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The Biological Power of Push

You’re in a bar. You’ve just found three people in close proximity to you on Tinder that you find attractive, so you’ve swiped them to the right to let them know you’re nearby & interested. Each swipe with your finger sets off a small chain-reaction of events within your body that can be as narcotic as crack. The game is on.

For the record – the story of this type of mating ritual did not exist until a few years ago, so what we’re about to observe in this bar is something totally new… A whole, uncharted set of triggers, behaviours and reactions designed in an app-developers head and released into the wild with very little thought beyond the potential to change the dating game. This really is the frontier of HCI (human computer interaction).

You close the app, switch off your iPhone and start to slide it back into your pocket and then IT happens… the vibration occurs almost the second the device is inside your pocket and you know somebody might just have reciprocated your virtual advance (or your mum has just texted to tell you not to get too drunk & be quiet when you come in).

Even before the moment you receive that good vibration telling you that you’ve scored, some very interesting things are already occurring inside your body. When you found those three potential mates in the bar and flicked them across to the right with your thumb, your body went into adrenaline high-alert, waiting in anticipation for that reciprocal swipe to the right. Now that you’ve actually received one, your body is going full throttle through the gears of excitement, stress, anxiety and joy. In the time it takes for you to take your phone back out of your pocket and unlock it, the hypothalamus sends a message instructing your adrenal gland to produce even more of the hormone testosterone. Testosterone is what we call an anabolic steroid and one seriously potent chemical. As the hormone fans out across your body it will start to have its physical effect on your physiology almost instantaneously. It also returns to the brain, changing the very way you are going to think and behave.

Using one little app you just went back through 30,000 years of evolution to your primitive Neanderthal roots… Biologically speaking anyway.

The hypothalamus, a brain region found by projecting lines in from the bridge of your nose and sideways from the front of your ears, regulates our hormones, and through them our eating, sleeping, sodium levels, water retention, reproduction, aggression and so on. It acts as the main integration site for emotional behaviour, in other words it coordinates the hormones and the brain stem and the emotional behaviours into a coherent bodily response. When, for example, an angry cat hisses, and arches its back, and fluffs its fur, and secretes adrenalin, it is the hypothalamus that has assembled these separate displays of anger and orchestrated them into a single coherent emotional act.

In that bar at the moment of success, when you received the green light to advance to first base, the hypothalamus just did the same thing to you as it did to that hissing cat. In literally milliseconds it totally re-engineered your whole body for the task that’s about to start. Testosterone just increased your confidence and appetite for risk. Even if the next move you make fails and they decide you are just not worthy of them, you will have emerged with much higher levels of testosterone than when you first entered into the bar. However, had you lost the game completely, and you had been left hanging because they’d swiped you to the left, the opposite would have happened and you would have unknowingly found yourself with a much lower level of testosterone. Good news though, as the victor, when you do decide to proceed or even go for another potential mate in the bar, you’re going to be doing it with those elevated levels of testosterone, and this androgenic priming gives you an edge, making your reactions much quicker. You’ll find yourself beating any others to the swipe, sending the Push & Ping quicker than ever before. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of primal, digital joy that turns all the winners into adrenaline junkies… Literally.

Over the years Scientists have replicated these effects with athletes, and believe the testosterone feedback loop may actually explain winning and losing streaks in sports. It’s the same thing here, only we’ve just marketed it on a massive scale, away from elite athletics, and created a whole new generation of people riding the same waves of hormone fuelled adventure.

Pre-attentive processing

There are some other factors at play during this little explosion of bodily reactions too. Research in experimental psychology has found that perceptual acuity and general levels of attention increase as more senses are involved. In other words, vision becomes more acute when coupled with touch, touch with smell, smell with audio etc. The explanation ventured for these findings is that information arriving from two or more senses instead of just one increases the probability that it is reporting a real event, so our brain takes it more seriously. By virtue of being hunting in the wild and the digital signals coming out you in this urban environment, your brain is even more fired up than normal. Sounds obvious I know, but it’s a huge factor in the explanation of the success of mobile.

Another interesting variable is that the brain is actually quite a slow processor and has quite a neat trick that saves you from your fatally slow consciousness. When fast reactions are demanded it cuts out consciousness altogether and relies instead on reflexes, automatic behavior and what it called ‘pre-attentive processing’. Pre-attentive processing is a type of perception, decision-making and movement initation that occurs without any consultation with your conscious brain, and before it is even aware of what is going on. So in that busy environment – the urban world – because of all the factor and stimulants around you, there is a large amount of auto-pilot going on. A much different set of bodily functions being iniated than in the early days of say, online dating, when everything was desktop based.

The long game

There’s a really brilliant part of the brain called the amygdala that assigns emotional significance to events. Without the amygdala, we would view the world as a collection of uninteresting options. That charging grizzly bear in the woods would impress us as nothing more threatening than a large, moving object. Bring the amygdala online, and miraculously the grizzly morphs into the terrifying and deadly predator and we scramble up the nearest tree. The amygdala is the key brain region registering events in the outside world and initiating the suite of physical changes known as the ‘stress response’. It also registers signs of emotional change outside the body, such as rapid breathing and heart rate, increased blood pressure etc.

In scientific lingo, the stress response system is called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis). After perceiving a stressor from the Amygdala, the hypothalamus sends a chemical message to the pituitary gland. From here a new chemical message is sent out of the brain through our blood, to the producers of stress hormones called the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys. This message has caused another hormone to start leaking out of a adrenal glands and across your body at the same time as the testosterone takes it grip, and this hormone is the really interesting one – meet Cortisol. Cortisol is a steroid hormone, more specifically a glucocorticoid, produced by the zona fasciculata of the adrenal cortex. It is released in response to stress and anxiety. Cortisol works in tandem with adrenaline, but while adrenalin is a fast-acting hormone, taking effect in seconds and having a half-life in the blood of only two to three minutes, cortisol kicks in to support us during a long siege.

Imagine the game of Tinder you’re playing is like hiking in the woods and you hear a rustle in the bushes, you may suspect the presence of a grizzly bear, so the shot of adrenalin you receive is designed to carry you clear of that danger. If that noise you hear turns out to be nothing but the wind in the leaves you settle down, and the adrenalin quickly dissipate. But if you are in fact being stalked by a predator and the chase lasts several hours, then cortisol takes over the management of your body. It orders all long-term and metabolically expensive functions of the body, such as digestion, reproduction, growth, storage of energy, and after a while even the immune function, to stop. At the same time, it begins to break down energy stores and flush the liberated glucose into your blood. In short, cortisol has one main far-reaching command: glucose now! Tonight isn’t the first night you’ve gone Tinder hunting, it’s a regular pursuit and every time you pull out your phone to play, at that crucial moment in your life, cortisol has in effect ordered a complete re-tooling of your body’s factories, away from leisure and consumption goods and got you ready for all out war.

Think about it for a moment… In that moment between push & ping you’re body has completely changed. Clever, huh?! The point is this, and I cannot emphasise it enough: when faced by situations of novelty, uncertainty, opportunity or choice, you FEEL the things you do because of changes taking place in your brain AND your body as it prepares for action.

In the brain, cortisol, like testosterone, initially has the beneficial effects of increasing arousal and sharpening attention, even promoting a slight thrill from the challenge, but as levels of the hormone rise and stay elevated, it comes to have the opposite effects – there is a difference between short-term and long-term exposure to a hormone and that is a very important distinction to remember. In a lot of digital services we’re designing, either by choice or by accident (likely accident) we’re promoting the production of cortisol by spacing out actions and events across prolonged periods of time.

Conclusion

Just to finish off this little story about the wonderful world of Tinder, and before we go too far down this path of biological reductionism, I have to point out that hormones do NOT cause behaviour. They act more like lobby groups, recommending and pressuring us into certain types of activity and behaviour.

Your brain does NOT have to comply to hormone attacks. If you are on a diet, or a religious fast, or a hunger strike, you can choose to ignore the messages of hunger. You can, in other words, choose your own actions, and ultimately take responsibility for them. Nonetheless, with the passing of time and repetition, the biological message, at first whispered can become more like a foghorned bellow, and that can be hard to resist. Which takes me back to the original principles I discussed around creating experiences that not only create an emotional reaction, but also experiences that are spread out and sustained as a series of commas and not full-stops. That’s when habits start to form.

In that second in the bar when your phones goes Ping and you know you’ve hit a potential jackpot comes a minute and rapid shift in body, maybe a slight tightening of the muscles, a shiver of hope, an almost imperceptible shot of excitement which spurs you into action to follow up the invite. What is the point we have to ask, of our sensations, our memories, our cognitive abilities, if these do not lead at some point to action, be it walking, or reaching, or swimming, or eating or even writing? I like to think of this reactions as ‘the gut feeling’. So you see, the little game of Tinder hunting you play in that bar is far more exciting than you can possibly know… Just be careful not to get too addicted to it. Despite your frequent successes, you might also end up following the narrative arc of tragedy, with it’s grim and unstoppable logic of overconfidence and downfall, what the ancient greeks called Hubris (which is where the term Hubris Syndrome is derived) and Nemesis. There are a myriad of ways in which decisions and behaviours can stray from the axioms of rational choice and as we observe the new generation evolving in a digital world we are truly starting to see the actual effects of this new ‘lawnmower man’ existence. It all starts with one swipe to the left or right.

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