NYU's Adam Alter discusses his new book, 'Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked'

When people talk about addiction, the first thing that comes to mind are illegal drugs, alcohol and tobacco. But in the mobile era, behavioral addiction is much more prevalent and pervasive — and the culprit is the ubiquitous smartphone. Adam Alter, a marketing and psychology professor at New York University, says it’s an addiction by design — and one that’s insidiously hard to break.

In his new book, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, he explains how humans are hardwired for addiction and offers suggestions on how to break the habit. He discussed his findings on the Knowledge at Wharton show, which airs on SiriusXM channel 111.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows: 

Knowledge at Wharton: Part of the title of your book is “keeping us hooked” on technology. It’s a real concern.

Adam Alter: The technology that we consume now is delivered in ways that are very mindful. The companies that produce the devices that bring the technology and bring the information to us are very mindful about what they’re doing. They are trying their best to ensure that we spend a lot of time on their devices. That’s how they make money. It is a business, and they’re very careful about the way they design the tools that deliver content to us.

Knowledge at Wharton: I would love to say there’s no way this can be an addiction, but I’m starting to see it with my kids and I’m concerned. This is a problem that a lot of families need to consider and not just something to push to the side.

Alter: It’s very important to define addiction when you’re talking about behavioral addiction because it is very different from the typical definition of addiction.

We usually think of addiction as the brain’s or the body’s response to a certain substance. This is not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about experiences and behaviors. But what’s interesting is that the body and the brain respond pretty much the same way to these experiences. You see the same release of dopamine, which is a chemical in the brain that makes us feel good. And you see the same behavioral responses.

“You see the same release of dopamine, which is a chemical in the brain that makes us feel good.”

If you’re told you aren’t allowed to use your phone for the next week, for most people that produces anxiety. There was an interesting study done where teenagers were given a choice: You can either break a bone in your body or you can break your phone. There are two things that are funny about the response.

A total of 46% of people prefer a broken bone to a broken phone. But even the people who say they’d prefer a broken phone, when you watch them make the decision, it’s not like a snap decision. They agonize and start to think about all the things that could go wrong and what happens if I don’t have my phone. A lot of them say, “At least when I’m recovering from the broken bone, I have the phone to comfort me.” This really is an addiction. It’s pretty extreme.

Knowledge at Wharton: What has shifted so much from being willing to deal with a broken bone over being worried about losing a phone for a few hours?

Alter: The biggest thing, especially for younger people, is that phones are the way that they communicate with others. It’s basically the backbone on their social lives. Without a phone you lose contact with people, which for humans is one of the worst things that can happen. We would rather have physical pain than social pain and being ostracized, ignored or left out. For a lot of people, the idea of not having a phone is the idea of being out of communication. That’s the biggest thing.

But there are other things, too. When you think about phones, the thrill you get when you check whether you have a text message or when you hear the ding of a text message, or when you check how many likes you have on an Instagram post or whatever — all of that is unpredictable. But when it works for you, when you get a lot of likes, a lot of shares, a lot of retweets and so on, that feels really good. Being deprived of that for a week, for a lot of people, is very unpleasant.

“If you’re told you aren’t allowed to use your phone for the next week, for most people that produces anxiety.”

Knowledge at Wharton: There was a national day of unplugging in March. That is a great idea, but how much of an impact could it really have?

Alter: What this is designed to do is give them a day where they have an excuse to unplug and to see how great that can be, because we have forgotten [what it’s like]. We now assume that the only way to live is with this tech surrounding us constantly. One of the things I advocate is that people spend three or four hours every day in a tech-free period. Maybe 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., your phone is in a drawer far away. You interact with people or with nature or whatever else you want to do.

Knowledge at Wharton: You’re a dad of a young boy and getting ready to have a second child, so your kids are literally born into this mobile era. How much of a challenge is it now for parents to change the thought process about this?

Alter: It’s a massive challenge. It’s a bigger challenge than I think it’s ever been. The kids now who were born into the iPhone and iPad eras are 10, and any child who’s younger [also started out in the mobile era]. … They don’t know that there is an alternative. For those of us who are older, we have a sense of what could exist out there, what it’s like to have a face-to-face conversation. For a lot of these younger kids, we have no idea what their lives will be like when they’re teenagers and adults. Because they’ll have grown up in this kind of soup that involves all these things all the time, they won’t know what the alternative is. It won’t appeal to them. And it won’t even be a viable alternative because their whole lives will revolve around tech.

Knowledge at Wharton: But there’s also the concern about the changing scope of having face-to-face conversations. The concern is that it may never come back.

Alter: At least we’re nostalgic for that. If you’re nostalgic for something, you strive for it. We might try for the kind of contact we used to have with people. If you have a child who’s never experienced that, there’s nothing to be nostalgic for. It just seems like part of an era that’s long past, part of the olden days. Those kids are not going to have that same pang. And that’s the concern, that it needs to be built back into the culture otherwise these kids will just be deprived of it, perhaps for their whole lives.

Knowledge at Wharton: What are the most concerning pieces to you about social media, especially with this loss of connection?

Alter: One of the biggest problems is when kids are young they test things out in the social world. If I’m a kid, the way it used to work was, I’d say something mean, the other kid would scrunch up his face. He’d cry. I’d feel bad and never do it again. That’s if you’re like most people. That doesn’t happen anymore.

If you only interact with people online, you bully, you send out all sorts of bad vibes and never really get the feedback. You never learn to empathize. You never learn what it feels like to hurt someone. You end up having this blunted sense of how to interact with people, and that’s pretty damaging across lots of spheres.

It makes it harder to form social bonds. It makes it harder to work in the workplace as well. You obviously have to try and interact with people face to face in the workplace. But if the first time you ever do that is when you’re much older, you’ve missed that critical period when you’re younger where you learn what works and what doesn’t.

Knowledge at Wharton: It’s a little bit like a phony sense of freedom.

Alter: That’s a really good way of putting it. It liberates you to be mean and to do things that are insensitive that perhaps you would learn not to do when you’re younger because you see what the consequences are. If you never see those consequences, you just keep doing that thing over and over again. That’s human nature.

Knowledge at Wharton: That’s part of what we’ve seen play out in the political election in the United States.

Alter: Absolutely. That’s certainly a possibility. I think social media is an inherently negative vehicle for communicating information because you are either anonymous or removed from other people. You never have that feedback. It’s easy to bully.

“When you get a lot of likes, a lot of shares, a lot of retweets and so on, that feels really good.”

The most negative thing in humanity is YouTube comments. Those anonymous comments on YouTube are just streams of invective. A lot of this election was run in that same sort of anonymized way where people threw all sorts of insults at each other from afar. It makes it very hard to come together if you don’t have that physical connection at certain points.

Knowledge at Wharton: There is a choice that some people are making – that they would much rather have a smartphone than a better pair of shoes or a jacket.

Alter: These things used to be seen as luxuries, and they’ve all become essential. That happens over time partly because they drop in price, but partly because they’ve become indispensable. It’s just very hard to do basic things. It’s hard to work, hard to travel, hard to communicate now without these phones. They become a part of what’s essential about living. Instead of being wants, they become needs.

Knowledge at Wharton: Do companies understand the potential pitfalls and that they need to start addressing these as problems?

Alter: The big companies definitely understand these issues. Google has or had a person on board known as a design ethicist, and his job was to basically advise them about potential pitfalls with their products.

If they were designing a product that was particularly addictive, his job was to say, ‘I think we need to tweak this thing so we make it maybe slightly less so. Or we need to add this feature here that allows people to get away from this.’ Whatever he was suggesting was designed to make the product friendlier to humanity, in a sense. A lot of these companies are not just aware of this, but they bring in these experts who [make] sure that the products aren’t predatory in some way.

… It’s really the portability of the phones that makes them so dangerous. Content is king, but it needs to be delivered to you in some way. The thing about these phones is that if you stop most people at any point in the day and ask, “Without moving your feet, can you reach your phone?” the vast majority of the population will say yes.

That could be in the middle of the night. That could be during the day at work. It could be pretty much anytime, anywhere. That’s because they wear these devices. They’re in their pockets. They’re attached to their hips. They’re literally right there. I think that’s what makes them so insidious, that they’re always a part of what you’re doing.

There’s even a study showing that if you have a phone upside-down on a table while you’re have a conversation with someone, the content and the connection that you form is degraded. You don’t form as strong a connection because what it suggests to you is that there’s a whole other world out there that you should be paying attention to. It reminds you that this isn’t the only thing going on, when what you should be doing is focusing on that conversation as though it’s exactly the only thing going on in that moment.

“If you have a phone upside down on a table while you’re have a conversation with someone, the content and the connection that you form is degraded.”

Knowledge at Wharton: How can we address the problem?

Alter: It sounds so simple. It sounds like all we have to do is just say, “No, I’m not going to use this. I’m going to put it away for a certain number of hours.” That’s obviously the first thing to try to do. The other thing you can do on smartphones is sort of de-fang them. You can make them a little less potent. Take off all the sounds that tell you that there’s a new email. Remove push notifications. Make sure that the phone isn’t telling you when to pick it up, that you’re deciding it’s time for me to pick it up.

When you see an icon for Twitter or Instagram or whatever it may be, that signals to you that you need to push this button. It’s sort of Pavlovian, like you are the dog [trained to do a certain task] to get the reward. The best thing to do about that is to bury those icons in a folder in the third screen of your phone. The only way you should ever access those apps that you find to be particularly addictive is to search for them by name. That way you’re deciding actively when you want to check them, instead of them signaling to you, “Hey, I’m here. You should check me out.”

There are other things you can do as well. A lot of social media works by you sending something out into the world and then wondering how much feedback you’re going to get. Am I going to get one like? No likes? Ten likes? A hundred likes? You can de-fang that sort of quantitative feedback by using what’s called a demetricator. It changes the feedback from the continuous scale of how many likes you get to whether you’ve got a like. It will say, “You have likes” instead of how many. “This has been shared” instead of how many times. “You have a comment” or “You have comments” instead of how many. The early evidence suggests that people become less hooked on getting that constant updated feedback, so they spend less time checking.

Knowledge at Wharton: A lot of companies want their employees to have that connectivity even when they’re away from the workplace.

Alter: That’s why it’s partly a cultural problem. It’s very tricky. Businesses want something very different from what consumers want in this case. If you think of 100-calorie packs, you can now buy a lot of snacks that are unhealthy in 100-calorie packs, which is totally irrational. People are paying a lot of money for less food, and what they’re really paying for is they’re outsourcing self-control. I’m saying to the company that makes these snacks, “Give me less of this. I’ll pay you so that I don’t have to eat more of it than I should be.” Instead of buying the bigger pack and just taking what you should be eating, you’re paying the company to give you less, which is crazy from a consumer perspective.

But there’s something similar from, say, the Facebook perspective. They could create a version of their product that helps you with self-control in the same way that these food companies do. They might say, “We have a version of Facebook you’ll pay $100 a year for and we’ll make sure that it’s superior in the following ways. It’s less addictive for these seven reasons.” That’s a cultural change. And the good news is Facebook gets revenue because a lot of people will pay for this device. So, it’s good for business, but it’s also good for the consumer.