Investigating the Irresistible: A Conversation with Adam Alter

This article is part of our special issue “Connected State of Mind,” which explores the impact of tech use on our behavior and relationships. View the complete issue here.

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.

One of Alter’s most salient points: There’s a difference between liking a behavior and wanting to do it. I don’t particularly like checking all of these apps because I know it would be more cognitively nourishing for me to read a book, have a conversation with someone IRL, or take a walk. But I want to check them. That’s in part because my brain remembers when checking some of these sites “soothed a psychological need”—most likely reducing my anxiety through distraction or stimulating me during a moment of boredom.

Miraculously, I was able to focus long enough to ask Adam how he deals with technology in his personal life, whether writing the book inoculated him against his phone’s seductive pull, and what it means to have a healthy tech diet. Below is an edited version of our email conversation.

Elizabeth Weingarten: Has writing the book, and perhaps recognizing the psychological vulnerabilities that underpin our attraction to our devices, made it any easier for you to resist?  

Adam Alter: No, I don’t think so. It’s very easy to explain away each interaction with your phone—it always feels urgent or important or so brief that it can’t possibly matter that you’re using it in this moment. But when you add those moments together, they become several hours every day. There’s a disjunction between knowing that phone use is bad, and actually resisting the charms of a phone from moment to moment.

EW: I’ve found that one place to observe some of the behavior you write about in your book—people tethered to their devices and oblivious—is on public transportation. What goes through your mind when you’re in environments where nearly everyone is ensconced in their own digital world?

AA: I tend not to judge people for using tech. I have the same instinct to take out my phone each time I’m in an elevator even for a few seconds, so I know it’s hard to resist the charms of the phone. Instead, I wonder why it is that so many people—literally billions of humans—have the same experience with our phones: We find them irresistible. That’s why I decided to write this book: I wanted to understand what it was, psychologically, that made these devices so difficult for our species to ignore.

It’s very easy to explain away each interaction with your phone—it always feels urgent or important or so brief that it can’t possibly matter that you’re using it in this moment.

EW: I imagine that many folks, in the New Year, may resolve to limit their device usage (myself included). When it comes to dieting, there are some basic rules of thumb—eat fruits and vegetables, indulge in sugar sparingly—that offer universal consumption guidance. Can you think of a similar rule of thumb for tech usage?

AA: The first question you should ask yourself is whether your phone use infringes on other experiences that you might be having if you weren’t using your phone. Time with other people? Exercise? Time outdoors? I realized a few years ago that my wife and I would sit in the same room without saying a word to each other while we stared at our phones, and we both decided to stop using or at least limit how much time we spent on our phones when we were together. So the first step is recognizing that there’s an issue that needs fixing. (Most people say they’d like to use their phones less often; a few, though, are quite happy to continue without making any changes, which is an individual decision.) Once you decide you’d like to make a change, the second step is deciding how big that change needs to be. I’ve found that small changes work better than big ones at first (e.g., putting screens aside during dinner), and once you learn to be mindful about how much time you’re spending on your phone, it’s easier to make bigger changes (e.g., spending entire days or weekends screen-free).

EW: Has having kids impacted the way you spend time on devices?

AA: Our kids are almost two years old and four months old, so they’re too young to be using screens more than we allow. I imagine if my wife and I had different attitudes, we might have a tough time as parents. But we both agree that our kids should spend as little time in front of screens at this stage. (The American Pediatric Association recommends no screens [other than video-chatting] before kids are 18-24 months old.)

We’re both aware of how much time we spend on screens around our kids. That’s partly true because their eyes follow ours, so whenever we stare at our phones for even a second, we’re reminded that they’re watching and paying attention. My son started reaching for my phone at a very young age because he could see that it was interesting to me. As soon as he started swiping and tapping the screen, I became more mindful about spending less time on the phone in his presence.

EW: Some people use environmental language to describe tech addiction, arguing for more sustainable use. Other talk to tech consumption in the jargon of public health. What have you found is the best metaphor to help people understand the impact of these devices on their lives?

AA: I think environmental language is useful, because it frames the problem as a sort of imbalance. Our current approach to tech seems to me unsustainable in the same way that exploiting natural resources is unsustainable: we’re compromising our collective well-being by choosing screen time over face-to-face interactions, exercise, and time spent outdoors. It’s also important to note that technology has plenty of upsides—I’d never advocate abandoning screens altogether just as it’s unrealistic to imagine that humans could stop relying on environmental resources altogether. Another feature of the environmental metaphor is the idea that each environmental resource is different, and we affect the planet differently depending on which ones we use. The same is true of tech use: Each screen experience affects us differently. Using your phone as a map, checking the weather, and reading a book on your screen are relatively less harmful (and make us relatively happier) than, say, spending hours playing games, checking social networking sites, and culling emails (which all make us relatively less happy).

My son started reaching for my phone at a very young age because he could see that it was interesting to me.

EW: In the book, you write about how Freud became addicted to cocaine, “in part because he lived during a time when addiction was presumed to affect people who were weak of body and mind,” and so presumably he thought he was not susceptible. Has the perception changed since then, especially when it comes to behavioral addiction?

AA: Many people are resistant to the term “behavioral addiction” as it applies to screen-based experiences precisely because they argue that a malady that affects the majority of the population shouldn’t be labeled “addiction.” In their minds, addiction is a serious disorder reserved for a small percentage of the population. I understand that concern, but the logic doesn’t make much sense to me. When the Spanish Flu affected tens of millions of people, we didn’t give it a different label because our understanding of the disease had changed; we used the appropriate label and updated our understanding of the term “flu.” The same applies here. Behavioral addiction does affect many of us; it’s certainly not as dangerous as, say, heroin addiction is, but the experiences many of us have with our screens satisfy the tests that identify substance addictions.

EW: In talking about who’s responsible for making tech design more ethical, we tend to cast tech companies as public enemy No. 1. Should governments play a role here?

AA: The two obvious routes to change are through government intervention (from the top down) and from consumers who begin to demand that tech companies respect their well-being (from the bottom up). I haven’t seen or heard of any compelling government intervention yet, but I could imagine legislation that protect people from predatory tech in the same way as legislation compels large companies not to pollute the waterways and air. One example: Some game developers embed their games with in-app purchases that are clearly exploitative. To be able to continue, they tell you to pay, say, $10 when you’ve already committed 10 hours to their game, which, based on what we know about how humans feel about incomplete goals, exploits a particular human vulnerability. You could imagine the government legislating on the nature of these in-app purchases, perhaps deeming certain predatory in-app charges illegal in games designed for, say, kids under the age of 10. The short answer is: Yes, I can imagine the government intervening—I’m just not sure what form that intervention would take.

EW: What do you think will be the single greatest consequence if there’s no change to the way we all use our devices (and the way that tech companies design apps and products)?

AA: The worst-case scenario is a world in which virtual reality experiences become so immersive and pleasurable that we spend the vast majority of our lives apart from other people. Imagine billions of us locked, individually, in our own virtual worlds. If humans primarily seek pleasure and avoid pain, it’s easy to imagine a set of virtual experiences that are designed to be so engaging and rewarding that at any moment they’re preferable to the complex, messy real-world.