How The Internet Is Like A Slot Machine, And Why It’s Easy To Get Lost In It

If you just found yourself googling “Depeche Mode,” don’t worry: You’re not alone. The revealing psychology behind web wandering.

How The Internet Is Like A Slot Machine, And Why It’s Easy To Get Lost In It

Why does opening a new tab so often feel like opening a door to a new dimension? Because of structure–both in terms of us humans and of the Internet.


How’s that?

The Internet: constant friends!

Homo sapiens are super social creatures; it’s one of the things about being a mammal. And yet the Internet makes it so easy to overdose.

We really like the hit of validation that social interactions give us, Scientific American observes. Notice the glee of a personal email or the poignancy of a “no-notificaiton” opening of your Facebook account.

Tom Stafford, a University of Sheffield cognitive scienctist whose work we’ve chattered about before, explained to SciAm that email and social media have the same reward structure as a slot machine: It’s mostly junk, but sometimes you hit some juicy gossip.

This pulls us back again and again, Stafford explains, as you link the ping of the instant message–a cue–with the feel-good brain chemicals–a reward. That cue-reward pattern is the basis of habit–and it’s why we reach for that social validation again and again.

The Internet: constant fears!

But while accessing the web can make you feel good for the positive social experiences that startups so well exploit, it can also make you all anxious for the threats lying latent around the corner of your inbox: Your boss could be emailing you something critical right now.


This, as we’ve discussed before, leads to email apnea: that feeling that since you’re (unconsciously) worried about who’s going to send you something terrifying so you don’t actually breathe deeply and then you discover that maybe your email is slowly suffocating you (it is!).

The Internet: constant everything!

Another reason we get lost inside of the Internet is because we can’t separate one task from another. Stafford, the cognitive scientist, says it well: “You could try to “research something, and then accidentally go to Wikipedia, and then wind up trying to find out what ever happened to Depeche Mode.”

Making the call to not listen to Depeche Mode is making a decision–and you only have so much energy until you start suffering from decision fatigue.

“Technology is all about eroding structure,” Stafford says. “But actually, psychologically, we need more structure, and those things are in tension.”

Supplying the structure

With a little bit of mindfulness, we can hem in our distractedness.

How do you prevent from getting Internet-lost? Tell us, here on the Internet.


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.