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Has Your Brain Been Hacked by a Smartphone App? They Are Designed to Do It

Monday, April 17, 2017 13:01
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Anderson Cooper, television personality and correspondent for “60 Minutes,” the nation’s longest-running television newsmagazine, visited California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) to interview communications professor Nancy Cheever and psychology professor Larry Rosen for a story about the effects of habit-forming smartphone applications on people’s behaviors and lives.

 The “60 Minutes” story, which aired April 9, featured former Google product manager Tristan Harris, who since leaving the tech giant has spoken out nationally about the development of smartphone apps—some of which he helped design—that he claims are purposefully designed by software companies to be addictive. Known in the industry as “brain-hacking,” companies program smartphone apps specifically to get users “hooked” and feel the need to check social media and other feeds constantly, which ultimately results in more “engagement” by the user and more advertising dollars for the software company.

Larry Rosen prepares with Anderson Cooper for his ’60 Minutes’ interview about smartphone brain-hacking..

Cheever, a communications professor who teaches courses in journalism and media at CSUDH, and whose research focuses on smartphones and how they affect people psychologically, and Rosen, whose research and writing focuses on the impact of the proliferating digital world on the brain and brain chemistry, were interviewed for their expertise on the effects of digital technology on emotions, behavior, and overall psychology.

Rosen told Cooper when smartphone users put down their smartphones they experience anxiety, and their brains signal their adrenal glands to release a “burst” of cortisol, the hormone that triggers human’s fight-or-flight reaction to danger.

“What we find is the typical person checks their phone every 15 minutes or less, and half of the time they check their phone there is no alert, no notification. It’s coming from inside their head telling them, ‘Gee, I haven’t checked Facebook in a while. I haven’t checked my Twitter feed for a while. I wonder if somebody commented on my Instagram post,’” said Rosen during his “60 Minutes” interview. “That then generates cortisol and it starts to make you anxious, and eventually your goal is to get rid of that anxiety, so you check in.”


Professor Nancy Cheever sits down with Anderson Cooper of ’60 Minutes’ to discuss the psychological changes that many smartphone users experience.

Credit: CSUDH

The CSUDH professors were interviewed in the University Library’s Dominguez Den lounge, and the George Marsh Applied Cognition Laboratory, which Cheever, and Rosen co-founded along with psychology Professor L. Mark Carrier who is an expert in applied cognitive psychology with research interests in technology and psychology, and culture and learning. Carrier led the “60 Minutes” crew in setting up the lab for filming.

Feeling Anxious: Two physiological devices were utilized to measure a Cooper’s skin conductance (sweat) and heart rate simultaneously. The skin conductance device is used to measure electrodermal activity and changes in the electrical properties of the skin. Snap electrodes were placed onto his fingers, and leads that communicate with the computer were attached to the electrodes, while the MP150 and EDA-100C receiver, a physiological data acquisition system, recorded data in real-time. The heart rate was monitored by an electrocardiogram to measure cardiac activity by measuring heartbeats per minute.

In the lab, the three CSUDH professors collaborate on various research projects in the area of applied cognitive psychology, a branch of psychology that focuses on information processing – memory, learning, thinking, reasoning, decision making, language, and consciousness – and their application in real-world contexts and everyday environments. Their lab research always involves undergraduate and graduate students, and they encourage students to conduct their own research experiments as well.

During the interview, Cooper asked Rosen, “Can I be honest with you right now? I haven’t paid attention to what you’re saying because I just realized my phone is right down by my right foot, and I haven’t checked it in, like 10 minutes.” Rosen responded, “And it makes you anxious?” “I’m a little anxious,” Cooper said.

To gauge a more precise level of his anxiety, Anderson Cooper, the film crew, and professors made their way to the lab where professor Cheever hooked Cooper up to two physiological devices used to measure skin conductance (sweat) and heart rate simultaneously by applying electrodes to his fingers. After placing his smartphone on a table behind him to “avoid distractions,” Cooper was asked to watch a video about media ownership ostensibly to test his physiological “arousal” to the video. However, the video was just a ruse.

“I went out into the hallway and I text-messaged him six times while he was watching the video “He couldn’t turn his head to look at his phone because he had to sit still with the electrodes on his fingers. Then I called his phone, which was a deviation from our normal procedure for the study, but I felt that if I called he probably wouldn’t be expecting it, and it could really induce a lot of anxiety,” said Cheever.

“After it was over, I went back and explained to him what we were really doing. He thought the messages were from work or someone else. We looked at the results and you could see that there was a definite spike in his physiological arousal—both the texts and call induced electrodermal activity in Anderson, but his heart rate pretty much stayed the same. So my deduction was that he likely has great conditioning, both mentally and physically, after being on television for so long. You would expect that.”
Contacts and sources:
Paul Browning 
California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) 


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Total 2 comments
  • diane

    This why I stay away from cellphones all together. They have a place in my life, and that is when I need to make a call. That is not often. I never check messages. It is always turned off, other then when I need to make a call.

  • Daffers

    No! But it sure looks like Donald Trump’s has been hacked – but by whom? As if we didn’t know! He has certainly changed his tune in the few weeks since his inauguration speech – he’s not in the boardroom now – he is in his element issuing orders which threaten world peace and could ultimately cost the lives of millions of people, endearing himself to no-one.

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