A front page article in the New York Times this week discussed Uber's use of game design tactics to entice drivers to stay logged in and pick up more riders. People are catching on that technology can be used as a psychological hack - once used mainly by the gambling industry - to get us addicted to their product or to entice us to work obsessively. This is the main theme in Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked , a new book by Adam Alter.
In a previous article I looked at Sharon Begley's book Can't Just Stop , in which she argues that our attraction to technology has the hallmarks of a compulsion rather than an addiction. She points to anxiety-producing features that promote FoMO (fear of missing out) and the existential angst of feeling like you do not exist if you are not online.
Both books beg - and to some extent answer - questions such as: Why are we susceptible to such cynical exploitation? And how can we build up resistance to it so as to prevent the increase of behavioural disorders that interactive technology is spawning? Alter, for one, suggests we may need to go back to Aristotle for ideas. Still, we need to understand what is happening before we can apply the remedies.
Alter's book, while ostensibly about technology, has much to say about behavior addictions, in general. These behavior addictions play out in well-worn ways, such as gambling, sex, or shopping, but are now shifting to our devices in the form of social media or video game addiction. Alter points out that addictions are not just any experience that provides an immediate reward; behavior is addictive "only if the rewards it brings now are eventually outweighed by damaging consequences… Addiction is a deep attachment to an experience that is harmful and difficult to do without."
Alter makes a compelling case that, for many people, our interaction with technology has the hallmarks of an addiction, although he does group addiction, obsession, compulsion, and obsessive passion as overlapping ideas within the same family (think Venn diagrams). According to Alter:
"There's a key difference between addictions and obsessions and compulsions. Addictions bring the promise of immediate reward, of positive reinforcement. In contrast, obsessions and compulsions are intensely unpleasant to not pursue. They promise relief - also known as negative reinforcement - but not the appealing rewards of a consummated addiction."
This is similar to how Begley defined addictions and compulsions. They use many of the same examples, such as Tetris, voted the most addictive game of all-time, but diverge in their views of how exactly we interact with these technologies. One key difference between Begley's Can't Just Stop and Alter's Irresistible is that Begley focuses more on social media while Alter focuses on gaming in the forms of the insidious freemium games (such as Farmville or Candy Crush) or massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs, such as World of Warcraft). Both books are helpful in understanding our relationship with technology.
Alter explains the six key elements to addictive behaviors, and structures the second part of the book to addressing how these elements are incorporated into game and app design. Think about Tetris or your favorite freemium game as you read through this list. (I've provided examples as well):
Compelling goals that are just beyond reach (in the original Super Mario Brothers game for Nintendo, after beating a world, the princess is always in another castle.)
Irresistible and unpredictable positive feedback (e.g., random loot drops in Diablo 3; "likes" on Facebook or Instagram)
A sense of incremental progress and improvement (e.g., any game where your character levels up or gets stronger as you play)
Tasks that become slowly more difficult over time (e.g., advancing levels in Tetris where the blocks fall faster)
Unresolved tensions that demand resolution (e.g., endless runner games, or games that do not have a distinct ending like World of Warcraft).
Strong social connections (e.g., MMORPSs like World of Warcraft; any social media app)
Based on studies asking whether people have a behavioral addiction, it seems like everyone has one, which calls into question whether it is really an addiction or not. For example, some studies have shown that 41% of the population has had some kind of behavior addiction in the last twelve months. Alter agrees the numbers are high, and says that it points to a problem with our view of addiction, not whether we're classifying this behavior correctly. Rather than viewing addiction as a disease thrust upon unlucky individuals - that is, a medical issue -- behavior addictions may be best viewed as a social issue.
Alter provides several examples for why both substance and behavior addictions are largely a result of environment and circumstance that do well to make his case that all of us could become addicts. This view of addictions is important for understanding how designers are constantly optimizing their products to make them more alluring. Consider Facebook. Once the "like" button and the endless news feed were added, the psychology of Facebook changed. As Alter points out, "Facebook may have been fun in 2004, but by 2016 it is addictive."
It is by straying from the disease model of addiction that Irresistible provides the most important insight for our culture, which likes to relegate mental health issues to a small cadre of individuals with either broken genes or a broken brain. Notably, Can't Just Stop takes a similar view of compulsions. Both Alter and Begley assume that people with perfectly healthy brains became infatuated with their technology. Their addiction or compulsion meet a need, and those needs are more universal that we care to admit.
Begley talked about existential angst when people would become anxious about not being on social media. Alter says that addiction is the mind learning to associate any substance or behavior with relief from psychological pain. Both touch on deep-seated human needs. Alter says that people learn that the addictive cue, whether it is a shot of heroin or loading World of Warcraft, treats loneliness, disaffection, and distress. Begley says that anxiety-inducing obsessions followed by irrational compulsions, such as checking Facebook for the third time in an hour, provide a sense of control.
This relief of psychological pain can be in the form of escape, such as living in a fantasy world where you can be who you want in a setting with clear rules of engagement and where hard work actually does pay off. Or in the form of accomplishments such as lining up shiny candies and being praised for doing so. Just like the person at the slot machine who forgets to eat, drink, or use the bathroom, one addicted to technology finds relief in a system that makes everything simpler by obscuring the complexity of the real world to the point that we become completely numbed to our environment.
Alter does not leave us despondent over our entrapment to technology. In the third part of his book, he discusses studies on healthy ways we can interact with technology, starting with limiting children's screen time. He also talks about the importance of habits (in the Aristotelean sense), and the failure of merely trying to will oneself to not give in to the addiction. His key point is that we should not medicalize moderate behavioral addictions, but alter the structure of how we live.
To take this a step further, Kent Dunnington, in his book Addiction and Virtue , which looks at addiction through a pre-modern lens, says that addiction can best be described as a counterfeit form of worship. We are designed to worship something, and addictions are powerful because they almost meet our needs. We can call it psychological distress or existential angst or a need to feel in control, but ultimately we need to orient our lives around something. And in a fractured modern culture where individuals are left adrift to find their own meaning, addictions provide a way of life.
The problem is this way of life is not one that leads to the good life because when orient ourselves around the wrong things, they end up consuming rather than freeing us.