Picture this: You've just settled into your workday and pulled up that big report you need to finish, when a friend sends you a couple of celebrity videos on Instagram. You figure you'll just take a few minutes to watch the videos — and then the next thing you know, an hour has gone by. You've been sucked down the rabbit hole, watching video after video, while that big report sits, neglected, on your desk.
We all want to use our time efficiently and productively, especially while at work. And yet, studies have shown that 77 per cent of employees use social media while on the clock, many of them for up to several hours a day. Even when we don't have a looming assignment, we almost never sit down, turn on our phones and intentionally decide, "I'm going to spend two hours on TikTok now!" So how does "I'll just watch a few celebrity confessionals" spiral into hours of viewing?
To better understand why people fall into these sorts of rabbit holes (and how they can climb out and get back to work), we conducted a series of studies with a total of 6,445 US-based students and working adults. Through this research, we identified three factors that influence whether people choose to continue viewing photos and videos rather than switch to another activity: the amount of media the person has already viewed, the similarity of the media they've viewed, and the manner in which they viewed the media.
In the first part of our research, we were interested in exploring whether the pull of the rabbit hole would grow stronger or weaker once people had already viewed several videos. We had participants view either five music videos or one music video, and then we asked them if they'd rather watch another video or complete a work-related task. In theory, one might expect that people would get tired of watching music videos after watching five in a row, reducing their desire to watch more of them. But in fact, we found that the opposite was true: Watching five videos made people 10% more likely to choose to watch an additional music video than if they watched only one.
Next, we examined the impact of framing the videos people watched as similar to one another. We showed participants the same two videos, but for half of the participants, we explicitly labelled the videos with the same category label ("educational videos"), while for the other half of the participants, we didn't include a category label. We found that simply framing the videos as more similar via the category label made people 21% more likely to choose to watch another related video.
Finally, we looked at how people acted after watching several videos consecutively, versus when they watched the same number of videos with some interruptions. We had one group of participants complete two work tasks and then watch two similar videos, while the other group completed the same four tasks, but alternated between them (i.e., work, video, work, video). Despite having done exactly the same activities, the order made a big difference: The participants whose video consumption was uninterrupted were 22% more likely to choose to watch another video than those who alternated between work tasks and videos.
Clearly, seemingly small details around the order and types of content we consume can have a major impact on our decision to keep consuming similar content. But what drives this effect? Prior research suggests that the three factors we identified all increase the accessibility of similar media. In this context, accessibility refers to how familiar a given kind of content feels. When something feels more accessible, it becomes easier to process, leading us to anticipate that we will enjoy it more. In other words, people choose to continue down the rabbit hole because viewing related media "feels right" — even if it's at odds with what they actually want to be doing, whether that's getting work done or even just taking a break.
These results also illuminate why it's so easy to get distracted by apps like Instagram or YouTube at work. These platforms are designed to trap viewers in a social media rabbit hole: They offer bite-sized content that makes it easy to quickly consume several videos or posts in a row, they often automatically suggest similar content, and many of them even automatically start playing similar videos, reducing the potential for interruptions. While presenting users with engaging content isn't necessarily a bad thing, the accessibility of this media is exactly what makes it so hard for users to break free from the rabbit hole and get back to whatever they were working on.
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The good news is, a better understanding of what makes the rabbit hole so powerful can also give us the tools we need to escape it. Specifically, we're more likely to get sucked in if we view many photos or videos in a row, if we consume multiple pieces of similar content and if we are uninterrupted while consuming that content. So, to combat the pull of the rabbit hole, make an effort to just watch one video; if you really want to watch several in a row, choose videos that seem unrelated; or find ways to interrupt your viewing experience. There are countless strategies that can help you break the cycle: You can use a social media timer that prompts you to take a break after a certain amount of time, keep a sticky note on your desk with a note to avoid watching too many videos in a row, or even just consciously remind yourself to consume different kinds of content.
Ultimately, there's nothing wrong with watching a cat video or two, or scrolling through a few memes from a friend. It only becomes a problem when consuming all this media keeps you from doing the things you actually want to be doing. So, if you're worried about falling down a rabbit hole (or if you've already fallen into one and you're struggling to climb out), see if you can find ways to reduce the similarity, repetitiveness and relatedness of the content you're consuming. It can be difficult, but it's not impossible — and once you manage to break free, you'll be back at that big report in no time.
Written by: Kaitlin Woolley and Marissa A. Sharif
© 2022 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group