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Adam Alter Dishes On His New Book & Explains How to Avoid Social Media Addiction

Want to curb your social media habit? Behavioral psychologist Adam Alter explains how you can beat digital addiction and ease off on those Netflix binges.
by Ben Schuman-Stoler | Mar 9 2017

Everyone is talking about Adam Alter’s new book Irresistible. The latest book from the Drunk Tank Pink author reveals the alarming ways that behavioral addiction is growing. We got an advance copy and jumped at the chance to delve deeper, to ask him about how he handles technology with his family, and why we might just be effed as humans. Check it out below!


Benjamin Schuman-Stoler: Thanks for coming out to the Blinkist podcast in the middle of your promo tour for Irresistible.

Adam Alter: Thank you for inviting me.

BS: I finished Irresistible today. Combined with Drunk Tank Pink, I was trying to think of what connects them, and I couldn’t help but think that they both share a perspective of a certain weakness of the human brain. Drunk Tank Pink shows all the ways we’re influenced, even without us knowing. And Irresistible shows some ways we’re easily trapped in dangerous habits and behaviors, and paints a sometimes scary picture of our children growing up to be socially maladjusted and obese zombies. So, my question is, are we totally effed as humans?

AA: That’s the message of Drunk Tank Pink, I guess. I wouldn’t say we’re totally effed as humans, but I think, what the books are trying to do—what I’m trying to do, with these books—is to tell us how we’re in trouble. And once we understand how we’re in trouble, it’s obviously the first step to remedying the situation. Or at least lessening the negative effects of these cues on our lives. So Drunk Tank Pink is a big survey. It’s like, here are all of these things that influence us in ways we might not expect, and Irresistible is much more focused, but I think it’s a much bigger problem.

Drunk Tank Pink is sort of like, the weather influences how you think—on a cloudy day, you think much more deeply. And that’s interesting. But that doesn’t tell you you’re effed necessarily. It just tells you that you’re being influenced. And I think Irresistible makes a much more profound and dark case. And I think it’s more important to deal with that issue than with the issues in Drunk Tank Pink

BS: Alright. So then let’s get into some of those issues. There’s a good quote in the book that says, “addiction is a sort of misguided love.” What is behavioral addiction and why is it like a misguided love?

AA: It’s a misguided love in the way that loving the wrong person is very destructive. What ends up happening when you love the wrong person, is that you end up developing a very strong need for them. You develop a strong want. But you don’t like them. And there’s this inconsistency between wanting and liking.

“Bad love is a very useful analogy for understanding behavioral addictions.”

There are a number of researchers who study addiction and they describe addiction in that way. They basically say that, wanting and liking are two very different things. And often we really, really want something we know is bad for us, and we hate that thing, and that’s sort of like bad relationships. That’s like bad love. And it’s a very useful analogy for understanding behavioral addictions. You get this if you talk to people about their phones in particular. We form this love/hate relationship with our phones. Sort of like a bad relationship, where we’re always here for them and yet somehow, they continue to hurt us.

Basically, to be a little more concrete about it, behavioral addictions are different from substance addictions because they don’t involve ingesting a chemical. They don’t involve ingesting drugs or alcohol or nicotine. But they are experiences that are still addictive in a similar sense. And what I mean by that, is that in the short-term, they are things that you really want to do, and that you do compulsively; but in the long-term, they are ultimately bad for you, or they undermine your well-being.

And they can undermine your well-being in lots of different ways: they can damage your social relationships, they can damage your romantic relationships. They can make you less healthy because you don’t exercise enough; they can make you less healthy because you exercise too much. You may develop an addiction to exercise. They can change your relationship with work. Maybe you work too much. Maybe you don’t work enough because you’re playing games. Whatever it may be.

But it’s essential that the addiction is bad for you in the long-term, but good for you in the short-term. Or feels good to you in the short-term.

Adam Alter on how to beat social media addiction

BS: And you make the point in the book that these behavioral addictions are getting worse. Or at least, there’s more of them now than ever before. Is that right?

AA: Yeah, that’s right. I think there are two main reasons for that. One is that tech is being delivered more quickly than ever before. So the games you played, if you played computer games in the nineties—or even in the early 2000s—there was a clunkiness to the games. They weren’t delivering information, they weren’t delivering rewards as reliably and as quickly as they needed to become exceedingly addictive.

There were some addictive games. Like even Tetris, way back, was pretty addictive. But the games now are very, very advanced. They can deliver rapid feedback and rapid rewards in a way that wasn’t true some years ago.

But I think the other big thing is that the companies that are producing this content are much more mindful about the factors that make an experience addictive. They have consultants, they have people on board who essentially work to make sure that the version they release to the public is the most weaponized, difficult-to-resist version of the program. Now, they wouldn’t describe it that way. They’re just trying to make the best product possible. But the way you measure whether a game or an experience is good is by measuring how long people spend with it. Do they buy it, and then more importantly, do they stay with it? Do they keep using it?

And that’s more true now than ever before. We know how to make things that people will stay with, that will be difficult for them to resist.

BS: But you work with marketers, you work in marketing. You’re a marketing professor as well as a psychology professor. Isn’t making something irresistible and addictive kind of the goal of marketing?

AA: I think it is—what you’re trying to do, in business in general, is make something people really want and feel they can’t do without. But in most industries that’s okay. It’s not going to ruin their lives and damage their social relationships. Like if you make something and I really want to buy it, and I use it a lot—in a lot of cases, that’s not a problem.

I think what has become a problem is that these things that we’re talking about, these experiences, infringe on our lives and infringe on our well-being in a way that’s fairly new. So, it’s not just that they’re hard to resist, it’s not just that people are making products that we really want. It’s that, that wanting ends up undermining our well-being in other areas, more so than was true in the past.

BS: So, let’s be a little more specific. A phrase that sticks in my head is the idea of the cucumber brain. Can you explain what that is? Maybe one thing that’s so scary is this idea that our bodies are actually changing in a way that could have irreparable consequences, no?

AA: Yeah. The cucumber brain is an idea that comes from a psychologist who works in a clinic in Seattle. It’s a special clinic that’s designed just to treat young men with gaming addiction and internet addiction issues. I’ve visited this clinic—it’s not really a clinic, it’s a house in the woods. And these guys go there and they spend six weeks trying to wean themselves off whatever game addictions they have.

BS: And it’s guys. And you say guys, and you say that in the book too, because it has to be guys?

AA: It has be guys! They tried to admit women, but it turns out that people with gaming addiction often have other addictions—including sex addiction—and that can be another complication.

But one thing you have to tell people when they’re addicted to something, is that the best thing you can possibly do is never expose yourself to that thing again. And we know that from alcohol: if you have an alcohol problem, and you’re an alcoholic, you can’t just have one sip.

So, what the psychologists at this clinic tell the people who are there is: You have a brain. Your brain is like a cucumber. But your brain can become pickled. And once your cucumber brain has become pickled like a pickled cucumber, it can never go back to being unpickled. So you now have to treat it differently. You can’t treat it like you used to, before it was pickled. Forever now, you have to either keep yourself away from these games completely or, if you absolutely have no choice but to be exposed to them, you need to be extremely, extremely careful. Since your brain has now become pickled, you are susceptible to further addiction.

BS: Are they only treating gaming addiction there? Or are they also treating some of the addictions that you mention in the book, like binge watching or social media? Or even exercise addiction?

AA: It’s mostly gaming addiction at this clinic. Gaming addiction, I think, for a number of reasons, has had the gravest consequences for well-being for a lot of young males, in particular. Women too now, more and more, but especially for males.

So, the single most addictive experience on the planet, as far as many people are concerned, is the game World of Warcraft.

BS: Which I’ve never played. Did you play it in the end?

AA: No, I didn’t. In fact, I spoke to a game developer and game expert. He works at NYU, at the NYU Game Center. So, his job is basically to teach people about games. And he said to me, “My job is to play all the culturally significant games, so I can discuss them in class, and I refuse to even go near this game, because I know how dangerous it is! I know I would lose years of my life to it.” Which is pretty staggering. So I haven’t played it.

BS: It’s shocking. The book opens up with the anecdote of how Steve Jobs wouldn’t let his kids use his iPad.

AA: Yeah, the day they release the iPad, he gets on the stage at Apple and says to everyone, “This is the greatest device we’ve ever known! It will be the best way to deliver all sorts of content. You can play games, you can use the Internet, you can use TV, you can do pretty much anything on this device. It’s a miracle!”

But then two years later, he’s asked by a newspaper reporter, “Your kids must love this device!” Which is a logical thing to ask given what he says about this device in public. And he says, “No, we don’t let them use the iPad. We’ve never had one in the home.” Which is staggering. It tells you what people in the know think about these products.

BS: You mention in the book that you have a kid. I am also a new parent. I don’t know how old your kid is—

AA: Congratulations!

BS: Thank you.

AA: He’s a year old. He’s almost a year old.

BS: Oh, cool. So they’re not so crazy far apart in age. I’d be curious to hear, when you heard that Steve Jobs story, what did you think?

AA: Well, I’m trying my best to keep him away from screens for the first two years of his life. That’s my goal. It’s sort of arbitrary, but it’s also the number that the American Pediatrics Association has chosen. So, I’m using two as a guide, and so far so good! He doesn’t use screens yet.

But I think it gets harder in the second year because they are exposed more to screens and they also have a better sense of what you’re doing when you’re with a screen. Actually, I did once break the rule, I had an iPhone in my hand. I was looking at something, I can’t remember what. And he had never done anything that showed that he really understood the way the world worked, but he reached over, and he sort of swiped the screen. And the screen changed. He looked at me with surprise, and I could see that this was the greatest, rewarding moment he’d had in a while. And it scared me and it made me realize just how well-designed these devices are. That even a baby can play with them and understand what they do.

But I think it gets trickier if they’re older, when they’re teens, and all their friends are using these devices. Because you can’t be the crazy parent who says, “Over my dead body will you use this device!” There’s no way you’re going to do away with all phones and iPads because you’ll create this ostracized outcast of a kid, and that’s not what you want either.

So you have to be smart about it and you basically have to work out how they can use tech sustainably. Which is sort of like the environmental language. We can’t not consume energy. We can’t not consume fuels and resources. You just have to learn to do it in a way that’s sustainable in the long run.

“We are the architects of our own lives. And even very small decisions can have big consequences.”

BS: What about FaceTime? You have family all over the world, right? Is FaceTime also a no-go?

AA: That’s a good point. I should say FaceTime is definitely a yes-go. We do use FaceTime. I don’t know what he makes of it. He doesn’t seem to recognize my parents yet, my parents or my brother. I’m sure he will in time. But that is the one exception.

And I think it’s important to say: I think tech is miraculous. It’s allowed me to do all sorts of things I could have never done otherwise, like communicate with people who are far away.

BS: Like this interview, for example.

AA: Like this interview, for example. You’re across the Atlantic and we’re able to have this chat and it’s terrific. But I just think, as with many good things, they can go too far. So, it’s not that I think no one should ever use tech, it’s just that I think we should understand how it works more than we do, and how it’s infringing on our lives.

BS: When I talked to Cal Newport—do you know his work at all?

AA: I read his op-ed fairly recently in the Times. He basically says we should not use tech at all. We should not use social media.

BS: And be very careful. And his whole thing is, the same things that have made the modern knowledge worker even possible are exactly the things that will make the knowledge worker completely ineffective. And in a way, I pick this up also in your book: there’s the FitBit, there are all of these well-intentioned technologies; exercise is good. Like you said at the beginning of our chat, businesses should make things that people want. But then somehow, Slack and those things, in Cal Newport’s view, make it impossible to actually get any work done.

And you make the point that people are working themselves literally to death, because they can’t leave their email.

AA: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. I think that’s very tricky. I’m very sympathetic to the people that produce these programs to some extent, because unless they’re trying to make a weaponized device or experience, I think a lot of them are just trying to make a product that’s engaging and enjoyable and interesting that people want to use. And that’s admirable! That’s what you do when you make products. You don’t want people to use your product for five minutes and then move on to the next thing.

So, I think it’s tricky. There’s a balance to be struck, but the better the program or the product, the harder it is to ensure that people aren’t going to just keep using it over and over again and become compulsive about it. It is tricky.

So, again: sustainability is a better way of thinking about this stuff. If you can. For some people you have to go completely off the product altogether. But personally I think it’s more effective for most people to just use these devices in a way that’s more mindful. So, one thing you can do for example is say, “From 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., I will not use a screen. No phones, no tablets, no TVs, nothing like that. I will interact with nature or with other people.” And that, to me, seems much wiser in the long-run. But, you know, each person has his or her own way of dealing with it.

BS: What I like about the sustainable technology language is common sense. I also talked to Arianna Huffington on this podcast and we ended up talking about how, it’s great that you’re ambitious, it’s great that you’re achieving so much, and that you’re so busy. But like, don’t kill yourself! Go to sleep! We know that sleep is so important for you—you’re not going to get anything done if you’re sleep-deprived. So just, use common sense. So, I guess the question then is, how can we embed some common sense into the gaming, binge-watching, and social media worlds?

AA: Where this becomes tricky is, you may know the right thing to do, but you just can’t do it. I can’t tell you how many times I had the experience that I know I need to go bed, or I know I need to start working, but I’m doing some other thing. I’m watching my seventh episode of the newest show on Netflix or I can’t stop playing a game.

And I think common sense says you should stop doing what you’re doing. I guess the book is more about suggesting that common sense sometimes isn’t enough. You might know the right thing. I think we all know the right thing, we all know it’s probably better to sit face-to-face with someone and have a good conversation than to sit side-by-side playing two separate games. You know, that obviously isn’t the best way to communicate as human beings. But the trick is, how do you get there? How do you fix the problem?

BS: So, what do you think? I know you listed some ways, especially toward the end of the book, of harnessing addictions. But how do we get there? Do we really have to rely on governments to make policies to not—what did you say about in the book, that China and Korea were talking about not having game times from midnight to 8 a.m.?

AA: Yeah, the Cinderella Laws, they call them. This idea that: midnight, games go off. You’re not allowed to use a game, it’s illegal to play a game after midnight. Which is so dystopian and so frightening an idea. I’d hate to think we have to resort to that. I hope there are other ways around this. But some governments feel there aren’t.

BS: What about the environment thing? You talk a lot about heroin and the Vietnam War. And the point is, it’s not that all GIs who went to Vietnam had addictive personalities, necessarily: it was the environment. So, I guess we should get a little bit into, again, what addiction is. Maybe the easiest way to avoid and handle these behavioral addictions is through people’s environment. Is that true?

AA: Yes, exactly. I think the single biggest, most powerful tool we have is behavioral architecture. It’s this idea that, just as there are architects that design buildings or cities, we have the power to design our own environments and our own lives. And we are the architects of those lives. And even very small decisions can have big consequences.

So, one of the most obvious ideas is that if something is nearby, you will use it more. And if something is addictive, that’s especially problematic. What that means is, if you’re finding that you’re not connecting with your significant other or a friend, the best thing you can do is remove the phone from the room. Put it in a drawer in a different room or put it in your bag. Or, do whatever you need to do to make sure it’s not in view. What’s interesting about phones in particular, there’s research showing that even if you’re not using your phone, if it’s turned upside-down but it’s in view—like it’s nearby on the table. Even that phone’s presence, though it’s not being used, is enough to diminish the connection you form with that person. It basically reminds you that there’s this whole other world out there, of possibilities. And so you end up paying less attention to the world you’re in. It makes you less present and less focused, which is a problem.

So yes, I think you’re right about the environment. A huge part of managing these issues is crafting your environment in such a way that you minimize the extent to which these devices and these screens infringe on what you’re doing right now, which should be about other people or about nature or interacting with animals or whatever it is you want to do.

BS: So, is the most important thing, to avoid not having the phone visible everywhere? Or I guess you did mention some way to handle Netflix binge-watching, right? That was pretty cool!

AA: Yeah! I don’t know how realistic that proposal would be to most people, but I love the idea and a friend told me that that’s what he does. So, the basic idea is that if you think about the structure of an episode in most of these long-form shows, where you have these thirteen or twenty-two episodes in a season, the last five minutes will always set up a cliffhanger and there will be a cliffhanger at the end. And the reason you keep watching episode after episode is because that cliffhanger needs to be resolved. And one of the things I talk about in the book is that cliffhangers are really addictive. When you don’t know the outcome of something, when the loop is open and hasn’t yet been closed, you preoccupy yourself with that issue until it’s been closed.

So, the first five minutes of the show will resolve the cliffhanger that was set up in the last five minutes of the previous show. So if you start to recognize when they’re setting up the next cliffhanger, you stop watching the episode at that the point. And then the next time you start watching, you pick up at that point.

So, instead of watching an episode the way it’s presented to you by producers—so say, from minute zero to minute forty-one or forty-two—you watch from the last five minutes of one episode to the last five minutes of the next one. So you’re always avoiding the teeth of that cliffhanger or staying behind it.

BS: That’s so good. Have you tried it?

AA: Yeah, it’s worked for me, actually. When I really, absolutely, cannot afford to watch more than one or two episodes of a show, I will recognize that that moment is coming, where the cliffhanger is being set up and I’ll just hit pause. And it is very effective, actually. You need a bit of self-control to do it, because you want to keep watching, but it’s much easier to stop watching then than it will be five minutes later.

BS: I have a really bad habit, whenever I’m watching a sort of, like a thriller, or any kind of tense movie, I’ll just look up everything that’s going to happen in the movie while I’m watching the movie, so that, then I’m just sort of separated from it. This is not, this is not really about the cliffhanger, but I’ll just avoid the emotional connection entirely. And then I’m out.

AA: That’s another way to do it, yeah! I’ll tell you what’s interesting about that. If you ask people, “Do you think you’ll enjoy the show more if you know the outcome at the beginning?” 99% of people say, of course not, the reason you enjoy things is because of the surprise, because you don’t know the outcome.

But most people end up enjoying things more when they know the outcome. It’s interesting. They sort of, do this thing, they sort of match patterns: they’re watching this thing and they’re anticipating it happening. And because they already know what’s happening, it’s a little more familiar, a little more fluent. And they get some joy from that. So, even if there’s a big cliffhanger, a lot of the time, people will enjoy knowing what that cliffhanger is, or the ending before it happens.

BS: That’s interesting. That’s kind of unexpected, actually. Because with so many of the studies you cite—the scratch-off lottery study where if you almost lose it’s almost more addictive, right?

AA: You’re totally right. So, basically these are two separate things: the one thing is, when you gamble, if you knew the outcome of every gamble, that would be boring. We like gambles where there’s a chance of losing, because that makes winning more sweet. But if you won every time, eventually you’d get bored. Like the story of the extremely attractive guy or girl goes out and can always find someone to go home with—if that’s what they want to do at the end of the night—that’s eventually boring. That’s not interesting to them, eventually, and they’ve got to find something else to do. But if you’re the kind of person that goes out, and it’s always a big question mark, that will become a far more addictive experience.

The difference with TV episodes, is that, in theory, you’re always going to win. There’s always going to be an outcome, you just don’t know what the outcome is going to be. So, it’s not a difference between winning and losing, it’s just knowing what kind of win you’re going to have. And that, people find really appealing.

BS: And this doesn’t—so how does this jibe with the—is it called the Zeigarnik Effect?

AA: Yeah, the Zeigarnik Effect is the idea that when there is an open loop, when you’re trying to remember something or rehearsing for something, that thing will occupy your mind to a great extent. So, you’ll remember it, you’ll rehearse it, you’ll think it over many times.

But as soon as you’re done with it. Like, say you’ve taken a test and you no longer have to remember something. Or if you’re a waiter at a restaurant and you’ve just fulfilled the order. It will just basically disappear from memory. You’ll have a much harder time remembering it. It’s known as the Zeigarnik Effect.

So when you close a loop, it becomes something that occupies your mind a lot less. And this is basically why cliffhangers are so effective: until the loop is closed, you just keep ruminating and thinking about this thing until you know what the answer is going to be.

BS: Right. And that also helps make everything a bit more addictive.

AA: Yes, it does, yes. So, one way to make something more addictive is, open a cliffhanger and don’t close the loop.

BS: Well, okay, we’re going to run out of time. But you sort of drop this anecdote in the book of going to Daniel Kahneman at Princeton and telling him about an idea for an alarm clock. I guess I wanted to hear this whole story, because a). I don’t know a lot of people who have met Daniel Kahneman personally and b). I just want to hear about your idea for an alarm clock and where that all came from.

AA: I’m trying to remember the idea for the alarm clock… The idea for the alarm clock was just that you kind of sail through the world without really paying much attention to the world. And you kind of skate through and you try to think as little as possible. This is true about humans: we are cognitive misers. We are miserly about thought: we like to only devote the minimum amount to get by in life. And the thing he was suggesting was, basically, that you need this clock to pop up occasionally and shout at you, “This is really important! This is something you should pay attention to.” Is that the clock you meant?

BS: Oh, yeah, yeah, it’s like a decision—it’s an important decision-making—

AA: —It’s an important decision alarm clock. Yeah, so, every so often, it hits you over the head and says, you should pay attention to this thing. And [Kahneman] was suggesting you do that. I was trying to work out a way for us to subtly indicate to people that this thing that was about to happen next was important.

And one of the ways we talked about that, in some of the research I did with some of my colleagues, was: you present the idea in a font that’s hard to read. So, let’s say you’re reading something that’s in a very easy-to-read font: you’re reading, you’re reading, you’re reading. And suddenly you get to a bit where the font is harder to read. Because it’s harder to read, people should slow down and pay attention to it. And that should be the metaphorical alarm clock.

And he said, “Oh, that’s like an alarm clock that kind of hits you over the head and says, ‘Hey, you should pay attention to this thing!'” Which was his version of that clock.

BS: I see. So, in the end, it’s sort of the opposite of what all these games are doing. Because they want to suck you into a mindless hole, more or less. Right?

AA: Oh, yeah. That’s what people describe. We often have this theory that people who are gambling or people who are playing games are just experiencing ecstasy. They are loving the experience. “This is the greatest thing I’ve done in such a long time!” But what they actually describe when they get into these zones is, that they zone out completely. And there’s something really pleasurable about being in that loop.

And you just keep going and going until something shakes you out of that. And so the companies don’t want to shake you out of that, they want to be in that loop. Which is why in the casino, for example, you never know what time it is. There are no clocks. It’s usually dark in there. They want to think that time isn’t really an issue. And you’ll spend lots more time in there, because you won’t really have the cue: oh, it’s starting to get dark, or it’s starting to get light.

BS: Well, okay! On that, sort of, dark note. Thanks again for doing this. This was really fun.

AA: Thank you very much, I really appreciate it, thanks for having me on.

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