Whether we realize it or not, we’re constantly going through mental calculus as we pass through our day. How much should we be doing something? Not necessarily in terms of what is healthy that we’re putting in our body, or what we’re doing with our face, or what specifically we should do with our hands when we’re standing still. More of a mental calculus of: is this normal? Does it look odd that I’m doing this? How does this look to everyone else?

Possibly my favorite thing about what we’ve built at CivicScience is our ability to see stuff in questions that have been running for years and ponder on what it means for the culture at large. There are obvious ones, of course. Amazon Prime usage has been rising steadily over the past 4 years, as has mobile banking, or smart home adoption, or really any other question associated with a nascent product that continues its slow climb into ubiquity. But the fun ones are the unexpected ones. Like this one that my colleague Emily Laumer spotted a couple weeks back.

Sorry, what? I mean, it’s only 4%, but in our dataset a 4% drop like that is pretty staggering on a long-term trend question, especially when it’s happening so quickly. And this isn’t a case of small sample size, either. 12,000 respondents have answered this question so far in 2018.

If it’s not small sample size or a problem with the data, then what is it? I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t feel like I’m observing much less digital device usage around me. I’ve still got my phone out while I’m watching basketball or the latest reasonably worthwhile Netflix show. I don’t see my friends using their phones or trackers or tablets less. But, hey, I’m a researcher. I know what anecdotal bias is. I can’t rely on what I observe. So, I asked some people.

Well, that settles that. This isn’t about people using their devices less. 1 in 4 US Adults are using their devices more than they were a year ago, back when more people were “addicted.” And get this, those that say they’re using their devices more are equally likely to say they’re addicted as those who are using less or the same.

And now we get to the crux of the issue (and the point of the headline of the post): the goalposts are moving in our digital culture. What was once “addict” behavior with phones and tablets and streaming media players is now just normal. It’s not weird to look at your phone every couple of minutes to see if you missed something. It’s what everyone is doing.

Here, look at another one:


Consumers who say they use their smartphone to research products “very frequently” have flatlined (and slightly dropped) since last year. But do you believe that? With how often consumers are utilizing mobile to do their shopping and the increase of Prime membership, I find this pretty hard to believe. It’s more likely, to me, that this is once again a matter of the goalposts moving. It’s normal to research products on your smartphone fairly regularly, so in order to do it “very frequently,” you’d have to do it more than the average person (in your own self-reported view). Otherwise, you’re just doing it the normal amount. You’ve gone from top-box to neutral.

At least all this cool tech is making us happier, right?

Ah, nevertheless.

Look, I can’t tell you exactly what this means for your business (at least not in this space here). Digital behavior has different implications for different industries and different teams within those industries. But, what I can tell you is that this isn’t just limited to digital behavior. This is about how we perceive the world around us and make judgments based on what we observe. Like this one:

Did a whole bunch of Americans suddenly lose a bunch of weight? No. A whole bunch of Americans have been influenced by a combination of the body positivity movement and observing the size of the folks around them, and judging their weight not against a baseline of BMI but on how other people look.

Why does this matter to you? Because traditional research is a snapshot, and a snapshot only has merits at the moment that it’s taken. It can’t predict the future. It tells you what things look like the second the shutter snaps. And, if you’re making judgments based on what things looked instead of making judgments on how things are evolving, you’re probably going to get left behind.

Normal is a moving target, and if you’re not keeping your eyes open to how culture is shifting, you’re going to be aiming in the wrong direction.