Another week, another great read. To continue my quest on habits exploration, this time I got hold of “Irresistible” by Adam Atler. The book has a rather intriguing subtitle “Why we can’t stop checking, scrolling, clicking and watching” that caught my attention because I do think that I have trouble looking at my phone too much. Researchers even coined the word “nomophobia” stemming from “no-mobile-phone phobia”. Did you know that according to most recent studies, the majority of adolescents would prefer an actual physical pain to losing their phone? Or that a significant percentage of young people spend more time on their phone rather than sleeping? So really, why?
I did appreciate how Atler brings in his book together the research from different areas of psychology to show how game and tech designers take advantage of the way a human brain is wired. In the first section of the book, Atler focuses on the nature of behavioural addictions. According to the author, “a behaviour is addictive only if the rewards it brings now are eventually outweighed by damaging consequences. Behavioural addictions do not involve eating, drinking, injecting or smoking substances. They arise when a person can not resist a behaviour, which despite addressing a deep psychological need in the short-term, produces significant harm in the long-term”. In fact, if your brain perceives a behaviour as rewarding e.g. you are scrolling through your Instagram feed several times a day because you are missing on social interaction, it will treat it in the same way as a drug and release a dose of dopamine.
What is interesting about behavioural addictions is that they are usually caused by the psychological reason. The behavioural addictions often arise as a response to “soothe psychological distress”. Another fun fact is that you might not even like the addictive behaviour but because it is hitting the pleasure centres in your brain that gives you psychological relief, it because a craving, “wanting”, which is hard to defeat.
Behavioural Addictions & Tech
There are a few key principles that Atler identifies that the tech designers incorporate in our experience with different kinds of tech:
Goals & Progress
“Personal goal-setting makes intuitive sense, because it tells you how to spend your limited time and energy. But today goals visit themselves upon us, invited. Sign up for a social media account, and soon you will seek followers and likes. Create an email account, and you’ll forever chase an empty inbox”.
Human beings are driven by progress and the way to make them act is to break down a big goal into smaller incremental goals. As Atler himself mentions, the power of goals is that “when you’re two bananas shy of collapsing, you find the will to go on”.
We live in the goals culture – on Instagram, you can find #couplegoals, #homegoals, #putanywordheregoals; on the exercise tracker, we are setting goals from 10k steps to 11k steps and then to the next goals and what about the weekly self-assessment at work?
While goals are driving us forward, they can also play against you. With the power of Internet, goals get imposed on our lives without invitation.
In a similar way, the goals and progress are incorporated in the games. There are levels that the beginner would find easy at first and that get harder eventually.
Human beings are also driven to learn and in the process of learning, they are wired to get feedback from their environment. While this is clear, here is something interesting: the research from psychology shows that human brain gets more excited when the feedback is delivered unexpectedly rather than on a predictable schedule.
Bingo, do you see where I am going with this? This is exactly how most of the social media work – when you post a picture, you do not know how many likes you are going to get and your brain is driven by that unpredictable feedback. So here comes another picture that you are uploading a few hours later.
Similarly, in games , you would usually get micro-feedback. Let’s say in Candy Crash saga, you put together the row of the same candies together and there you have sounds associated with it or unpredicted bonus points. Yes, I play it too, sometimes.
Those are fun. Are you watching Netflix? Do you know how an episode of a show would usually end with a tense moment and how at the beginning of the next one, it resolves? This is something that is called a cliffhanger.
The research in psychology shows that what makes the tasks for memorable is the tension to complete them when they are left incomplete. In a similar way, we are craving to watch yet another episode to see the resolution of the previous one. Did you ever catch yourself binge-watching the entire season in one sitting? Here is a power of cliffhangers.
One of the most important criteria is social interactions. Humans are driven to compare themselves to others and this makes the mechanism of a social feedback very powerful feature of social media that drives us to it. This is often represented in the form of numbers – how many likes you get, how many friends you have, how many followers are there. The ability of tech to quantify our worth gives us that immediate unpredictable feedback that drives us back to scrolling through social feed one more time a day.
So What Now?
Obviously, giving up tech is not a solution in the world where you need an email address to apply for a job. The solutions that Atler offers mostly focus on behavioural architecture – constructing the environment where temptations are far away, and which I like a lot. In brief, he gives a few practical suggestions:
- How many hours a day is your phone within your reach? If it is always with you, try to place it somewhere where you would actually have to walk to pick it up. “Losing” your phone during the day might also be worth trying.
- Using Facebook Demetricator extension . This browser extension will remove the amount likes and followed people from Facebook.
- Set the stringent limit at what times a day you are not going to use tech e.g. from 5 to 7pm while having dinner, you can put the devices away to spend in-person time with your family.
- Aversion therapy: every time you are catching yourself using social media more than you would like, you can try to make it associated with unpleasant physical experience e.g. pinch yourself (there are also devices which would give you small electric shocks, for instance, that you can purchase)
- De-quantifying your life or living it by “systems” and not numbers: instead of running for 11k steps, you can try running for an hour.
And many many more that you can find in Atler’s book in detail.
Some people would ask why should we care at all?
In Atler’s book, there was a particularly strong example that struck me. When a child interacts with another child face to face and would tell them something mean such as “You are fat”, the kid would have a sad expression on their face and another one would think “Oh, that must hurt them. This is not something I should say”. When the same child would type over text “You are fat” to another kid, they get no in-personal cue about what effect their words had on others. This is something to think about.