5 Weird Ways Technology Is Changing Our Behavior

By Justin Stoltzfus
Published: January 10, 2014
Key Takeaways

High-tech consumer devices have changed a lot of us in very fundamental ways, perhaps more than we realize - or would like to admit.

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If you grew up during the fast-paced technological advances of the last three decades or so, it’s hard not to notice how much things have changed. We went from now-antiquated land lines with physical rotary phones and tape cassette voice machines, to mini-computers we now use to talk and text from anywhere. We went from a couple of squares on a TV or monitor heavy enough to break your foot, to entire virtual worlds with colorful panoramic views, all inside a tiny tablet. A lot of us might not pause very often to think about all of this change, or, for example, the fact that global data connections are now being expanded to link up everything but the kitchen sink ( and that’s probably coming soon...).

If you give it some thought, though, you have to admit that we're living in a bit of a weird world. High-tech consumer devices have changed a lot of us in very fundamental ways, perhaps more than we realize - or would like to admit. Here are a few things that might end up getting more and more attention as we come to grips with our new digitally connected selves.

There's a New Love In Your Life

One of the very broad aspects of IT-related behavior that experts study might be called digital preference. Think of it this way: How much time do you spend on your smartphone? How many real moments have you missed because you were talking, tapping or staring at a little screen?
When we really break down people’s preferences for a digital, versus physical, environment, many people would choose the former. This preference is reflected in common behaviors like "phubbing," or "phone snubbing," in which a smartphone holder deftly ignores the person trying to interact with them in real-time as they focus in on their screen. You may have seen this at a party, across the family dinner table or anywhere else that smartphone users can get a connection.

Oddly enough, the term "phubbing" seems to have been largely created as an artificial part of today’s new lexicon, as revealed in this Fast Company article about McCann Melbourne, who's credited with coining the term. The term's humble origins don’t make the phenomenon any less real though. The reason it's happening may have something to do with the next point...

Something's Shrinking...

If you haven't clicked over to another page yet, we'll let you in on what this something is: your attention span. Statistics suggest that the average attention span for someone of any age has been radically shortened by the flurry of images we encounter on television, computer screens, smartphones and tablets. According to recent statistics, the average attention span has dropped from 12 minutes to 5 seconds over the past decade. Yikes!

Where the average person used to be socially conditioned for long, dull periods of waiting, worship, work or introspection, we are now conditioned for split second updates and multitasking, to the point that our collective attention span has really taken a hit. Will we ever need it back?

Tall, Dark and Handsome...Avatars

Scientists are calling it the "Proteus effect," after the ever-evolving nature of the Greek god of the sea. What they're using it to describe is people who change their behaviors and personality based on digital representations, or avatars. These days, gamers aren’t the only ones using neat little visual headshots or 3-D characters as their ambassadors in digital worlds. From chat rooms to bylines, many of us have one or more avatars on one or more sites. As it turns out, however, that digital world has more influence on our everyday lives than we might think. For example, a 2009 study by the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab found that race choices in digital environments affected race-based behavior in people's everyday lives. A much newer study published in 2013 points to some pretty concerning trends about women in terms of the way they use avatars to objectify themselves. Or, check out this coverage of additional research by Dr. John M. Grohol, which examines some of the more innocuous trends based on height and general attractiveness that, again, show how avatar choices can have a profound impact on how we act in "the meat space." Weird, right?

The Google "Glasserati"

Tech journalists are writing more and more about that elite group of users - sometimes called the Glasserati - who were the first to adopt Google Glass. They really are going where no one has gone before, in terms of using an interface that essentially takes away from one of the natural senses in order to overlay it with digital information. It's one of the first technologies to actually superimpose data on the users' natural view of the world around them.

We’re used to thinking of these kinds of tech tools as enhancements of our five senses. But increasingly, experts are ringing alarm bells over how a split attention span can compromise both of the worlds that users are trying to interact with at the same time. (Read more about Google Glass in Is Google Glass Groundbreaking ... Or Just Goofy?)

In the broadest sense, this also comes back to digital preference. State officials and many others with an interest in our collective safety are emphatically warning device and augmented reality users to put away their toys at certain times, particularly anytime they’re behind the wheel of a vehicle. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has even built a website dedicated to this purpose here). Distracted driving is becoming one of the top dangers on American roads. Until we pour some significant resources into public transit, we’re going to struggle with the very real issues surrounding excessively tech-loaded drivers.

Keeping Up With the Joneses

Ever heard of Facebook envy? If you're a Facebook user, chances are you've experienced it. As it turns out, Facebook tends to make us lonelier and less happy. Researchers from Germany found that people who frequently use Facebook suffer from a generalized idea that other people’s lives are better than theirs, largely due to a sharing bias. In other words, Facebook users are more likely to post pictures of a luxury vacation, while things like funerals, divorces and the doldrums of daily life go undocumented. There is one caveat, though: Facebook envy most often affects "lurkers" - those who read a lot, but don’t write a lot. Other data shows that posting can be therapeutic and that the most active posters tend to feel happier and less lonely.

Are We Weird?

If our ancestors saw us walking around staring at devices, communicating online and attaching screens to everything, they'd think we were crazy. Technology has changed our behavior - and not always for the better. The good news is that whether these changes are for better or for worse is largely up to you.


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Written by Justin Stoltzfus | Contributor, Reviewer

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Justin Stoltzfus is a freelance writer for various Web and print publications. His work has appeared in online magazines including Preservation Online, a project of the National Historic Trust, and many other venues.

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