People casually refer to being “addicted” to their smartphones, or to a specific social media platform. But the scary truth is that smartphone notifications trigger something very powerful in the brain, and it can be quite difficult to resist it. In fact, smartphones use psychological tricks that you might want to know about. 

You’re probably familiar with Russian psychologist, Ivan Pavlov, and his famous studies with dogs. He initially began his research studying digestion in dogs, but as you probably know he discovered that dogs would start to drool just by hearing the sound associate with food, even if there wasn’t any food around.

And the same phenomenon is happening with humans and their smartphones. Now, when people hear a notification alert, it’s believed that the brain releases dopamine, giving us a sense of pleasure.

But as time goes on, the food (the message, post, text, etc.) loses power to the sound/notification itself. And because people become hungry for notifications, they’ll keep checking their phones over and over again, irrespective of how relevant the message or information is.

This psychological trick drives people to reach for their smartphones hundreds of times per day. It’s the same mechanism that slot machines use to keep people playing, and it also has a scientific name. This phenomenon is called the variable ratio schedule, by which unpredictable rewards fuel repetitive behaviors. Studies suggest that it sends dopamine surging in the brain.

So, instead of merely checking your phone’s updates, what you may actually be doing is seeking a feel-good, dopamine rush. Scientists are unsure whether to describe these behaviors as a disorder, a “problematic behavior” or even a behavioral addiction.

Whatever the researchers decide to call it, it’s important to be aware of growing and potential reliance on smartphones to feel a sense of pleasure and reward.