Behavior Hacking and The Facebook Files: A Closer Look

by | Oct 21, 2021

behavior hacking

If you’ve been keeping up with the Facebook Files, you know some information has been unearthed about the social media platform in recent weeks. Various investigations into the inner workings of Facebook have revealed the impact it can have on mental health for users of all ages, particularly teens and young adults. If you aren’t up to date, you can catch up on the WSJ’s Facebook Files story here. 

So how does a company with a mission of connecting people start creating more anxiety or depression than connection? Perhaps after looking at how the app is designed and the behavior hacks it uses, we shouldn’t be surprised at all. And if most of the consumer apps we use on a daily basis are designed in the exact same way, this might just be the tip of the iceberg for social tech.

Their Reasons and Your Reasons 

We have to remember a key factor in thinking about app design: their reasons are not your reasons.  Think about the last time you logged into Facebook or Instagram. What was the reason you were there? Did you want to keep up with a friend? Check an event? Now what’s Facebook’s reason for having you in the app? Yes, it’s to do those things, but it’s also to drive up your time on page. That’s why they add features that make it easier for us to navigate the app, which in reality are designed like slot machines that keep us coming back to test our luck with more refreshing and more red notification bells. 

Did you know that even the first grocery stores implemented this same type of behavior design we see in advanced app design now? Take a guess at the most commonly purchased grocery item over time. If you guessed milk, you’d be correct. And that item is placed at the very back of the store. If the store was designed for you, shouldn’t the most popular item be in the most accessible place? But stores know that on the way to the dairy section, you’ll pass items you forgot you wanted or needed, and throw them in the cart. You leave feeling accomplished that you picked up something good along with what you came for, but the store is the real winner because they designed the aisles to make this happen. 

Their reasons are not your reasons.

The Menu Problem

Facebook often comes out with new features marketed to make the app more user-friendly, discourage fake news, tune out negative/political messaging and more things that sound appealing to consumers and our mental health. Like most apps with a feed mechanic, you have the illusion of choice when scrolling through Facebook. It seems like every few months there is something new you can do. But have you ever stopped to think about what you can’t do? 

At a restaurant, we don’t think about what options we aren’t getting – we focus on the array of options in front of us. And the same goes for the freedom we have in apps like Facebook. Apps can create the illusion that users have more choices than they really do. Behind this illusion, apps are controlling what’s on the menu, and therefore influencing the options we pick. And the choices users are provided all have one thing in common: They fit an app’s agenda and goals. Usually, this means getting users to spend more time on the app.

For example, one Facebook update included more reaction options to posts. Rather than just like, you now have the option to react with different emotions, such as sad and angry. At first glance, this seems like more options being added to your menu. But that illusion of freedom is designed to create more volatility on posts and incentivize posting controversial, emotionally-charged content bound to generate these reactions. A study showed that 70% of Americans turn to the platform as a news source. Facebook knows this, but still emotionally-charged posts get more engagement and perform better. You can guess what happens from there. 

What options did they leave off a user’s menu in order to push a business agenda?


So what can we do about it? The Facebook Files’ release was the first step in bringing this to light. More consumers are aware of the concerns that face app users. More importantly, consumers are aware that Facebook knew exactly what they were doing. But the reality is, this isn’t unique to Facebook. Behavior hacking has been around a long time, and app makers are only getting more clever about implementing it.

 So next time you find yourself scrolling, think about what options aren’t front and center on the menu, like muting profiles that aren’t beneficial to your mental health. Or, choose the menu option they’ll never give you: log off and take back your time. Create a balanced life that includes social media, but never let it blur what you really want and what matters most to you. 

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