Science has learned many lessons about what makes something addictive. And now this knowledge is being used by the tech business to gain our attention, and keep us coming back for more. In his new book, “Irresistible,” New York University associate professor of marketing Adam Alter argues that society is experiencing the beginnings of an epidemic of “behavioral addiction,” and that this could have dangerous and far-reaching implications for us all. He answered questions from Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.

Early in your book, you say that our understanding of addiction is too narrow. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Our understanding of addiction is too narrow in two respects.

First, we typically think of addiction as a response to substances, including drugs, alcohol, and nicotine, but humans can develop addictions to a wide range of experiences, too. Recently, for example, people have developed clinical addictions to video games, social media platforms (including Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat), and even Google's augmented reality glasses, Google Glass. Since addiction is essentially the drive to engage in an immediately rewarding behavior despite negative long-term consequences for physical, mental, social or financial well-being, it can arise in response to both substance and behaviors.

Credit: John Fitzgerald

Second, we tend to think of addiction as a problem that affects certain kinds of people, whereas others are in some sense immune. We refer to "addictive personalities," for example, to describe people who are prone to addiction. In truth, we are all potential addicts waiting for the "right" circumstances to trigger our own personal addiction. For some people, that experience is loneliness and access to a video game that connects them to millions of other humans around the world. For others, that experience is depression and a social network that numbs their emotions by presenting an endless feed of information. For others, still, it might be self-doubt coupled with access to a device that counts how many steps they take each day, which encourages them to exercise more and more with each passing day until they continue exercising through debilitating injuries. Some estimates suggest that up to half the developed world has at least one so-called behavioral addiction, which suggests that addiction is a problem for the masses, rather than a problem reserved for a small group.       

When did you start to see this as a real problem?
I started to see this as a problem near the end of the first decade of the 2000s, shortly after the release of the first generation of iPhones (2007) and iPads (2010). Games and social networks had been around for many years, but iPhones and iPads delivered those experiences in an irresistible, portable package. Now millions of people could play games anywhere; connect with other people anywhere; access their emails from anywhere. Accessibility is a major component of addiction—you can't be addicted to what you can't reach with ease—so portable screens began to drive many forms of behavioral addiction. When I spoke to Kimberly Young, a psychologist who treats internet addiction at a hospital in Pennsylvania, she agreed that, "The biggest changes, by far, were the introduction of the iPhone and then the iPad in 2010." Second to iPhones and iPads, Young said, was the rise of internet speed in the mid-2000s. With infrastructure and a new vehicle for delivering content came new programs that were easier to test, design, and sell en masse.    

Can you give some examples of the kinds of techniques designers use to get us addicted?
Much of the process is driven by A/B testing. Designers will release several versions of a game, for example, and they'll track how long players engage with the game before ending a session. They might find, for example, that a mission is more engaging if it involves rescuing a person than if it involves finding a lost object. So they'll design new missions that involve rescuing people and stop producing missions that involve finding objects. Then they might discover that a particular color of arrow or "ding" sound encourages a particular action, so they'll use those colors and sounds in preference to others. Over time, with enough testing, they develop the most addictive, weaponized version of the original game—a version that combines the game's most compelling features to produce a package that is very hard to resist. 

How do you see this problem playing out a societal level? What are its political implications?
The implications are huge. For example, behavioral addiction has the capacity to damage relationships between friends and romantic partners (by replacing face-to-face interactions with impoverished online interactions), to make people less healthy by encouraging them to exercise too seldom (by making screens more attractive) and sometimes too often (by inducing them to overexercise with the aid of fitness watches that encourage activity escalation), and by encouraging them to overspend on experiences like in-app game purchases and online shopping. In time, most of us will own virtual reality goggles, and the temptation to spend time in an idealized virtual world will almost always trump the temptation of living in the imperfect offline world. Why have a potentially boring conversation with a real person when you can spend time in a virtual world doing exactly what you'd like to be doing, from playing games to sitting on a beach in Spain to having virtual sex?

The political implications are also profound. If the problem becomes more severe, as it's sure to do with the advent of cheaper, sophisticated virtual reality experiences, the government will be forced to consider regulating tech-driven behavior. Korea and China have already considered so-called Cinderella Laws, prohibiting children from playing games between midnight and six in the morning. Governments around the world will have to consider similar laws as the social, financial, psychological, and physiological consequences of addictive tech rise in severity and impair a greater proportion of the population.