(Image: Sarah Gonzales)


The dangers of living online

In his new book The Internet Trap, Ashesh Mukherjee, an associate professor of marketing at the Desautels Faculty of Management, looks at some of the less appealing ways in which the online world affects us and offers suggestions about what we can do about it.

Story by Erik Leijon

April 2018

In Ashesh Mukherjee’s new book The Internet Trap, the associate professor of marketing at McGill’s Desautels Faculty of Management confirms what most of us already suspect: the Internet has changed our lives, and not always for the better.

Using the latest research in consumer psychology – including his own – Mukherjee assesses some of the less appealing ways in which the online world affects us, and proposes solutions for helping us to protect some of our imperiled decision-making power.

“There are so many things happening – from fake news to privacy issues. You can see the Internet is creating problems at the societal level and at a personal one, and people are wondering what the big picture is,” says Mukherjee. “I wanted to build on that and write something more structured based on research. There’s a lot of scientific testing being done on this subject, and I wanted to concentrate on that.”

Mukherjee says The Internet Trap doesn’t focus simply on the dangers of the Internet, but also on the psychological reasons behind them. One growing problem is information overload, especially when it comes to online shopping.

Mukherjee does research on branding, advertising and social media. He has seen how a plethora of customizable options when it comes to purchasing, although designed to make life more convenient, can have the opposite effect by encouraging us to overspend on extras we don’t really need. People are spending increasing amounts of time shopping online, looking for that perfect buy from a seemingly endless set of options.

“When we make choices, we think every choice has to be perfect – it’s maximization,” he says. But having so many options to consider isn’t necessarily good for us. “Don’t sweat the small stuff, is what I would argue. It’s not worth it to maximize every decision, because most of them just aren’t that important,” Mukherjee says.

The online tools that encourage an ever-narrower focus based on an individual’s previous behaviour also place troubling limits on our ability to expand our horizons.

“The easiest example of that is news, with political polarization. People are living in their own silos of ideology, and it’s because it’s easier now to surround yourself with confirming information only,” he says.

Mukherjee also examines how people are more inclined to divulge personal, private information on Facebook despite knowing it is an open forum and that their data can be collected by others.

The reason for that, Mukherjee explains, is that when you’re on Facebook, privacy is largely regarded as an abstract concept. First and foremost on a Facebook user’s mind when they log on is communicating with friends and reading about one another’s exploits. Those are concrete benefits, says Mukherjee, and as he put it in a recent discussion of the book at a Desautels event with Sid Lee’s Bertrand Cesvet, MBA’90, “concrete dominates abstract in people’s behaviour.”

Another consequence of our growing reliance on the Internet that most people will likely relate to is how, with Google and Wikipedia so readily available, retaining knowledge for ourselves doesn’t seem as important as it once did.

But if you’re relying on Google for that information, you’re at the mercy of the first two or three hits that come up in a search result, meaning you’re absorbing the biases of these sites. “There’s no substitute for your own digested view of a topic in your own head,” Mukherjee says.

Mukherjee didn’t want The Internet Trap to only look at the downsides of being online, so at the end of each chapter, he includes steps to take in order to shake bad habits and regain control. That could mean stepping away from social media whenever you see something that makes you envious, or allotting a specific amount of time to shopping online so you don’t get bogged down by too many options.

Walking away completely from the Internet isn’t a realistic option for most of us, he warrants.

“The Internet is going to be an even more integral part of our lives in the future. Internet might be in our glasses, biologically implemented or in our clothes,” he says. “It’s going to be everywhere, and the danger is to use the Internet thoughtlessly. I want people to use the Internet thoughtfully, and understand that every time they open their phone, they need to think about what can help and what can hurt.”

Follow that advice and Mukherjee believes, “You’ll get into less debt, make better choices, be happier with those choices and overall have a better life balance on and offline.”

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