute, why aren’t I doing those things?” So, working within a certain sphere of people that we have relationships seems to be very healthy when it comes to social media, but when we get beyond that, it gets a little bit tougher for us to understand and think about what our expectations are.
Brett McKay: So, we’ve talked about different areas of our internet lives where our attention is being fought for and things we can do to rest back control, but like big picture, what do you think someone who’s listening to this podcast can start doing today to take back their attention and be more intentional about how they use the internet, so they don’t feel numb?
Charles Chaffin: I think the first thing is, as we mentioned earlier, is this reflective process. Is the time that you’re allocating towards these platforms, getting you to where your goals are? Your goals for your career, your goals for your remodeling your home, your goals for your relationships and your personal life, or your experiences, whatnot? Is it really working for you, or are you in a habit of distraction, where you just habitually go and doom scroll on some of these platforms or argue with people and become outraged? So, that’s the first element.
Charles Chaffin: And I think related to that is, are you using it as a tool? Is it a tool for deeper relationships, whether it’s a dating app or whether it’s Facebook or Instagram, is it leading you to more authenticity, or are you finding… Like some of the data that are coming out now, or is it making you more lonely? Where you’re investing more and more time and attention on these platforms that you’re not… You’re not engaging people authentically or you’re on your phone with your spouse or partner, and it’s actually taking away from the relationship that you have. So, if we can think about these things as tools and not destinations, and again, think critically about what they’re designed to do, we’re each gonna be better off. And knowing that we all know that our time is valuable, but our attention is just as valuable or more valuable, and we have an opportunity hopefully through the book and through this reflective process to say, “You know what, I’m taking it back, I’m gonna manage it towards what my goals are, towards traction rather than distraction.”
Brett McKay: Well, Charles this has been a great conversation, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Charles Chaffin: I appreciate that. You could find Numb on all the major platforms. It’s available hardback, e-book, audio book. I also have the Numb Podcast, which just started last month, I noticed that you all have 2.5 million downloads a month, and so that means between our two podcasts, we have 2.5 million downloads, but we’re just getting started there, but we walk through all of the different elements of the book. So, I encourage folks to look at that. And obviously, if you’re interested in more, go to charleschaffin.com.
Brett McKay: Alright, Charles Chaffin, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Charles Chaffin: Thank you, thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: My guest there was Dr. Charles Chaffin, he’s the author of the book Numb, it’s available on amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can find out more information about work at his website, charleschaffin.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/numb, where you can find links to resources, we delve deeper into this topic.
Brett McKay: Well, that wraps up another edition of The AoM Podcast, check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives that holds thousand of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AoM Podcast, you could do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com sign up, use code MANLINESS, to check out for a free month trial. Once you’ve signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AoM Podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple podcast or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or a family member, who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support, until next time it’s Brett McKay reminding you not only to listen to AoM Podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.