Tech isn’t morally good or bad until it’s wielded by the corporations that fashion it for mass consumption. Apps and platforms can be designed to promote rich social connections; or, like cigarettes, they can be designed to addict. Today, unfortunately, many tech developments do promote addiction.
Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter is a very great book about how most of the technology products we use daily are irresistible and invariably addictive. From Social Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to Addictive Games such as World of Warcraft to Flappy Bird. I found the book paradigm-shifting, just the way I felt after reading Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.
In Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, Adam Alter, a professor of psychology and marketing at NYU, tracks the rise of behavioral addiction, and explains why so many of today’s products are irresistible. Though these miraculous products melt the miles that separate people across the globe, their extraordinary and sometimes damaging magnetism is no accident. The companies that design these products tweak them over time until they become almost impossible to resist.
We obsess over our emails, Instagram likes, and Facebook feeds; we binge on TV episodes and YouTube videos; we work longer hours each year; and we spend an average of three hours each day using our smartphones. Half of us would rather suffer a broken bone than a broken phone, and Millennial kids spend so much time in front of screens that they struggle to interact with real, live humans.
By reverse-engineering behavioral addiction, Alter explains how we can harness addictive products for the good—to improve how we communicate with each other, spend and save our money, and set boundaries between work and play—and how we can mitigate their most damaging effects on our well-being, and the health and happiness of our children.
Addictions bring the promise of immediate reward, or positive reinforcement. In contrast, obsessions and compulsions are intensely unpleasant to not pursue.
Here are my favourite take aways from reading irresistable by Adam Alter:
Irresistible traces the rise of addictive behaviors, examining where they begin, who designs them, the psychological tricks that make them so compelling, and how to minimize dangerous behavioral addiction as well as harnessing the same science for beneficial ends.
If app designers can coax people to spend more time and money on a smartphone game, perhaps policy experts can also encourage people to save more for retirement or donate to more charities.
- Instagram, like so many other social media platforms, is bottomless. Facebook has an endless feed; Netflix automatically moves on to the next episode in a series; Tinder encourages users to keep swiping in search of a better option. Users benefit from these apps and websites, but also struggle to use them in moderation.
- Human behavior is driven in part by a succession of reflexive cost-benefit calculations that determine whether an act will be performed once, twice, a hundred times, or not at all. When the benefits overwhelm the costs, it’s hard not to perform the act over and over again, particularly when it strikes just the right neurological notes.
- A like on Facebook and Instagram strikes one of those notes, as does the reward of completing a World of Warcraft mission, or seeing one of your tweets shared by hundreds of Twitter users. The people who create and refine tech, games, and interactive experiences are very good at what they do. They run thousands of tests with millions of users to learn which tweaks work and which ones don’t—which background colors, fonts, and audio tones maximize engagement and minimize frustration.
As an experience evolves, it becomes an irresistible, weaponized version of the experience it once was. In 2004, Facebook was fun; in 2016, it’s addictive.
- Behavioral addiction consists of six ingredients: compelling goals that are just beyond reach; irresistible and unpredictable positive feedback; a sense of incremental progress and improvement; tasks that become slowly more difficult over time; unresolved tensions that demand resolution; and strong social connections.
- Addiction is a deep attachment to an experience that is harmful and difficult to do without. Behavioral addictions don’t involve eating, drinking, injecting, or smoking substances. They arise when a person can’t resist a behavior, which, despite addressing a deep psychological need in the short-term, produces significant harm in the long-term.
Obsessions are thoughts that a person can’t stop having, and compulsions are behaviors a person can’t stop enacting.
- Addictions are so pleasurable that the brain does two things: first it produces less dopamine to dam the flood of euphoria, and then, when the source of that euphoria vanishes, it struggles to cope with the fact it’s now producing far less dopamine than it used to.
46 percent of people say they couldn’t bear to live without their smartphones (some would rather suffer physical injury than an injury to their phones)
- Beyond Internet addiction, 46 percent of people say they couldn’t bear to live without their smartphones (some would rather suffer physical injury than an injury to their phones), and 80 percent of teens check their phones at least once an hour. In 2008, adults spent an average of eighteen minutes on their phones per day; in 2015, they were spending two hours and forty-eight minutes per day.
This shift to mobile devices is dangerous, because a device that travels with you is always a better vehicle for addiction.
- In one study, 60 percent of respondents reported binge-watching dozens of television episodes in a row despite planning to stop much sooner. Up to 59 percent of people say they’re dependent on social media sites and that their reliance on these sites ultimately makes them unhappy.
- Of that group, half say they need to check those sites at least once an hour. After an hour, they are anxious, agitated, and incapable of concentrating. Meanwhile, in 2015, there were 280 million smartphone addicts. If they banded together to form the “United States of Nomophobia,” it would be the fourth most populous country in the world, after China, India, and the United States.
Nomophobia: fear of, or anxiety caused by, not having a working mobile phone
Dwindling Human ATTENTION
- In 2000, Microsoft Canada reported that the average human had an attention span of twelve seconds; by 2013 that number had fallen to eight seconds. (According to Microsoft, a goldfish, by comparison, has an average attention span of nine seconds.) “Human attention is dwindling,” the report declared.
- Seventy-seven percent of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds claimed that they reached for their phones before doing anything else when nothing is happening. Eighty-seven percent said they often zoned out, watching TV episodes back-to-back.
70 percent of office emails are read within six seconds of arriving.
Lack of Stopping Cues
- Facebook games run twenty-four hours a day—they’re persistent games. They aren’t games where you have to start a session, and then play, and then save your results, and then come back later and begin the session again. They’re just always going whenever you want to play them. The fun never ends because the game doesn’t impose its own stopping rule. There are no chapters or sessions or levels that tell you when your gaming session begins and when it ends.
- Addictive experiences live in this sweet spot, where stopping rules crumble before obsessive goal-setting. Tech mavens, game developers, and product designers tweak their wares to ensure their complexity escalates as users gain insight and competence.
Netflix as a case study for lack of Stop Cue
- Netflix employed a market research firm to interview over three thousand American adults. Sixty-one percent of these people reported some degree of binge-watching, which most respondents defined as “watching between two and six episodes of a TV show in one sitting.” Netflix found similar patterns in viewing data, which it collected from 190 countries between October 2015 and May 2016.
- Most people who binge complete the first season of the shows they’re watching in four to six days. A season once stretched on for months at a time, but now it’s consumed in under a week, at an average of two to two and a half hours a day. Some viewers report that binge-watching improves the viewing experience, but many others believe that Netflix—and post-play in particular—has made it very difficult to stop watching just one episode at a time.
- Ninety-five percent of adults use an electronic device that emits light in the hour before bed, and more than half check their emails overnight. Sixty percent of adults aged between eighteen and sixty-four keep their phones next to them when they sleep, which might explain why 50 percent of adults claim they don’t sleep.
- People are never really sure of their own self-worth, which can’t be measured like weight, or height, or income. Some people obsess over social feedback more than others do, but we’re social beings who can’t ever completely ignore what other people think of us. And more than anything, inconsistent feedback drives us nuts. Instagram is a font of inconsistent feedback
Why Relapse is common
- Even after you come to hate a drug for ruining your life, your brain continues to want the drug. It remembers that the drug soothed a psychological need in the past, and so the craving remains.
- The same is true of behaviors: even as you come to loathe Facebook or Instagram for consuming too much of your time, you continue to want updates as much as you did when they still made you happy.
- We can’t abandon technology, nor should we. Some technological advances fuel behavioral addiction, but they are also miraculous and life enriching. And with careful engineering they don’t need to be addictive. It’s possible to create a product or experience that is indispensable but not addictive.
- Workplaces, for example, can shut down at six—and with them work email accounts can be disabled between midnight and five the next morning. Games, like books with chapters, can be built with natural stopping points.
- Social media platforms can “demetricate,” removing the numerical feedback that makes them vehicles for damaging social comparison and chronic goal-setting.
- Children can be introduced to screens slowly and with supervision, rather than all at once.
- Our attitude to addictive experiences is largely cultural, and if our culture makes space for work-free, game-free, screen-free downtime, we and our children will find it easier to resist the lure of behavioral addiction. In its place, we’ll communicate with one another directly, rather than through devices, and the glow of these social bonds will leave us richer and happier than the glow of screens ever could.
Changing Human Behaviour
- Waldorf School of the Peninsula | NYT Article on the Waldorf School
- reSTART : World’s first gaming and Internet addiction treatment center
- The Center for Internet Addiction
- Benjamin Grosser’s Facebook Demetricator
All the best in your quest to get better. Don’t Settle: Live with Passion.