The psychological tricks Amazon’s Kindle plays on you

I’ve always read quite a lot of books and, at heart, I’m a print and paper kind of person. As such, for a long time, I resisted the lure of e-readers and the Amazon Kindle in particular. Like most people who ever said “you’ll never catch me getting one of those things”, I soon got one.

The psychological tricks Amazon's Kindle plays on you

“The more I pondered, the more I noticed the little things that the Kindle does.”

That’s because come the birth of one of my children, my habits changed. This particular offspring – a fine, happy chap these days – would struggle to sleep if the light was on. Given that we had his cot in our room for his early months, I ordered myself a backlit Amazon Paperwhite. And the psychology of my reading habits changed very soon afterwards.

Suddenly, I was reading more books and in pretty much the same amount of time. At first, I put this down to the fact that I didn’t have the new book faff, where I’d grope around the bookshelves after finishing one book in search of a new one.

Yet, the more I pondered, the more I noticed the little things that the Kindle does. The little teases, statistics and tests that have become more pronounced with subsequent updates. In short, I think the Kindle is playing with my mind.

And here’s why.

New book

It starts when you buy and load up a book for the first time on a Kindle. On certain books, it now presents you with instant statistics, cold hard numbers even before you’ve begun.

Now, statistics to my brain are like silly names to rappers: I can’t live without them.

Amazon Kindle Paperwhite (2015) review

As such, more often than not, you’re told how long, on average, people have taken to read it. What kind of trick is that? There are two things that instantly strike me about it. Firstly, that it’s setting me a test. In much the same way that a satnav gives you an estimated arrival time and you can’t help but attempt to knock, legally, a few minutes off the time just to see if you can – now you have a target. It takes 4 hours 48 minutes for most people to read that book does it? Well, let’s see if I can shave 20 minutes off that.

The more I pondered that statistic, the more it made me realise that Amazon was watching me.

Sure, you can dig into the settings of your Kindle device and account to play with the security settings. But we all know most people won’t. I certainly didn’t, and now every book I read and how long it takes me to read it, is recorded somewhere in Amazon’s mothership, no doubt hovering invisibly above the Earth. Naturally, whoever read all those fruity books just happened to have hacked my account at the time, and if I ever catch them, rest assured there will be consequences.

But back to the matter at hand.

Straight away, my Kindle has given me a target. I am a weak person and I can’t help sometimes needing one. Yet the analysis of my reading doesn’t stop there. In fact, it’s only just begun.

For once you open a book and get going, the Kindle tells you, in a quiet message down at the bottom of the screen, that it’s learning your reading speed. Okay. A bit sinister, but I can live with that.

So I read a couple of pages of my highly intellectual book of choice, and at the bottom of the screen, my Kindle quickly gives me an estimate of how long it’s going to take me to get to the end of it.


At first, it looks like every book is going to be a breeze. For example, I’m on page one of Professor Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen’s Human Universe right this second. Good news, too. It tells me the whole book is going to take me 1 hour and 14 minutes to read. I can fit that in! Might even get it read by the time I’m done with this article. Let me do a couple of pages and I’ll be right back with you….

…. so that didn’t go so well.

Within two pages, my Kindle had become increasingly unimpressed with me. It promptly added 24 minutes to my reading time, like a spurned satnav irritated with me for trying my special alternative route. A chapter break page with just a few words on it knocked things down by three minutes. Within five pages? I’m over three hours to go, and climbing.

Amazon Kindle Paperwhite (2015) review: There's a good range of quality cases available for the Paperwhite

Being told off

I like long books. In fact, I love getting lost in the middle of a big book, knowing that there are hundreds of pages still to go. But the Kindle has changed my psychological approach.

I now feel like I’m being told off for going too slow. Even tapping the bottom of the screen so I only get a reading of how long I’ve left in the chapter feels pressured. Sure, I used to flick ahead to see how many pages I had left in a given chapter from time to time. But now, I’ve got a device in my hand that tells me to clear the next seven minutes of my life if I want to get to a natural pause.

“An ominous, ever-present percentage hovers in the bottom-right of the screen.”

Even without the reading time calculator, an ominous, ever-present percentage hovers in the bottom-right of the screen telling me how much of the book I’ve read so far. Here, again, I regularly find myself trying to outwit my device. I often read very heavy political tomes, for instance, where I get to 76% of the book read (or thereabouts), and find it stops. Then I hit the index, or the appendix, or the Kindle just seems to have miscalculated. Every single instance of this is a small victory and, rather than spurring frustration, it drives me forward, not knowing whether or not the Kindle has a surprise for me.

Furthermore, I’ve discovered that my reading speed and estimated time left tends to vary by device. The standalone Kindle is a kinder beast, more inclined to tempt me with the sight of the finish line than the iPad app, or the version for my Blackberry. Bizarrely, I find myself switching to the Kindle itself at every opportunity to keep my pace up.

Then, the ultimate sucker punch. When you get to the end of a book and have declined the polite invitation to review it, there’s the home screen. That reminds you just how many books you’ve left to read. The pressure! There’s something romantic and wistful about looking at a shelf of unread books. There’s something stark and daunting at being told you have over 100 unread titles, most of which were picked up as sodding 99p Daily Deals.

Appreciating I don’t come out of this article very well, I do have a tip if you ever find yourself psychologically distracted by the ways of the Kindle. Namely, if you have a touchscreen Kindle, tap on the bottom-left of the screen. That way, you can toggle between getting no information, having an estimate of how long you’ve got left, or a bland location reference that makes little sense to anything other than the aforementioned Kindle mothership itself.

As neurotic as I may sound, I do love reading, and I do love that the Kindle seems to have got me reading more. But it also gives me a wealth of information that I never knew I wanted or needed and still aren’t entirely sure I do.

Have you found that buying a Kindle has changed your reading habits? Let us know if you’ve fallen victim to Amazon’s mind games in the comments below.

Read more: The Teletext Salvagers: How VHS is bringing Teletext back from the dead

4 thoughts on “The psychological tricks Amazon’s Kindle plays on you”

Laura says:
Yeah… you do sound a bit neurotic. 🙂 I’ve never felt pressured by Kindle to read faster. I like the percentage read at the bottom to let me know how far along in the book I am, kind of like how in a paper book you can just see how far you have to go.

Kindle does get me to buy a lot of books though by advertising to my email inbox.

I am with you on the back lit effect. I don’t want to pick up a paper book anymore, which used to be one of life’s greatest joys, because the main time I read is lying in bed at night and I can read my kindle in the dark so easily.

Sarah says:
Even if I have a physical copy of a book I still tend to pick up the kindle version if it ever goes for 99p. Now if I’m at a stage where I have the same book twice I tend to switch between reading it on paper and on my kindle. I mostly just open the kindle version if reading the book and open up the chapter I’m currently at to see the percentage and how much its gone up. I’ve also tended to realise that my reading speed is a few hours higher than the average for the book. It has me trying to read faster than I’d like to and skim parts when I’d normally not.

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