The psychology of your scrolling addiction

Studies have shown that 77% of employees use social media at work. Why is it so easy to fall down the rabbit hole of content consumption? And what does it take to withdraw and resume the work you want to do? In this article, the authors discuss the results of a series of studies exploring what makes people more or less likely to be sucked into endlessly watching videos or looking at publications. They identify three key factors – the amount of media you’ve viewed, the similarity of media you’ve viewed, and how you viewed them – and claim that all three have the power to influence the appeal of related content. . feel. Based on these findings, they suggest that if you’re worried about falling down a rabbit hole on social media, you should take steps to reduce the similarity, repetitiveness, and relatedness of the content you consume.

Imagine this: you’ve just settled into your work day and written that big report you need to finish, when a friend sends you some celebrity videos on Instagram. You think you’ll only take a few minutes to watch the videos – and then the next thing you know, an hour has passed. You’ve been sucked down the rabbit hole, watching video after video while that big report sits neglected on your desk.

We all want to use our time efficiently and productively, especially at work. However, studies have shown that 77% of employees use social media during the clock, many of them up several hours a day. Even when we don’t have a mission looming, we hardly ever sit down, turn on our phones, and intentionally decide, “I’m going to spend two hours on TikTok right now!” So how does “I’m just gonna watch a few celebrity confessionals” turn into hours of viewing?

To better understand why people fall into these kinds of rabbit holes (and how they can get out of them and get back to work), we conducted a survey series of studies with a total of 6,445 US-based students and working adults. Through this research, we identified three factors that determine whether people choose to continue viewing photos and videos rather than moving on to another activity: the amount of media the person has already viewed, the similarity of the media that they watched and how they consulted the media.

In the first part of our research, we were interested in whether the attraction of the rabbit hole would become stronger or weaker after people had already watched several videos. We asked participants to watch five different music videos or just one music video, and then asked them if they preferred to watch another video or perform a work-related task. In theory, one would expect people to tire of watching music videos after watching five in a row, reducing their desire to watch more. But in fact, we found the opposite to be true: Watching five videos made viewers 10% more likely to choose to watch an additional music video than watching just one.

Next, we looked at the impact of framing videos viewed as similar to each other. We showed participants the same two videos, but for half of the participants we explicitly tagged the videos with the same category label (“educational videos”), while for the other half of the participants we only no category label included. We found that simply framing videos as more similar via the category tag made people 21% more likely to choose to watch another related video.

Finally, we looked at how people acted after watching multiple videos consecutively, compared to when they watched the same number of videos with few interruptions. One group of participants performed two work tasks and then watched two similar videos, while the other group performed the same four tasks, but alternately (i.e. work, video, work, video). Despite doing exactly the same activities, the order made a big difference: Participants with uninterrupted video consumption were 22% more likely to choose to watch another video than those who alternated between work tasks and videos.

Obviously, seemingly insignificant details about the order and types of content we consume can have a major impact on our decision to continue consuming similar content. But what drives this effect? Previous research suggests that the three factors we have identified all increase accessibility of similar media. In this context, accessibility refers to the degree of familiarity or precedence of a given type of content. When something seems more accessible, it becomes easier to process, which leads us to anticipate that we will appreciate it more. In other words, people choose to continue down the rabbit hole because watching related media “feels good” – even if it goes against what they actually want to do, be it work or even just taking a break.

These results also explain why it’s so easy to get distracted by apps like Instagram or YouTube at work. These platforms are designed to trick viewers into a rabbit hole on social media: they offer small content that makes it possible to quickly consume multiple videos or posts in a row, they often automatically suggest similar content, and many of them even automatically start playing. similar videos, reducing the risk of interruptions. While presenting users with engaging content isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the accessibility of this medium is exactly what makes it so hard for users to break free from the rabbit hole and get back to what they were working on.

The good news is that a better understanding of what makes the rabbit hole so powerful can also give us the tools we need to escape it. Specifically, we are more likely to get sucked in if we view many photos or videos in a row, consume multiple pieces of similar content, and are not interrupted while consuming that content. So, to fight the pull of the rabbit hole, make an effort to watch just one video; if you really want to watch several in a row, choose videos that seem unrelated; or find ways to intentionally interrupt your viewing experience. There are countless strategies that can help you break the cycle: you can use a social media timer that prompts you to take a break after a certain amount of time, keep a post-it on your desk with a note to avoid looking too many videos in one line, or even just consciously reminding yourself to consume different types of content.

In the end, there’s nothing wrong with watching a chat video or two, or scrolling through a few memes from a friend. It only becomes a problem when consuming all that media keeps you from doing the things you actually want to do. So if you’re worried about falling down a rabbit hole (or if you’ve already fallen in and are struggling to get out), see if you can find ways to reduce the similarity, repetitiveness, and relationship between the content you consume. It can be difficult, but it’s not impossible – and once you manage to break free, you’ll be back to that big report in no time.

About Elaine Morales

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