I just spent a week going through the most 21st-century form of withdrawal

Last week something tragic happened. The lightning bolts vanished.

I’m talking about the ones next to each of story on this very site, the ones with the numbers beside them.

They refer to how many people have read our articles, and they change colour depending on the level of traffic: grey for posts that have yet to take off, green for superstars.

Last week, they briefly disappeared. My motivation level plummeted.

According to leading behavioural economics research, this isn’t unexpected. The difference between someone doing the bare minimum and them going the extra mile comes down to a key aspect of human psychology, which craves recognition and feedback. Without it, all hope of productivity is lost.

Dan Ariely, a behavioural economist at Duke University, has seen this firsthand when college students play with toys.

In 2008, Ariely designed a set of experiments in which groups of Duke students were paid a small and continually declining amount of money for each Bionicle action figure they put together. In one version of the experiment, the researchers put each completed Bionicle on the desk beside the previous one, letting the group see how much progress they’d made. In the other version, the Bionicle was immediately taken apart and given back to group members.

Ariely’s team found a stark difference in each group’s productivity levels. The first group put together an average of 11 Bionicles, earning them $US14.40. The other group, meanwhile, put together just 7 Bionicles, earning $US11.52.

For Ariely, this was a keyhole insight into productivity. He reasoned that when people can bask in the fruits of their labour, they are more likely to work hard. If someone spends time on a project, even if it’s 10 minutes putting together a toy, they will feel more motivated if they can enjoy the final product.

Prior to last week, I had immediate visual feedback on how well or poorly a story was performing. I felt rewarded for doing a good job because it meant people were giving their attention to something I’d made.

When the lightning bolts disappeared, it was as if each post evaporated into thin air once we hit Publish. I could still see and read each story, but I no longer had the numbers telling me my efforts were worth it. Someone was destroying the Bionicles right in front of me.

The part that scares me is that my reliance on lightning bolts and traffic numbers — a key aspect of doing my job — becomes yet another force in the black hole of red flags, notifications, and buzzing texts that have essentially become digital drugs.

In 2013, researchers from the University of Albany published a study that found heavy social media usage can produce the same impulse control disorders typically seen among substance abusers.

Each time we reach for a phone immediately after it buzzes, we train our brains to respond to the stimulus. When that stimulus disappears, we’re left craving a reward that isn’t coming. Withdrawal follows.

My lightning-bolt-induced apathy might not have been apathy at all, but a minor case of withdrawal.

Earlier this summer, Pacific Standard spoke with a handful of digital journalists who all attested to the rollercoaster of watching traffic numbers either soar or flatline. They spoke about the “high” of going viral.

“I’m not going to lie, it was a huge shot of adrenaline,” said writer Mark Lukach, referring to a viral story about his wife entering a psych ward. “It was very validating as a writer, that people are reading this, and people care, and they’re talking the time to reach out to me. This is something I put a lot of effort into. My wife and I both had to suffer through the process.”

Thankfully, the lightning bolts are back. And though one side of me is a little miffed that I was such a textbook case of productivity loss — at least by Bionicle standards — the fact it happened is humbling.

I’m not an unbreakable writing machine. I’m a human, and I need my lightning bolts.

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