Technology Really Is Making You Fat (But Not How You Think)

Technology Really Is Making You Fat (But Not How You Think)

It’s lazy to point out that technology makes us lazy. Of course it does. The entire idea of technology is predicated around an efficiency whose end is specifically a decline in human exertion. You know, lazy. But technology’s actually making us fat for another reason altogether.

Kathy Sierra wrote a piece last week pinned to a 1999 study by Dr Baba Shiv:

In 1999, Professor Baba Shiv (currently at Stanford) and his co-author Alex Fedorikhin did a simple experiment on 165 grad students.They asked half to memorize a seven-digit number and the other half to memorize a two-digit number. After completing the memorization task, participants were told the experiment was over, and then offered a snack choice of either chocolate cake or a fruit bowl.

The participants who memorized the seven-digit number were nearly 50% more likely than the other group to choose cake over fruit.

The implication there is subtle, but important. Taxing your brain in one way (remembering five extra digits) weakened its ability to be effective in another (maintaining willpower). One cognitive function, it seems, using the same fuel that others use. It means that your brain is a zero-sum, combined-fuel-tank machine. It also means that everything you (or more topically, software designers) force your brain to do, the less efficient it is at the rest of its tasks. Tasks like not eating so much damn cake.

This is the same principle adopted by CEOs and other important weirdos — think Zuck and those t-shirts — who limit the choices they have to make in a day by wearing the same thing every day. The fewer choices you have to make in a day, even trivial ones, the more effective your brian will be at what you really need it to do. The experiment showed, though, it’s not just things like decisions on the job that will suffer, but willpower itself. Your body starts working on instinct. It craves the food it knows it enjoys, or tells its annoying boss — negative stimulus! — to go to hell, or just sits its arse down on the couch because exertion is like death and again that is literally why we invented technology.

The same principle was demonstrated in a study with dogs; dogs who were told to sit still for several minutes before being shown some food ate much more than ones who had just been doing whatever they wanted. Willpower had been sapped from the ones exercising self-control. Their brains were focusing on a purely instinctual level.

For the sake of argument — and with the backing of convincing research — let’s assume this is all true. Sweet hell, we have a lot of decisions to make now. It’s not just the taxing design that Sierra is talking about, it’s literally the entire way we interact with technology. Your phone buzzes with a notification, do you take it out of your pocket or leave it because you’re in a conversation? You decide to look at it; do you swipe and unlock the phone to reply, or place it back in your pocket?

The capability of notifications and multitasking to keep you connected, fluidly, is one of the core ways that we determine if software is good. And yes, a good system is going to tax your brain a whole lot less than a bad one. But Sierra’s point is that what we call good UX and design often still makes us made decisions, use up our cognitive resources. It makes us eat the cake.

So what’s the takeaway here? Not that you should stop carrying around a phone, or not get notifications about stuff you need to know about. You’re always going to have important emails or IMs or tweets or whatever the hell. But it’s worth remembering that a good, seamless experience with tech — within apps or in an OS or gadget as a whole — is worth something to your brain. Maybe your waistline too. [Serious Pony via Reading by Eugene]

Picture: Shutterstock/Vinicius Tupinamba