It happened almost every night around 10 p.m. I’d plan to spend 30 seconds setting my iPhone alarm and then get into bed to read (a paper book). But after I set the alarm, some other part of my consciousness would guide my fingers towards other apps as if I was navigating a Ouija board. I’d check Instagram. And Twitter. One last sweep of my email accounts and any other app that could possibly be checked (is looking at Venmo really necessary?), and then I’d navigate to Facebook and Twitter on my Safari browser (I took the apps off my phone so I’d spend less time on them—#fail). An hour later, I’d emerge from my possessed state a bleary-eyed zombie. What had I been doing for the last hour? Where was my self control?
The somewhat comforting answer: My willpower isn’t entirely to blame. In his book Irresistible, Adam Alter, assistant professor of marketing and psychology at New York University, reveals the powerful psychological underpinnings of the devices designed to keep our eyes glued and fingers swiping. He explores the history of addiction, unpacks the differences between behavioral and substance addictions, explains why we need to consider the benefits of addiction if we want to address it properly, and reveals how product designers use the weaknesses of human brains to their advantage.
But although many of the tech tools we use are designed to exploit our psychological vulnerabilities—providing, for instance, a variable reward structure, which create a kind of slot machine effect every time you open your device—it’s not just about the tech. Behavioral addictions often seek to fill a particular emotional void, which makes it essential to disentangle the reasons why someone may reach for the device in the first place. “The substance or behavior itself isn’t addictive until we learn to use it as a salve for our psychological troubles,” he writes. Someone who’s lonely, for instance, might turn to an immersive video game to build social connections.
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