The Algorithms We Live With

Algorithms have the potential to improve health, but do they also have the potential to cause illness or negatively affect our mental health?

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Read Time: 4 minutes


Algorithms have the potential to improve health. But do they also have the potential to cause illness or negatively affect our mental health?

Some time ago I began receiving emails from Amazon with hints on how to raise my child. I receive these emails a few times a year. The most recent email said, “Your 5 Year Old: How to raise responsible kids.” I don’t recall signing up  for these emails. More importantly, I don’t have a five year old. But I do have a five year old niece. Five years ago, when my niece was born, we probably spent too much time and money buying baby essentials on Amazon. Is this the data Amazon algorithms used to decide that I have a 5 year old? I don’t know.

These emails have little effect on me. Sometimes I forward them to my sister and other times, I just ignore them. But such messages might have a different effect on a person who has lost a child.

Here’s another scenario. Manyor is pregnant with her first child. She is excited and looking forward to becoming a mom. Manyor signs up for a pregnancy app, which allows her to track her pregnancy and learn about her health as her pregnancy progresses. A few weeks into her pregnancy, Manyor has a miscarriage. She is sad and struggles with her loss. She obviously stops entering information into the pregnancy app.

Two weeks later, she starts receiving reminders from the app. She immediately deletes it. A month later, she is still receiving email reminders asking her to enter information about her pregnancy. Manyor is annoyed. She thought she was recovering well but now she’s unsure. The reminders trigger persistent feelings of grief and guilt. Can we measure the impact of the app’s reminders on Manyor‘s mental health?

Algorithms have the potential to improve health. But do they also have the potential to cause illness or negatively affect our mental health?

Now let’s talk about Esono who is having marital problems. Esono is struggling with anxiety and insecurity. He uses an internet search engine a few times to gather information on how to improve his marriage. A couple of weeks later, while using the same search engine, he notices ads for how to recover after a failed relationship. He ignores them. The next day, while checking his email, he notices an ad on how to find a good divorce lawyer. Over the next week, he sees versions of these messages posted in his email, social media, and the other Internet platforms he uses. Could these messages worsen Esono’s feelings of anxiety and insecurity?

As humans we also have algorithms that we use in our daily decision making. For example, if I find a seat on a crowded bus and the next person who enters is pregnant, using a cane, or accompanied by a small child, I use an algorithm to decide whether or not to give up my seat to them. Or, if a woman arrives at a medical center claiming to have a painful medical condition, caregivers choose whether to believe her or not based on a formula they internalized during their training or previous life experiences. These decisions can influence health. And, similar to computer algorithms, we can update our algorithms as we gather new data and experiences.

Algorithms are everywhere. Companies use algorithms to make recommendations and to improve customer experience. Sometimes these algorithms make suggestions for good books and other times, they make suggestions for good divorce lawyers. Algorithms are also constantly trying to make our lives easier, including completing our sentences as we draft emails. But exactly how these algorithms are affecting our health remains unknown.

Photo by Daniel Josef on Unsplash