The Eternal Hatred of Interruptive Messages

Spamming and Phishing and Robocalls at Midnight
Pop ups and Autoplays and LinkedIn Requests from Salespeople

These are a few of my least favorite things

We all feel the excruciating pain of unsolicited demands on our attention. In a study of the 50 most annoying things in life of 2000 Brits by online security firm Kapersky, deleting spam email came in at number 4, behind scrubbing the bath, being trapped in voicemail hell and cleaning the oven.

Based on this study, cleanliness is actually next to spamminess.

Granted, Kapersky is a tech security firm so the results are probably biased to the digital side, but for me the results check out. As I ran down the list, I hated all the same things that were listed.

In the same study, Robocalls came in at number 10. Personally, that tops my list, especially phishing robocalls. I hate – hate – hate rushing to my phone only to hear that the IRS is going to prosecute me unless I immediately push 7 on my touchtone phone keyboard.

One, I’m Canadian. Two, go to Hell.

I spend more and more of my life trying to avoid marketers and scammers (the line between the two is often fuzzy) trying desperately to get my attention by any means possible. And it’s only going to get worse. A study just out showed that the ChatGPT AI chatbot could be a game changer for phishing, making scam emails harder to detect. And with Google’s Gmail filters already trapping 100 million phishing emails a day, that is not good news.

The marketers in my audience are probably outrunning Usain Bolt in their dash to distance themselves from spammers, but interruptive demands on our attention are on a spectrum that all share the same baseline. Any demand on our attention that we don’t ask for will annoy us. The only difference is the degree of annoyance.

Let’s look at the psychological mechanisms behind that annoyance.

There is a direct link between the parts of our brain that govern the focusing of attention and the parts that regulate our emotions. At its best, it’s called “flow” – a term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly that describes a sense of full engagement and purpose. At its worst, it’s a feeling of anger and anxiety when we’re unwilling dragged away from the task at hand.

In a 2017 neurological study by Rejer and Jankowski, they found that when a participant’s cognitive processing of a task was interrupted by online ads, activity in the frontal and prefrontal cortex simply shut down while other parts of the brain significantly shifted activity, indicating a loss of focus and a downward slide in emotions.

Another study, by Edwards, Li and Lee, points the finger at something called Reactance Theory as a possible explanation. Very simply put, when something interrupts us, we perceive a loss of freedom to act as we wish and a loss of control of our environment. Again, we respond by getting angry.

It’s important to note that this negative emotional burden applies to any interruption that derails what we intend to do. It is not specific to advertising, but a lot of advertising falls into that category. It’s the nature of the interruption and our mental engagement with the task that determine the degree of negative emotion.

Take skimming through a news website, for instance. We are there to forage for information. We are not actively engaged in any specific task. And so being interrupted by an ad while in this frame of mind is minimally irritating.

But let’s imagine that a headline catches our attention, and we click to find out more. Suddenly, we’re interrupted by a pop-up or pre-roll video ad that hijacks our attention, forcing us to pause our intention and focus on irrelevant information. Our level of annoyance begins to rise quickly.

Robocalls fall into a different category of annoyance for many reasons. First, we have a conditioned response to phone calls where we hope to be rewarded by hearing from someone we know and care about. That’s what makes it so difficult to ignore a ringing phone.

Secondly, phone calls are extremely interruptive. We must literally drop whatever we’re doing to pick up a phone. When we go to all this effort only to realize we’ve been duped by an unsolicited and irrelevant call, the “red mist” starts to float over us.

You’ll note that – up to this point – I haven’t even dealt with the nature of the message. This has all been focused on the delivery of the message, which immediately puts us in a more negative mood. It doesn’t matter whether the message is about a service special for our vehicle, an opportunity to buy term life insurance or an attempt by a fictitious Nigerian prince to lighten the load of our bank account by several thousand dollars; whatever the message, we start in an irritated state simply due to the nature of the interruption.

Of course, the more nefarious the message that’s delivered, the more negative our emotional response will be. And this has a doubling down effect on any form of intrusive advertising. We learn to associate the delivery mechanism with attempts to defraud us. Any politician that depends on robocalls to raise awareness on the day before an election should ponder their ad-delivery mechanism.

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