If you’re like most people, you’ve got a powerful computer in your back pocket that allows you to listen to this podcast, check the score of your favorite team, and learn the population of Mickey Mantle’s hometown of Commerce, OK (answer: 2,473). Our smartphones are a blessing, but for many people they can also feel like a curse. You feel compelled to check your device all the time, leaving you feeling disengaged from life.
What is it about modern technology that makes it feel so addictive? My guest today explores that topic in his book, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. His name is Adam Alter and today on the show, we discuss what makes today‘s technology more compelling than the televisions and super Nintendos of old, whether our itch to check our phones can really be classified as an addiction, what soldiers’ use of heroin during the Vietnam War can tell us about why our attachment to our phones is hard to shake, and how the reward we’re looking for on social media isn’t actually the “likes” themselves. Adam then shares what he thinks is the most effective tactic for taking back control of our tech, and how consumers may be able to influence the direction of its future.
- Why do tech companies design their devices/apps to be addictive?
- Why Steve Jobs never let his own kids use an iPad
- Is it possible to truly be addicted to our tech?
- How much time are most people really spending on their phones? (It’s an astounding number.)
- The deleterious effects of technology on social skills
- What makes today’s tech so different from the tech of a couple decades ago?
- What heroine use in the Vietnam War can tell us about the effects of our environment/context on our behaviors
- Tactics that companies use to get our attention, including hijacking our goals
- How casinos have influenced the way tech companies design their products
- How video game companies “on-ramp” players to get them hooked, and how other tech companies have used that template
- The ways social media amplifies these addictive components
- How do you get a hold of a behavior you can’t seem to shake?
- Will recent bad press actually force companies like Facebook to make any changes?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- The Complete Guide to Breaking Your Smartphone Habit
- Decluttering Your Digital Life
- 5 Concrete Ways to Develop a Healthier Relationship With Your Phone
- How to Beat Distraction and Stay Focused
- The Joy of Missing Out
- Reclaiming Conversation
- What Vietnam Taught Us About Breaking Bad Habits
- World of Warcraft
- 4 Questions That Will Crush the Fear of Missing Out
- How and Why to Take a Tech Sabbath
- reSTART Tech Rehab Center
- Asia’s Video Game Addiction Epidemic
Connect With Adam
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Recorded with ClearCast.io.
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. If you’re like most people, you’ve got a powerful computer in your back pocket that allows you to listen to this podcast, check the score of your favorite team, and learn the population of Mickey Mantle’s hometown of Commerce, Oklahoma. Answer, 2473. Our smart phones are a blessing, but for many people they can also feel like a curse. You feel compelled to check your device all the time, leaving you feeling disengaged from life. What is it about modern technology that makes it feel so addictive?
My guest today explores that topic in his book, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. His name is Adam Alter, and today on the show we discuss what makes today’s technology more compelling than the televisions and Super Nintendos of old, whether our itch to check our phones can really be classified as an addiction, what soldiers’ use of heroin during the Vietnam War can tell us about why our attachment to our phones is hard to shake, and how the reward we’re looking for on social media isn’t actually the likes themselves.
Adam then shares what he thinks is the most effective tactic for taking back control of our tech, and how consumers may also be able to influence the direction of its future. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at aom.is/irresistible. Adam joins me now via ClearCast.io.
Adam Alter, welcome to the show.
Adam Alter: Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: You published a book called Irresistible, and it’s all about the rise of addictive technologies and the businesses that support that. I’m curious, you’re a marketing professor, right?
Adam Alter: I am.
Brett McKay: So how did you get interested in writing a whole book about addictive technology?
Adam Alter: Well, I think these platforms are addictive to everyone who uses them. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do. One of the fascinating things about them is that they tap into very low-level human psychological features. So as a marketing professor I perhaps know a little bit more about what goes into designing them, and so that makes me the right kind of person to write a book. But I’m just as susceptible to their charms as anyone.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Well, I mean so let’s talk about that. Why do companies design for addiction. We’re going to talk about addiction, whether there is such a thing as tech addiction, but it feels like that. Why do they do that? Is it just the bottom line? Do they have insidious motivations or do they actually think they’re helping people by making them check their phone all the time?
Adam Alter: Well, I can dispel that notion. They definitely don’t feel that they’re designing products for our well-being. They’re not under that misapprehension. They know that what they’re doing essentially is designing products that addict us, and they have to do that based on the model, the model of the market they’re in. The model of the market is such that they get more money the more time we spend on their products, their devices, their apps, their platforms, because they’re attracting ad revenue. That’s really where they live and die.
Ad revenue is greatest when you have more subscribers, more people who pay attention, and people who not just arrive at your site, but stay there for a long time. If you can tell advertisers people will consume our content for three hours a day, that’s better than saying they’ll arrive but leave after five minutes. Maximizing well-being of the consumer doesn’t require that they’re engaged for a huge amount of time because what’s really good for consumers is that they’re engaged for the right amount of time, which often isn’t very long.
But because of the way this model works, these companies have to privilege addiction. They have to privilege attention grabbing rather than privileging our well-being. It turns out it’s not good for us. It’s not to our best advantage to spend that much time on these platforms.
Brett McKay: And yeah, I loved how you began the book with this great anecdote about Steve Jobs. It’s when he announces the launch of the iPad and he’s talking about how fantastic it is. You can type on it with your … you just use a finger. That’s it. It’s amazing. But then you talk about how he never let his kids use an iPad.
Adam Alter: Yeah, that was fascinating to me and it was something I discovered quite early on, and that really made me interested in this topic. We always turn to the experts on any topic to get a sense of how we should be thinking of it. I was no expert in the iPad or in any tech particularly, and yet I found as I searched that a lot of the tech titans were very careful about their own tech usage, and also I think more importantly, they were very careful about allowing their kids to use these products. Steve Jobs, as you mentioned, was very cautious about how much time his kids spent in front of various tech devices and he didn’t even let them near the iPad, which says something, right?
I mean he’s publicly telling the world this is a wonderful product, but then wouldn’t let his kids near it, and he’s not the only one. There are a lot of tech titans in a similar position, and so that led me to dig a little bit more deeply to try to understand what exactly is it that concerned him and these other giants? What with a worried about? That’s where the book came from.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it’s like that saying about drug dealers, you know, never consume your own stuff.
Adam Alter: Exactly.
Brett McKay: All right, so let’s talk about this idea of tech addiction, because that’s controversial in the mental health field. Is it possible to be addicted? Because it’s not a substance, right, not like drugs or whatever. It’s a behavior. What’s the status of behavior addiction in the world of mental health?
Adam Alter: Yeah. It’s really an interesting question, this question of whether you can develop an addiction to something that doesn’t involve the ingestion of a substance. And it turns out, I think you can. We’ve actually known this for a long time. Certainly drugs were the first products that led to addiction. There were drugs. There was nicotine. There was alcohol. But then casinos became very sophisticated and suddenly you had this raft of thousands of gambling addicts. No one really disputes that. I think we’re all fairly comfortable with the idea that you can be addicted to gambling.
Going a step further though, I think you can also become addicted to other experiences that don’t involve any of these substances, and that don’t involve gambling. It really just rests on the definition use for addiction. For me, it’s any experience that we return to compulsively over and over again in the short term because we want to do that. It’s something we feel we want to do. But in the long run, it undermines our well-being in at least one of several different respects. It can harm your social life. It can harm your financial well-being. It can harm you psychologically or it can harm you physically. I think that that describes how a lot of us experience the tech world.
Brett McKay: What are some of the statistics about … because I mean this whole tech thing, it’s new, right? I mean it’s relatively … I would say maybe 15 years. I mean computers have been around for more than that, but I’d say 15 years things really started kicking off. What are we finding about on how this technology, smart phones, constantly connection, constantly connected to the Internet, how is it affecting our well-being and psyche?
Adam Alter: Yeah, it’s a good question and one that we don’t have a fantastic answer to just because, as you say, this is really a 10 to 15-year-old problem, and we haven’t tracked kids based on usage over time because there just aren’t that many kids to track yet. They’re still quite young. We don’t know what they’ll look like when they’re teenagers and when they’re in college, and when they’re adults and they have their own kids and they’re in the workplace. That remains to be seen. So we don’t really know.
But what we do know is that the amount of time we spend on these devices is colossal, and it’s growing dramatically. In 2007, we spent an average of 18 minutes on our phones, and later that year Apple introduced the first generation of the iPhone, and eight years later, by 2015, we were spending an average of three hours a day on those screens. Just two years after that, in 2017, the number had jumped from three hours to four hours. The average American today, the average American adult, and it’s actually worse among teenagers and kids, spends four hours of the waking day staring at the phone. I’m not talking about using it as a phone to have a conversation. I’m talking about looking at the screen.
Now, even if you don’t use the term addiction to describe that, we are spending four hours of the day. We don’t even have that many hours when we’re awake, and not eating, and not at work to do that. It’s just sucking up just a colossal amount of our time.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I mean this could hurt productivity of businesses. I imagine it’s time looking at the screen is time you won’t be looking at or talking and interacting with people face-to-face, and that could have some deleterious effects. There’s a lot of problems here.
Adam Alter: Yeah. Exactly. It’s hampering our ability to do our work. I think the biggest effects though are probably social. I think the biggest factor is that we’re spending less time having face-to-face conversations, which are really the richest kinds of conversations we can have. Now, there are those of us who are old enough to remember a time before this, before 15 years ago, when we did have more time. We didn’t spend as much time on screens, and some of us are nostalgic for that time to an extent, but then you have this generation of kids that’s growing up now, and instead of spending time with other kids face-to-face, fighting over toys and realizing that actually that’s not the best way to do things, learning conflict resolution techniques, learning to empathize, things like that. Instead of doing that, they’re buried behind a screen and they don’t get the same rapid feedback, and so they don’t see, “Hey, it turns out taking this other kid’s toy, it’s going to cause conflict. The kid’s going to bop me on the head or the kid’s going to start crying. I need to learn another way.”
Therefore, I think there’s going to be this generation of kids that is now still quite young, that will grow up perhaps looking quite socially different from every generation that came before because they won’t have had access to the same trial and error process that you’re supposed to have when you’re quite young.
Brett McKay: Yeah, the brave new world. What’s different? Because you and I, I was born ’82. I grew up with a computer in the house, had Super Nintendo, so technology was there, but I never felt compelled to be on there all the time and play it. I mean what is different about today’s technology compared to, say, 25 years ago that makes it so you want to just compulsively check it?
Adam Alter: I think the biggest thing by far is the technology goes everywhere with you. 75% of American adults can reach their phones without moving their feet 24 hours a day. That means it’s next to your bed, it’s under your pillow or on the bedside table. That means it’s in your pocket or on the desk. That means that it’s going to have a huge outsized effect on your psychological experience of the world.
Now, TV, Super Nintendo, I was born a couple of years before you, 1980, same thing. I had all of these gadgets. I watched a ton of TV but at the end of the day I had to leave the home. I had to go to school. I had to go to the shops. I had to do other things. When I was doing that, I didn’t have my TV with me. I didn’t have the Super Nintendo with me. That liberated us to some extent. When you start making games travel friendly, when you make TV travel friendly, when you have access to these things at all times, that really changes how we interact with them and makes them much more difficult for us to shake, because there’s no enforced break period as there was for something like the Super Nintendo.
Brett McKay: So its environment has changed. Now, I love the example you gave of Vietnam and heroin addicts. Can you talk about that, maybe what can we learn about from that about why technology is so addictive today?
Adam Alter: Yeah. I think the Vietnam anecdote is really important. One of the questions people have is, is there an addictive personality? We have this lay belief that some people are likely to become addicted to stuff and other people are not. Some people are just addictive personalities or have addictive personalities. To some extent, that’s certainly true. There are individual differences, but they don’t explain all that much. The bigger factor by far is, I think, environment.
During the Vietnam War, a lot of the soldiers, the GIs would go over to Vietnam and they’d spend a lot of downtime waiting for action. They’d just be sitting in camps. It was hot and steamy, and there were in the jungle, and there wasn’t that much for them to do. They drank a lot of beer and they played a couple of sports, but there wasn’t much for them to do. So what ended up happening was they got access to heroin. There was a lot of heroin at that time being produced in that region of the world and it actually became much cheaper to buy around then. It became much more refined. So you had this huge epidemic of GIs trying heroin and then developing addictions, because what else was there for them to do? It was the best way to treat their boredom.
The government in the US heard about this. Richard Nixon was in power at the time, and he was very concerned. He worried that you’d have hundreds of thousands perhaps of vets coming back to the US after the war needing treatment for heroin addiction, which was a major concern because we knew from all sorts of evidence that people struggle to get off heroin. 90% or 95% of people go back on heroin at least once or twice before they fully shake it, if they ever do.
This is a major concern. So the government started to put all sorts of resources into place to deal with this future influx of heroin addicts. What happened was very surprising, that these guys came back from Vietnam. They got back into everyday life. They spent time with their families. They went back at whatever jobs they had, perhaps started new jobs or college, and the relapse rate, instead of being 90 to 95%, was just 5%. Only one in every 20 Vietnam vets went back on heroin after arriving back to the states, which was such a huge surprise to everyone.
The researchers who started to look into the problem figured out what was going on. Not the problem, the great outcome here was it was really driven by the fact that when you get out of that the context, when you escape it, you have social support, you go back to work, the addiction itself kind of dies down. You don’t get all those inspiring cues that say hey, remember when you were doing heroin. You’re no longer in a steamy jungle. You’re now back in your hometown doing whatever it was you were doing before. Everything’s really different now, and so you don’t have the same inspiration to do the drug and you have all the social support that also pushes you past it.
That’s very different from how most heroin addicts use drugs and how most behavioral addicts have their experiences in that once you try to go off the experience, when you’re trying to withdraw yourself from it, you are reminded constantly because you mix with the same people. You’re in the same city much of the time. So one of the big lessons for people who are trying to escape an addiction, whether it’s to a drug or whether it’s to ab experience, is if you can, leave the city. Mix with different people. Do completely different things with your time, because like these Vietnam vets, if you change the context, if you change the environment, you’re much more likely to be able to escape that addiction.
Brett McKay: Maybe this is getting a little ahead of ourselves, but with technology, that’s hard to escape, right? Because you need to use it for a lot of services these days or just getting by.
Adam Alter: That’s exactly the lesson, right? I mean if you’re the kind of person who finds it hard to stop drinking alcohol and you decide you’re not going to go into bars, that’s one thing. But if you’re the kind of person who’s playing video games or finds that you are, you have a problem checking email a thousand times a day, there is really no stopgap. There’s no measure that can help you completely remove yourself from the tech world because if you want a job, if you want to be able to travel, if you want to connect with people in a way that’s very natural the way we live our lives today, you have to have some access to technology. You probably need, you don’t need a smart phone perhaps yet, but you will, and I think all of us will have them at some point. Penetration’s already huge on that.
I think it’s just very, very difficult to live a mainstream existence and not be immersed in technology. As you say, if you have one of these addictions, it’s very difficult for you to remove yourself from the context completely.
Brett McKay: We’ll get later on about some tactics we could use, but before that, let’s get into some of the tactics that companies are using to get us to check their devices or check their software, their platform, all the time. The first one you talk about is how they are hijacking our desire to seek after goals. What are they doing there?
Adam Alter: Yeah. I mean goals are incredibly powerful. They drive us on, and human beings are very motivated by goals. It might be a goal of earning a certain amount of money, or if you’re an exercise addict it could be that you want to walk a certain number of steps, or run a certain number of miles in the day or the week. We pay a lot of attention to numbers. These metrics sort of drive us forward and there are a lot of metrics built into a lot of the screen experiences we have. If you’re on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter, it’ll be followers, or friends, or likes, or retweets, or regrams, or shares, or comments, whatever it’ll be.
All that stuff is a way of quantifying how engaged people are with you. It’s a way of quantifying the social feedback you get, and so people do form goals. I think the clearest example of this for me is looking at how Fitbits and other wearable tech have influenced how people exercise and how they work out, how they pay a huge amount of attention to these numbers. When you get the Fitbit, a lot of people will try to walk 10,000 steps a day. Then they’ll get, they’ll hit a sort of ceiling and they’ll say, “I think I should do more than that.” Then they’ll end up doing it. Instead of 10,000 they’ll try 4,000, then 14, then 16. Suddenly, they’re spending a huge portion of the day walking or exercising.
A lot of the time what happens then is you pay much more attention to this external goal than you due to what your body is telling you. There’s been a rise in stress-related injuries because of the Fitbit. Now, it’s wonderful at getting people off the couch. That’s fantastic. If you’re sedentary, if you don’t work out, and the Fitbit drives you to work out, that’s great. But if you’re already engaged in some sort of exercise and then you end up consulting this device as a sort of goal metric of deciding whether you’ve hit a goal, you end up overdoing it. A lot of people end up having these major injuries as a result.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and the funny thing is that you won’t burn any more calories walking more. At a certain point, your body adapts and adjusts its energy consumption, or how it expends energy. You’re not going to actually lose more weight by walking more.
Adam Alter: No. Exactly. You’ve got to change things up. You’ve got to do things a little bit differently. You’ve got to pick a different kind of exercise. In effect, you need to surprise your body. By doing just more of the same thing, sometimes you are going to hit the ceiling and you’ll plateau, and yet your body is going to become more and more exhausted. You’re going to push past the point where you get injured. These goals can be very alluring, but they often lead us to behavior that’s counterproductive, that makes us less happy and less well.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I’ll admit, I’ve done that. When I had the Fitbit there were a few days where it was like 9:00 at night, and I was like, “Oh, I’ve got 1,500 steps to go. I’m going to go take a walk around the neighborhood.”
Adam Alter: Exactly.
Brett McKay: Also, you talk about how casino games, or casinos have influenced perhaps how tech companies design things to make their devices or platforms more addiction. What’s going on there?
Adam Alter: Yeah. Casinos are very sophisticated. They’ve been doing some really smart, devious things for a long time. The way you build a slot machine to encourage people to sit there and play for hours on end is quite sophisticated. There’s a lot that goes into it, and casino operators have really refined this, and slot machine designers have refined it over the last, I don’t know, five, six, seven decades. Obviously, the world of social media, the world of screen tech, is much newer and yet screen tech designers have borrowed a lot of the techniques. If you think about what it’s like to play a slot machine, it’s not like you know when you’re going to win. In fact, part of what makes slot machines so alluring is the promise of maybe at some point hitting the jackpot. It’s that question mark.
If you could build in a slot machine-like mechanic or experience into the process of using, say, Facebook or Instagram, people are much like more likely to keep playing. The way they do that is with the uncertainty associated with how people are going to respond to you, of how they’ll respond to a post that you put out into the world, or do people respond at all. The worst thing that could happen is that you put something out there and no one actually responds. You just hit silence. You get zero responses, zero likes, zero comments. That’s like pulling the lever on the slot machine and not winning the jackpot or really not winning anything.
And yet we keep going back, because there is this promise of at some point getting some form of reward, and that drives us forward, and obviously we end up spending huge amounts of time seeking out that kind of reward. Really, these designers of, say Facebook and Instagram use a lot of those same techniques to ensnare us. That’s why the like button was one of the smartest things Facebook ever did.
Brett McKay: So like, get this straight. It’s not the actual reward, like seeing the like that drives us. It’s the anticipation of perhaps that it’s there.
Adam Alter: Yeah. Exactly. It’s like when people play the lottery. If you buy lottery tickets of scratch cards, it’s nice to win, but it’s really that feeling just as you’re about to start playing, that buzz you get from wondering whether this is the time you’re going to win. It’s that that’s really addictive to people. Certainly we like rewards, but rewards actually it turns out are a little bit anti-climatic. You might think that you get the reward, you get 1,000 likes to a post or whatever and you’re like, “That was amazing. I’ve got to do this again.” That’s not really what drives us. What drives us is that feeling of anticipation that comes before engaging with the experience.
It’s like hearing the ding on your phone and wondering whether this next email will be something hugely beneficial, something great, whether it’s just another Monday and email that isn’t that important in your life. It’s always that sense of anticipation that drives us on.
Brett McKay: I think I remember watching something on 60 Minutes about Instagram, and one of the things they do to design, to create that anticipation factor, is when you go in, you can always see how many likes you’ve gotten, like a number. Sometimes they’ll hold off showing that number until you get a large amount, and then you see that and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, that’s great.” But then the next time they’ll show a lower amount. Every time you go, you’re seeing a different number to create that anticipation on what you’re going to see when you check in on Instagram.
Adam Alter: Yeah. I mean this is the thing. These companies have a huge amount of control over how they drip feed these rewards. If you decide, based on feedback, they have access to huge amounts of data, they can try different approaches and see what works best, what grips people the hardest. If you go onto Instagram, maybe the minute someone likes your post Instagram should tell you that and you find that rewarding. Or maybe, as you say, they should withhold that until you hit, say 15 likes, or three likes, or whatever number they decide is the best one based on the data. They should only tell you you’ve got likes when that happens. Instead of seeing one, two, three, you’re climbing up slowly, perhaps getting hit in the face with 15 likes you’re like, “Wow, people love this. That’s amazing.” Maybe that feeling of going from zero to 15 is more rewarding, and that’s actually it seems to be what they found, that we really like to see this big jump rather than seeing a slow drip feeding of that reward, so they can artificially control that and that’s what they seem to be doing.
Brett McKay: One of my favorite chapters you hit on was about video game designers and how they on-ramp players to get them hooked. You talked about how Super Mario Bros, like they set the standard for that. Walk us through how the on-ramping process for video games to get people hooked, and how, say, maybe a Facebook or Instagram or other app companies have used that same idea or template to get people hooked on their platform.
Adam Alter: Yeah. The biggest challenge for the creators of content, whether it’s a video game or TV show or a book even, is there’s going to be a barrier to entry. When you start something new, it’s going to be hard to get people hooked initially. The best books, I mean if you think back to the books you really loved, or the TV show you loved, often the successful thing they do in the beginning if they get you hooked with a very early cliffhanger or piece of information that’s really amazing. It’s like there’s not a big startup cost. You want to make sure that the startup costs are small, otherwise people just say, “You know what? This is too much effort. I’m going to move on to the next thing.” That’s how we are with books and TV shows and video games.
Now, Super Mario, the best thing about that game I think among many things, is that when you first start playing that game the character educates you automatically because there are only so many things you can do with the controls. You can’t go to the left and so you learn that the game mechanics are such that you only move towards the right. Very early on you get this little character that you have to jump over or jump on top of to kill, and so you work that out really fast. Then you have these blocks above you, and you realize that you have to jump to get on top of the blocks or to hit the blocks from below. There’s a question mark. The question mark on the block suggests that you need to hit it so that you can see what’s inside. Even within the first 10 seconds of playing the game for the very first time, if you watch people play for the first time, they will understand the five or six most important things you need to know to play this game.
And really, there isn’t that much more to learn after that. There are a few other things that happen also during that first level, but you feel like you’re making progress the entire time. There is no moment when you start playing that game when you say, “Oh, this is just too much work. I’m not going to do it.” I’ve never seen anyone play that first level of Super Mario and not want to play the next one. That’s a testament to the design skills of Shigeru Miyamoto, the guy who designed the game, and indeed many of the most successful games of all time.
That’s how a lot of really good experiences, a lot of social networking or social media experiences work that way as well, where it’s totally clear the first time you use them what you should be doing. They onboard you in a way where there’s a list of things you’re supposed to do. They’re fairly small things. You feel like you’re making progress through the list, and suddenly you’ve done everything you need to do to use the platform. It just doesn’t take that much energy or effort. Every little barrier they put in your way is likely to lose a certain proportion of their potential audience, and so a huge part of what it means to design things successfully is to remove as many friction points or pain points as possible so that the onboarding and then the usage process is really friction free.
Brett McKay: But, the video games, that can get pretty boring really fast, so they add in more complexity to make it more difficult, which hooks you even more.
Adam Alter: Yeah. Exactly. In fact, if you had to ask people as they’re playing a game like Super Mario or Tetris how difficult is the game in this minute, and the scale went something like so easy that it’s boring all the way up to so difficult I can’t do this anymore, most of the time the best games, people will say, “This is just slightly more difficult than I’m comfortable with.” That is the sweet spot. That’s the golden spot that you’re trying to hit. It’s always a matter of trying to create an experience that is just a little bit challenging, not so much so that you disengage, you get demotivated, and not so easy that you’re bored. It’s really hitting that sweet spot between too difficult and too easy, and the best experiences challenge you in just that way.
When you first start playing Super Mario, just learning the mechanics, the controls of the game, is difficult enough. But if that’s all you ever did, you’d get bored really fast. So each level gets progressively more difficult, more challenging, so that it’s always just beyond reach, and so you feel that you’re always just challenged the right amount.
Brett McKay: We have all these different elements, goal seeking. We can see our progress. We are getting constant feedback. Things are frictionless in the beginning. They get more difficult as they progress. But we had all those things, as we talked about, with Nintendo, with Super Nintendo and email, but the thing that’s changed I would say, and you talk about it in the book, is like in the past 10 years social media’s come on the scene. How does social media amplify all these addictive ingredients in our technology?
Adam Alter: Well, a big part of what makes games hard for us to resist, and these are the games that are most addictive to people, are the games that have social components to them. Part of this is just the nature of social interactions online. If you think about, say, World of Warcraft, which is arguably the most addictive experience that we’ve ever encountered. World of Warcraft is a multiplayer game. It’s a role-playing game. And so what happens is you end up forming guilds with other players. Now, sometimes those other players might live in the same town you live in, but a lot of that time they’ll be scattered all across the globe. If you imagine you’re all going into battle together, or you’re all going into battle to solve some mission or some quest, if other players in your guild are awake when you are supposed to be asleep because you’re living in different time zones, you’re sort of band of brothers. You get together and you all work together to try to solve whatever challenge is ahead of you, and it doesn’t matter. Sleep comes second.
This is the mentality that a lot of people adopt, which basically means that first of all these other people you’re playing with become your very close friends a lot of the time, which is great, but also means that you’re on the hook a lot of the time to be awake when other people are awake in other parts of the world, when you should be asleep. But it also means that you’re playing the game at all hours. So a lot of people who play these social games describe letting sleep go by the wayside because they have to play in the middle of the night. They end up effectively doing a night shift to play the games.
That’s obviously not good in the long run. You can do it for a short while, but you can’t do it all the time. This is one of the really big challenges for people who play these games. This social element makes it so hard to resist. Now, Super Nintendo was fantastic, but it was a really, it was an asocial experience. It was just you and the game. Perhaps you’d play with another player. You’d have you two controllers or even four controllers, depending on the platform, but it was nothing like the kind of social experience that you have now on something like World of Warcraft. And that, I think, drives a lot of these obsessive behaviors, these addictive behaviors.
Brett McKay: Right. It’s not only World of Warcraft or video games, but that’s what makes Instagram so addicting and why people spend so much time trying to come up with the best pictures, and then get as many likes. It’s just that social approval, like we all want that so badly.
Adam Alter: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. In fact, if you look at the history of Instagram, it’s quite fascinating. In 2009 there was an app that came about called Hipstamatic.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I had that.
Adam Alter: Yeah. I had it too. In an audience of, say 1,000 people, when I ask people who knows of Hipstamatic, a very small number of hands will go up, but some people certainly downloaded at the time. Hipstamatic was like Instagram in that you’d take a photo with your phone and then it would apply a filter. Now, the difference between Hipstamatic and Instagram, Instagram came about about 10 months later. It was introduced about 10 months later. They were very similar in what they did to the photos. They applied filters to the photos. The big difference was the creators of Hipstamatic won an award for photography. One of the people who used their platform was a journalist for the New York Times. He went to Iraq and took some photos that were incredible, and he applied the Hipstamatic filters to them, and he ended up winning one of the journalism photo, most impressive photo awards that year. The Hipstamatic team decided, “You know what? We’re really good at making great photos. We should just keeping to doing that. That is our core competency. We’re going to keep doing that.”
The Instagram guys came along and said, “People are going to get bored of even the best photos if we don’t have a mechanism for ensuring that they’ll share them with other people and get responses, because we know that the only engine that really drives people on in the long run is a social engine.” What they did was they said, “We have to create our own native social networking app. We can’t just reply rely on people to post their photos on Facebook.” That’s why Instagram is now worth tens of billions of dollars, because we keep returning to it more than almost a decade later, whereas Hipstamatic now has very few users. People have just decamped to Instagram. That’s where they spend all their time, and that’s because of the social engine that drives them on, the ability to get likes and feedback on your photos.
Brett McKay: That’s why Facebook bought them for $1 billion.
Adam Alter: It was a good deal.
Brett McKay: It was a good deal. Let’s talk about that question we talked about earlier. Environment plays a huge factor in whether something, whether a substance or a behavior becomes addictive. As you mentioned earlier, technology, we can’t escape it, or it’s hard to escape. So how do you get a handle on an addictive or a compulsive behavior that you can’t abstain from? Are there any best practices you’ve come across in your research?
Adam Alter: Yeah. People are always looking for some, I don’t know, really out of the books solution, but I think the very best solution is to develop a habit of having times of the day that are kind of sacred and tech-free to some extent. The easiest thing to do to begin is to say, “I’m going to pick a time of day.” It might be, say, dinnertime or it might be a certain number of hours today. It could be 5:00 to 7:00 PM, or 6:00 to 8:00 PM, or whatever it is you decide. That is the time when you will lock your device in a drawer as far away as possible. It won’t be anywhere near where you are. You will not use screens, and you’ll do that every day to the point where it becomes a habit.
What you do with that time is up to you, but for many people it’s the time when they’re going to exercise, or it’s the time they’re going to have face-to-face interactions with friends and loved ones. It could be just time to read or to do anything that you like doing that’s important to you, that you find you don’t have time to do anymore. Watching people go through this process of making that decision and then sticking to it is pretty interesting, because it’s hard in the beginning. You have massive amounts of FOMO. You feel like people are going on in that digital world without you. You’re getting left behind to some extent.
But in the end, people report that they feel much happier and better for having that time carved out each day. That, I think, is the single best thing we can do. You can expand it if it works for you. I now have two young kids. I have a two-year-old son and an eight-month-old daughter, and they are constantly doing things that are hysterical and fascinating as they grow. So I use my phone all the time as a camera, but I put it on airplane mode on the weekend whenever I can because that way it’s just, it’s a dumb phone. It’s really just a camera, and that saves me from having to keep checking my email, from having tons of phone calls or whatever else might be going on.
I think that’s the key, is just to be a little bit more mindful to design the world around you in such a way that you relieve yourself of that temptation to check your phone all the time.
Brett McKay: As you highlight in the book, some people, they feel like their addiction is so bad that they actually go to detox centers to help them get a handle on this stuff.
Adam Alter: Yeah. It’s a much smaller group of the population. It’s anywhere from 1 to 5%, so it’s not a big number. But there are certainly people. The most extreme event example I came across was a guy who was addicted to World of Warcraft, which we’ve already mentioned, and he actually relapsed once. He went back to the game after going through treatment, but he went to an Internet addiction treatment center near Seattle called reSTART. They have a whole lot of, they’re all males. They’re all teenage males or males in their sort of early adulthood years who have played games like World of Warcraft to the point where they can’t stop.
They learn skills for living. They are most importantly removed from whatever context they were in where they were playing the game. Now, this guy, before he went for treatment he described how he was a star athlete. He was on the football team at his university, at his college. He was a straight A student and then he developed this addiction, and he started playing World of Warcraft. He at one point spent five weeks straight basically sitting in a chair, barely sleeping, playing for up to 23 hours a day. He paid a guy to deliver pizza boxes to his room, and so the pizza boxes piled up. He put on 40 pounds of fat, lost most of his hair, and was obviously incredibly unhealthy psychologically and physically.
This was a guy who was formally very, very successful. He was very well adapted. This is unusual. It doesn’t happen to many people, but that’s the extreme case of what can happen.
Brett McKay: You also talk, like in China this is a really … or even in like some of the other Asian countries like South Korea, this is like a big cultural-wide problem that they’re wringing their hands about.
Adam Alter: Yeah. It’s a much bigger issue among teens in China and South Korea in particular. East Asia in general has a much bigger problem with this, and it’s partly cultural. It’s about the number of video game parlors, the fact that a lot of young kids will go and watch very good video game players play, sometimes in very big stadiums. You have a stadium filled with tens of thousands of kids watching some guy who’s really good at playing a video game. That doesn’t happen as much in a mainstream way in the United States, but what it means is that screen and tech addiction is much more common, especially video game addiction is much more common in that part of the world.
The government has called it the single biggest threat to the well-being of teenagers, at least in China and South Korea. So you have many of them going through treatment. That hasn’t happened to the same extent in the US and Western Europe and other parts of the world, but we are becoming more mindful about it over time as we’re paying more attention to the dangers of over-using Facebook, and Instagram, and other video games as well.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think we’re starting to see the rise of eSports. I’m hearing a lot more about that, where people watch, like a football game, people playing video games.
Adam Alter: Right. Exactly.
Brett McKay: I’m curious Adam. In the past, I would say past few months, there’s been a lot of hubbub about Facebook and a lot of the other tech giants. They’re getting a lot of scrutiny that they haven’t had before. I’m curious. Do you think anything will come from that on how they do change the way they do business, design their platforms to make them less addictive? Or do you think things will just be sort of business as usual?
Adam Alter: It’s hard to say whether there will be major change. I think all of these companies live and die on attention. If a lot of the population pushes back, which is starting to happen in a way that I think is quite encouraging, if people who use Facebook and other platforms like it say, “We will not use you anymore if you don’t start to respect us as consumers.” I think you’ll start to see that these companies will make some changes. I’m extremely skeptical, though, that those changes will be widespread wholesale changes that will make the platform much friendlier to us, because the platform can’t survive unless it captures our attention. There’s a real tussle there. It’s really either we do what’s best for Facebook or we do what’s best for the consumer.
That isn’t true, for example, with say Apple. Apple requires that you buy its products, but they don’t really care how long you spend on each new phone, as long as you use it a little bit and like it and want to buy the next one. Apple’s uniquely well-positioned to work with consumers. That’s why they’re starting to build in features like the do not disturb feature, when you’re driving, helps you stay off the phone. That’s okay for Apple to do, but for Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, they really need you to be embedded in that process of being on that platform as much time as possible.
The only routes to change are from the bottom up, where consumers say, “We’re not going to use the platform unless you become more attentive to us.” or from the top down where the government gets involved and says, “We’re going to make rules about what you can and can’t do.” Now, I see basically 0% chance the government’s materially going to intervene. Obviously on the privacy front they might make some changes, like protecting consumers from some of the privacy and data mining concerns that have been a major concern for Facebook lately. But that’s not going to change how addictive the platform is. Those are two separate issues. I think from the addiction perspective, it’s hard to imagine the government saying, for example, that you can’t make your feed bottomless because people spend too much time on the platform. That’s never going to happen.
I think it’s really going to have to come from the consumers. That’s my sense, at least in the US.
Brett McKay: We’re not going to see labels on Facebook, “This can cause addiction,” like you see on cigarettes packages.
Adam Alter: I think it’s unlikely and I actually think it would probably make it more appealing.
Brett McKay: Right. You’re probably right.
Adam Alter: With Facebook. Yeah.
Brett McKay: It’s up to us then. It’s up to us being proactive and setting aside time where we just take a break from our technology.
Adam Alter: Yeah. I mean think about what’s happened in the world of, you know, industrial production. For a very long time the biggest industrial companies in the world dumped pollutants into waterways and no one really said much. There wasn’t much demand from consumers. The government didn’t intervene. At some point, consumers started to become concerned about the environment in ways they weren’t in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s. These companies were forced to change what they were doing. Consumers would start to say, “If you don’t have a symbol on your bottles on your packaging that says you are friendly to the environment, we’re just going to buy your competitors’ products.” And suddenly these companies, pushed partly by government intervention saying things like you can’t dump pollutants into the oceans, but partly just by consumers who started to demand environmentally friendly practices from the companies they were buying from.
You started to see changes in the way these companies behave. They had to become more mindful about what they were doing to the environment. I really think something like that will happen over time as consumers become savvier about what companies like Facebook are doing to ensnare them. As they become savvier, they’ll demand more attention to consumer well-being. I think that that will move the needle a little bit in our favor.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I think another example is food, the whole organic food thing. That wasn’t a thing 20 years ago but now people are, “I’m concerned about what’s going in my body.” and so companies responded to that.
Adam Alter: Yeah. Exactly. They don’t have to respond until we push them, until we as consumers decide something is a big enough issue that we need to pay attention to it. That’s, I think we are at the very early stages of that happening. One of the big events that pushed that alone was Sean Parker, one of the early Facebook investors, coming forward and saying, “It turns out we’ve never really cared about you. We’ve always really cared about capturing your attention as much as possible.” He said that in a very bold way. He was very clear about it. He said, “We knew from very early on all we were trying to do was to mine your attention.”
I think when people like Sean Parker come forward and admit that, and then a number of other tech titans have come forward saying the same thing, that pushes us as consumers to consider what we’re doing and whether we’re doing what’s best for us. I mean if these people are concerned, then we should probably be concerned as well. I think that’s been a huge, huge event in pushing consumers towards being more mindful about their own consumption.
Brett McKay: Well Adam, this is been a great conversation. Is there some place people go to learn more about your work?
Adam Alter: Yeah. I have a website, so it’s adamleealter.com. That’s A-D-A-M L-E-E A-L-T-E-R. You can find me on Twitter @AdamLeeAlter, and then I’ve got one book, Irresistible, which is about tech addiction, and another book that I wrote a few years earlier called Drunk Tank Pink, which is about how things in the world around us shape how we think, feel, and behave, things like colors and the weather and so on.
Brett McKay: But you’re not on Twitter on the weekends, right? Because-
Adam Alter: Yeah. You have to see the tweets that I’m posting during the week because there’s not much activity on the weekends. That is true.
Brett McKay: Well Adam, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Adam Alter: Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Adam Alter. He is the author of the book Irresistible. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can also find out more information about his work at adamalteralterauthor.com did also check out our show notes at aom.is/irresistible we can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoy the podcast, you got something out of it, I’d appreciate if you give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher, helps out a lot. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.