Adam Alter didn’t set out to scare me, but here we are.
I am terrified.
Alter is an NYU psychology professor and the author of the new book, “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.” It’s a hard, thoughtful look at the ways smartphone apps and social media hijack our brains to crave what those apps deliver.
“Irresistible” lays out the science of behavioral addiction, introduces us to people who became casualties of too much gaming or cell-phone use, and provides strategies for keeping a healthy relationship with our devices.
But what really left me unsettled was the overarching premise of the book – that there are incredibly smart people working in offices just like mine whose job it is to engineer apps that people can’t resist. Alter says they wield “tremendous power.”
“Our attention is a valuable resource. It’s very scarce,” he tells me. “So these companies are doing their very best to ensure we’re paying attention to their product and not someone else’s.”
And while Alter says most designers care more about creating a fast, frictionless app – not some darker Machiavellian pursuit – psychology research has found the end result is the same. Apps really can be too well-designed for our own good.
How apps hook us
Last year, Tristan Harris wrote a post for Medium entitled “How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds - from a Magician and Google’s Design Ethicist.” That last part was Harris’ job title at Google: design ethicist. A lot of companies hire one, Alter says. It’s their job to make sure apps don’t rely on too many gimmicks to create a pleasurable experience.
Harris lists in the post 10 such tricks, which he calls “hijacks.”
For instance, people love slot machines because they deliver a healthy dose of randomness. After six straight busts, you’ll still celebrate a small win as if it were big. Smartphones work the same way, Harris says. Notifications create the expectation of a “win,” only it’s in the form of likes, retweets, and comments.
Another example is autoplay. Netflix, YouTube, and Facebook all begin playing the next video in your queue right as the current one ends. (YouTube will do this even if you don’t have one lined up.) The goal is to keep people on the site to boost the site’s metrics, even if the companies attest it’s for the user’s benefit.
“A huge portion of traffic on these websites is driven by autoplaying the next thing,” Harris wrote.
How to fight back
Awareness is the biggest first step people can take to avoid technology addiction, Alter says. It’s an awareness that willpower plays almost no role in mindless scrolling. The real culprit is the app itself – its design is so easy to use, people actually lose their ability to step away.
Once people become aware of just how often they check their phones or get sucked into their favorite game, the next step is building an environment that limits addictive impulses. Alter calls this “behavior architecture.”
Behavior architecture can involve enabling a special plugin, such as the Demtricator, which tells you your Facebook posts have gotten likes but doesn’t specify how many. Alter says the plugin eliminates the desire for increasing rewards. Or it can mean simply putting your phone far, far away from your bed each night, so you’re not tempted to check.
It might sound like a drastic set of measures, but “Irresistible” tells the stories of numerous people who have had their lives ruined by too much technology use. Entire relationships have crumbled from a few extra minutes that turned into hours or days without real human contact.
There’s no hoodie-wearing programmer twisting his mustache because of how much time we wasted, but given how slippery the slope toward addiction can be, it might help to imagine one.