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The Progress of Addiction

Some of Silicon Valley’s most successful app designers are alumni of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford, ... founded in 1998 by B.J. Fogg, whose graduate work “used methods from experimental psychology to demonstrate that computers can change people’s thoughts and behaviors in predictable ways,” according to the center’s website. ...

Fogg’s behavior model involves building habits through the use of what he calls “hot triggers,” like the links and photos in Facebook’s newsfeed, made up largely of posts by one’s Facebook friends.

One of Fogg’s students, Nir Eyal, offers a practical guide in his book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. A former game designer and professor of “applied consumer psychology” at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, Eyal explains why applications like Facebook are so effective. A successful app, he writes, creates a “persistent routine” or behavioral loop. The app both triggers a need and provides the momentary solution to it. “Feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion, and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation,” he writes. “Gradually, these bonds cement into a habit as users turn to your product when experiencing certain internal triggers.” ...

On Facebook, one asserts one’s social status and quantifies its increase through numbers of likes, comments, and friends. According to Eyal, checking in delivers a hit of dopamine to the brain, along with the craving for another hit. The designers are applying basic slot machine psychology. The variability of the “reward”—what you get when you check in—is crucial to the enthrallment. ...

Facebook’s 2012 acquisition of Instagram, a startup with thirteen employees, for the bargain price of $1 billion, “demonstrates the increasing power of—and immense monetary value created by—habit-forming technology.” In other words, Instagram was so damned addictive that Facebook had to have it. ...

The toll of technology is emotional rather than physical. But the more you read about it, the more you may come to feel that we’re in the middle of a new Opium War, in which marketers have adopted addiction as an explicit commercial strategy. This time the pushers come bearing candy-colored apps. ...

Tech companies are engaged in “a race to the bottom of the brain stem,” in which rewards go not to those that help us spend our time wisely, but to those that keep us mindlessly pulling the lever at the casino. ...

In the last part of his book, Eyal raises ethical considerations and says developers ought to peddle only products that they believe in. But in the main, his book reads like one of those tobacco industry documents about manipulating nicotine levels in cigarettes. ...

As long as software engineers are able to deliver free, addictive products directly to children, parents who are themselves compulsive users have little hope of asserting control.

- Jacob Weisberg, We Are Hopelessly Hooked, NY Review of Books, Feb. 25, 2016 Issue


It appears that much as CNN tried to improve its ratings by following in the footsteps of Fox News, focusing increasingly on producing content entertaining enough to draw a larger audience, the New York Times plans to shift toward producing content that is more entertaining to attract more readers. The Times will increasingly focus not on reporting the most important news, but on "incorporating reader ideas" — in other words, tailoring the product to satisfy the tastes of a mass audience, producing content that large numbers of people will find so enticing that they come back for more, much as the food industry incorporates consumers' preferences, designing foods so as to maximize customers' urge to consume more:

More than most news organizations, The Times has hitched its future to building a loyal audience that will come back repeatedly and pay for the privilege of doing so. ...The Times hopes to make its content sufficiently unique and addictive that it turns frequent visitors into subscribers. ...

In May, Dean Baquet, the executive editor, told the staff that the way The Times tells stories would be changing. “Fewer stories will be done just ‘for the record,’ ” he said. “In fact, fewer traditional news stories will be done over all. Stories will relax in tone.” ...

Think of pioneering comedians like Jon Stewart.... He created a whole new genre of delivering the news. His incisive wit and brilliance enabled him to convey, in one entertaining spoof, what reams of reporters missed through more dutiful stories. ...

''I don’t worry that The Times will go too far in incorporating reader ideas.... I worry that it won’t go far enough.

- Liz Spayd, Want to Attract More Readers? Try Listening to Them, NYT, July 9, 2016


Scientists across the globe have demonstrated that shifting the internet from our computers to our phones has created an epidemic worse than the one created by smoking, albeit attacking our minds instead of our lungs.

60 Minutes recently ran a piece showing how Silicon Valley engineers are using what they know about the brain to manipulate us into staying perpetually addicted to our smartphones. Their investigation caught numerous firms red-handed as they used knowledge of brain science to increase the addictive natures of their apps. ...
It’s a simple fact that the purpose of a company is to generate revenue, and that companies do what they can—often through clever marketing—to make you purchase more of their products. Many of these techniques manipulate our minds....
- Jeff Stibel, Has the Internet become an Epidemic?, LinkedIn, July 10, 2017Featured in: Millennials, Productivity, Social Media, Technology


Fogg called for a new field, sitting at the intersection of computer science and psychology, and proposed a name for it: “captology” (Computers as Persuasive Technologies). Captology later became behaviour design, which is now embedded into the invisible operating system of our everyday lives. The emails that induce you to buy right away, the apps and games that rivet your attention, the online forms that nudge you towards one decision over another: all are designed to hack the human brain and capitalise on its instincts, quirks and flaws. The techniques they use are often crude and blatantly manipulative, but they are getting steadily more refined, and, as they do so, less noticeable.
- IAN LESLIE, THE SCIENTISTS WHO MAKE APPS ADDICTIVE, 1843 MAGAZINE, The Economist, OCTOBER/NOVEMBER 2016


It's a case study in how designers use technology to create habit-forming products by marrying the principles of consumer psychology with the latest in big data analytics. Indeed, it is just one of many products and services we use habitually that alter our everyday behavior — just as their designers intended.

How does it work? After years of distilled research and real-world experience, I call it the Hook Model: a four-phase process companies use to form habits. Through consecutive hook cycles — of trigger, action, variable reward, and investment — successful products reach their ultimate goal of unprompted user engagement, bringing users back repeatedly without depending on costly advertising or aggressive messaging. To illustrate this, it's helpful to look at the early days of Gruenewald's Bible app.''
- Nir Eyal, Nir Eyal: What Makes Some Products Indispensable?, Insights, Stanford Graduate School of Business, April 30, 2014


Fear that new internet technologies are doing more to waste time and brainpower than to increase productivity has already provoked a backlash in China, where officials recently criticized online gaming as “electronic heroin.”
- Ruchir Sharma, When Will the Tech Bubble Burst?, NYT, AUG. 5, 2017


We now know that those iPads, smartphones and Xboxes are a form of digital drug. Recent brain imaging research is showing that they affect the brain’s frontal cortex — which controls executive functioning, including impulse control — in exactly the same way that cocaine does. Technology is so hyper-arousing that it raises dopamine levels — the feel-good neurotransmitter most involved in the addiction dynamic — as much as sex.

This addictive effect is why Dr. Peter Whybrow, director of neuroscience at UCLA, calls screens “electronic cocaine” and Chinese researchers call them “digital heroin.” ...
Once a kid has crossed the line into true tech addiction, treatment can be very difficult. Indeed, I have found it easier to treat heroin and crystal meth addicts than lost-in-the-matrix video gamers or Facebook-dependent social media addicts.

According to a 2013 Policy Statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics, 8- to 10 year-olds spend 8 hours a day with various digital media while teenagers spend 11 hours in front of screens.
- Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, It’s ‘digital heroin’: How screens turn kids into psychotic junkies, New York Post, August 27, 2016


The video poker machines that Stephen Paddock liked were the ones that did not draw attention. They had few look-at-me flashing lights or listen-to-me bells.

He would sit in front of them for hours, often wagering more than $100 a hand. The way he played — instinctually, decisively, calculatingly, silently, with little movement beyond his shifting eyes and nimble fingers — meant he could play several hundred hands an hour. Casino hosts knew him well. ...
“Video poker is the crack cocaine of gambling,” Mr. Curtis ["a former professional gambler and currently the owner and publisher of Las Vegas Advisor, a website covering the casino business"] said.
- JOHN BRANCH, SERGE F. KOVALESKI and SABRINA TAVERNISE, Las Vegas Gunman Chased Gambling’s Payouts and Perks, NYT, OCT. 4, 2017


Alter teaches marketing and psychology at New York University and wants to show us how smartphones, Netflix, and online games such as World of Warcraft are exquisitely and expensively engineered to hook us in. “As a kid I was terrified of drugs,” he writes. “I had a recurring nightmare that someone would force me to take heroin and that I’d become addicted.” It’s unsurprising he’s become a psychologist of addiction, and his intoxicant of choice is the internet. In a chapter subtitled “Never Get High on Your Own Supply” he makes the observation that neither Steve Jobs of Apple nor Evan Williams of Twitter have allowed their children to play with touch screens.
A couple of years ago a programmer called Kevin Holesh, worried that his own screen time was getting out of control, wrote an app called Moment, which tracks how long a user is interacting with a screen (it doesn’t count time on phone calls). The results were startling, even among those concerned enough to download the app: for 88% it was more than an hour a day, with the average being three hours. The typical user checked their phone 39 times in 24 hours. By comparison, in 2008, before smartphones became widespread, adults spent just 18 minutes a day on their phone. ...
The middle part of Alter’s book is illuminating on the ways that designers engineer behavioural addiction. ...
These neuropsychology experiments are well known, but Alter retells them to illustrate how the latest technology traps us in a lab cage of connectivity. For an addict, there’s little opportunity to escape.

Some will find this shrill and alarmist – new technology has always had its catastrophisers. It may have been that the girl who killed herself would have done so without the public shaming that followed her post; there have always been neglectful parents; my teenage patient might have struggled to concentrate without being woken by his phone. Socrates said that writing would make us all forgetful; Caxton’s printing press destroyed the economy of scribes; television was condemned for vulgarising and trivialising entertainment. Connectivity is here to stay....
- Gavin Francis, Irresistible: Why We Can’t Stop Checking, Scrolling, Clicking and Watching - review, The Guardian, Sunday 26 February 2017


Half the developed world is addicted to something, and Alter, a professor at New York University, informs us that, increasingly, that something isn’t drugs or alcohol, but behaviour. Recent studies suggest the most compulsive behaviour we engage in has to do with cyber connectivity; 40% of us have some sort of internet-based addiction – whether it’s checking your email (on average workers check it 36 times an hour), mindlessly scrolling through other people’s breakfasts on Instagram or gambling online.

Facebook was fun three years ago, Alter warns. Now it’s addictive. This tech zombie epidemic is not entirely our fault. Technology is designed to hook us, and to keep us locked in a refresh/reload cycle....
- Fatima Bhutto, Irresistible by Adam Alter review – an entertaining look at technology addiction, The Guardian, Friday 21 April 2017


If you talk to experts in the industry they'll say something like, say, between two and four years from now just as most of us own smartphones, we will pretty much all own these virtual reality goggles. ... What that will mean is that at any moment in time you'll have a device that will allow you to escape the imperfect real world, and you'll be able to go to a perfect virtual world.
- Fresh Air, 'Irresistible' By Design: It's No Accident You Can't Stop Looking At The Screen, March 13, 2017


Adam Alter, a professor of psychology and marketing at NYU, is at the cutting edge of research into what makes these products so compulsive, and he documents the hefty price we're likely to pay if we continue blindly down our current path. People have been addicted to substances for thousands of years, but for the past two decades, we've also been hooked on technologies, such as Instagram, Netflix, and Facebook—inventions that we've adopted because we assume they'll make our lives better. These inventions have profound upsides, but their extraordinary appeal isn't an accident. Technology companies and marketers have teams of engineers and researchers devoted to keeping us engaged. They know how to push our buttons, and how to coax us into using their products for hours, days, and weeks on end.
- ADAM ALTER, Irresistible: The Rise Of Addictive Technology And The Business Of Keeping Us Hooked, NPR Books



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