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“Irresistible” by Adam Alter

„Irresistible“ (2017) shows how dangerously dependent we’ve become on the smartphones, tablets, video games and social platforms that we’ve surrounded ourselves with. Is our attachment to these devices strictly related to the convenience they provide? Or have we actually grown addicted to the psychological rewards they offer? Adam Alter, PhD, teaches psychology at New York University’s Stern School of Business. His ideas and research on social psychology have made him a sought-after consultant for a number of businesses, including Google and Microsoft. He’s written for such publications as the New York Times and WIRED. His previous book is the bestseller Drunk Tank Pink. In partnership with Blinkist, we feature some key insights of his new book in three quick blinks.

Unpredictable Rewards Increase Chances of Addiction

If you’ve spent any time with babies, you’ve probably noticed how they love to repeat actions. They’ll happily press the same button to switch on the same light or make the same noises over and over again. Babies do this because they enjoy the positive feedback – the look of that pretty light or the sensation of making that strange sound. As adults, we also have a desire for positive feedback, and when we’re rewarded for carrying out a simple action, we may start to develop an addiction. This is especially true if we don’t know when that simple action will be rewarded.

In the 1970s, psychologist Michael Zeiler conducted an experiment with pigeons. He set up a cage with a button that the pigeons could peck with their beaks to be rewarded with food. But Zeiler made things interesting by changing the regularity of the reward. He found that if the pigeons got a reward every time the button was pressed, they would peck at regular but rather infrequent intervals; but if the reward came only 50 to 70 percent of the time, the birds would peck more frequently and persistently.

Because Zeiler made the reward more unpredictable, the rush of dopamine to the brain became bigger, which is exactly what makes gambling so appealing to people. When we roll the dice and come up with the winning number, that rush of pleasure is especially addictive.

This same addictive feedback system can be found in social media. The “like” button is a perfect example. The like button dates back to 2008, when Facebook introduced it as a novelty to provide users with a quick and easy way to give friends feedback about their photos or messages. But this feedback is unreliable, so every time we post something we begin feverishly wondering whether it will be liked or not.

This makes every post on social media a gamble with pretty high stakes, since people can interpret getting no likes as a sign that their friends have abandoned them or that their post is subpar. So it’s no surprise that just about every social media platform out there, including sites like LinkedIn and YouTube, feature those addictive feedback buttons.

“Like pigeons, we’re more driven to seek feedback when it isn’t guaranteed.”

People Have Difficulty Relaxing

Today, there are over 30,000 offerings on Google Books for those who want to improve their life. Considering the supply of self-help literature, it would seem that there’s a great demand for this help, that people genuinely want to have a better life. But it isn’t that simple. In truth, humans are addicted to making things difficult for themselves. Even if someone has managed to arrange a pretty cushy life for themselves, it’s not uncommon for that person to continue being unhappy.

In 2014, psychologist Timothy D. Wilson and his associates developed an experiment that highlights the human need to seek hardships that we are then forced to overcome. Undergraduate students were asked to sit calmly for 20 minutes and try to have a pleasant experience while avoiding negative thoughts. The twist was that the students were also given a relatively painful electric shock before the clock started, and they were told that they could shock themselves during the experiment if they wanted to. Oddly enough, two-thirds of the male students and one-third of the women decided to shock themselves at least once, while one man shocked himself nearly two hundred times!

For reasons we don’t fully understand, it seems to be in our nature to seek out some kind of hardship or challenge to overcome, even when we’re given the opportunity to enjoy life and relax. In fact, we try so hard to prevent relaxation that our need for activity and constant achievement has its own name: workaholism.

This is especially apparent in societies that have a strong work culture, like Japan, where it’s not uncommon for people to literally work themselves to death. Over the past twenty years, a new Japanese term has emerged: karoshi, which roughly translates to “death from too much work.” In 2011, an employee at the computer company Nanya died of heart failure as he was sitting at his desk. He’d put in one too many 19-hour workdays, and his system simply collapsed.

What makes karoshi death particularly strange is that these people are usually rich and successful. They don’t need to work as hard as they do. But they’re addicted – in this case to the meaning and achievement that work can provide.

Substitution Is Better than Repression

If you’ve ever tried quitting something cold turkey – eating junk food, for instance, or smoking cigarettes – then there’s a good chance that you’ve also experienced a relapse. Our most common reaction to an undesired behavior is to repress or suppress it, but repression often only makes an addiction worse.

We can see this in the behavior of people living in the especially conservative and religious states of the United States, where sexuality and sexual urges are considered taboo. Despite the repressive attitudes, the computer usage data on Google Trends revealed that more people were searching for pornography in these states than anywhere else in the United States during 2015. Relying on willpower alone to change your behavior is a risky proposition; substitution, on the other hand, is a much more reliable method.

Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit, breaks addiction down into three parts: a cue, a routine and a reward. For mobile technology, the cue is taking out your smartphone; the routine is opening up your social media app and scrolling through your feed; the reward is feeling connected and seeing how many likes your last post got.

With this in mind, in 2014, the Company of Others launched a new device called Realism. Designed to help break smartphone addiction, Realism looks and feels like a smartphone but, instead of a screen, it has a transparent frame that offers a view of the world around you. So the cue is still there – but when you feel the need to grab your device you can reach for Realism, which offers a new routine: looking at the real world around you instead of the virtual world inside your phone.

Like any other addiction, technology addictions can be overcome. There are creative and practical solutions to help break the cycle – but before you can move forward, you have to take the first step and acknowledge that the problem is there. So take a moment, turn off your devices and ask yourself: How irresistible has technology become in your life?

Irresistible. The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Penguin Press, 2017.

Want to read more? Download the full Irresistible-in-blinks on Blinkist.

And coming soon on STURM und DRANG: a look into the future of humanity – Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari as a book-in-blinks!