Addiction is today better understood than in the nineteenth century, but it has also morphed and changed over time. Chemists have concocted dangerously addictive substances, and the entrepreneurs who design experiences have concocted similarly addictive behaviors. This evolution has only accelerated over the past two or three decades, and shows no signs of slowing.
The Addict in All of Us
Time has made a fool of the experts who once believed that addiction was reserved for a wretched minority, because tens of millions of people in the developed world today exhibit one or more behavioral addictions.
In the 1950s, and to 1970s, people were addicted to substances—not behaviors. The feedback they got from behaviors alone could never rise to the euphoric intensity of injected heroin. But just as drugs have become more powerful over time, so has the thrill of behavioral feedback.
Product designers are smarter than ever. They know how to push our buttons and how to encourage us to use their products not just once but over and over. Workplaces dangle carrots that always seem to be just out of reach. The next promotion is around the corner; the next sales bonus is one sale away.
The Biology of Behavioral Addiction
The highest risk period for addiction is early adulthood. Very few people develop addictions later in life if they haven’t been addicted in adolescence. One of the major reasons is that young adults are bombarded by a galaxy of responsibilities that they’re not equipped to handle. They learn to medicate by taking up substances or behaviors that dull the insistent sting of those persistent hardships. By their midtwenties, many people acquire the coping skills and social networks that they lack in adolescence.
The truth about addiction challenges many of our intuitions. It isn’t the body falling in unrequited love with a dangerous drug, but rather the mind learning to associate any substance or behavior with relief from psychological pain. In fact, addiction isn’t about falling in love; all addicts want the object of their addiction, but many of them don’t like it at all.
Engineering An Addictive Experience
Writing for the Guardian, human behavior expert Oliver Burkeman explained:
When you approach life as a sequence of milestones to be achieved, you exist “in a state of near-continuous failure.” Almost all the time, by definition, you’re not at the place you’ve defined as embodying accomplishment or success. And should you get there, you’ll find you’ve lost the very thing that gave you a sense of purpose—so you’ll formulate a new goal and start again.
In moderation, personal goal-setting makes intuitive sense, because it tells you how to spend your limited time and energy. But today, goals visit themselves upon us, uninvited. Sign up for a social media account, and soon you’ll seek followers and likes. Create an email account, and you’ll forever chase an empty inbox. Wear a fitness watch, and you’ll need to walk a certain number of steps each day. Play Candy Crush and you’ll need to break your existing high score.
If your pursuit happens to be governed by time or numbers—running a marathon, say, or measuring your salary—goals will come in the form of round numbers and social comparisons. You may find you want to run faster and earn more than other people, and to beat certain natural milestones. Running a marathon in 4:01 will seem like a failure, as will earning $99,500. These goals pile up, and they fuel addictive pursuits that bring failure or, perhaps worse, repeated success that spawns one new ambitious goal after another
Bennett Foddy, who teaches game design at New York University’s Game Center, has created a string of successful free-to-play games, but each was a labor of love rather than a moneymaking vehicle.
“Video games are governed by microscopic rules,” Foddy says. “When your mouse cursor moves over a particular box, text will pop up, or a sound will play. Designers use this sort of micro-feedback to keep players more engaged and more hooked in.” A game must obey these microscopic rules, because gamers are likely to stop playing a game that doesn’t deliver a steady dose of small rewards that make sense given the game’s rules. Those rewards can be as subtle as a “ding” sound or a white flash whenever a character moves over a particular square. “Those bits of micro-feedback need to follow the act almost immediately, because if there’s a tight pairing in time between when I act and when something happens, then I’ll think I was causing it.” Like kids who push elevator buttons to see them light up, gamers are motivated by the sense that they’re having an effect on the world. Remove that and you’ll lose them.
The game Candy Crush Saga is a prime example. It’s hard to understand the game’s colossal success when you see how straightforward it is. Players aim to create lines of three or more of the same candy by swiping candies left, right, up, and down. Candies are “crushed”—they disappear—when you form these matching lines, and the candies above them drop down to take their place. The game ends when the screen fills with candies that can’t be matched. Foddy told me that it wasn’t the rules that made the game a success—it was juice.
Juice refers to the layer of surface feedback that sits above the game’s rules. It isn’t essential to the game, but it’s essential to the game’s success. Without juice, the same game loses its charm. Think of candies replaced by gray bricks and none of the reinforcing sights and sounds that make the game fun. “Novice game designers often forget to add juice,” Foddy said. “If a character in your game runs through the grass, the grass should bend as he runs through it. It tells you that the grass is real and that the character and grass are in the same world.” When you form a line in Candy Crush Saga, a reinforcing sound plays, the score associated with that line flashes brightly, and sometimes you hear words of praise intoned by a hidden, deep-voiced Wizard of Oz narrator.
Many game designers know that beginner’s luck is a powerful hook. Nick Yee, who has a doctorate in communication and studies how games affect players, has written about the role of early rewards in online role-playing games.
One of [the factors that attract people to online role-playing games] is the elaborate rewards cycle inherent in them that works like a carrot on a stick. Rewards are given very quickly in the beginning of the game. You kill a creature with 2–3 hits. You gain a level in 5–10 minutes. And you can gain crafting skill with very little failure. But the intervals between these rewards grow exponentially fairly quickly. Very soon, it takes 5 hours and then 20 hours of game time before you can gain a level. The game works by giving you instantaneous gratification upfront and leading you down a slippery slope
All you need is the right environment—and the removal of barriers that prevent novices from taking their first hit—and you’ll find a brand-new segment of addicts that looks nothing like the addicts who came before them.
Miyamoto’s Super Mario Bros. appealed to novices, of course, but also contained buried treasure for more experienced players. The game’s first level contained a secret tunnel that gave experts a shortcut to the end of the level via an underground chamber filled with coins. The tunnel allowed them to skip Miyamoto’s in-game tutorial, and it also rewarded their persistence by playing a string of “ding” sounds as Mario grabbed the underground coins. Because Miyamoto hid some of its charms from all but the game’s most devoted fans, many early fans continue to return to Super Mario three decades after its release.
In August 2012, Netflix introduced a subtle new feature called “post-play.” With post-play, a thirteen-episode season of Breaking Bad became a single, thirteen-hour film. As one episode ended, the Netflix player automatically loaded the next one, which began playing five seconds later. If the previous episode left you with a cliffhanger, all you had to do was sit still as the next episode began and the cliffhanger resolved itself. Before August 2012 you had to decide to watch the next episode; now you had to decide to not watch the next episode.
At first this sounds like a trivial change, but the difference turns out to be enormous. The best evidence of this difference comes from a famous study on organ donation rates.
Some countries asked drivers to opt in by checking a box:
If you are willing to donate your organs, please check this box:
Checking a box doesn’t seem like a major hurdle, but even small hurdles loom large when people are trying to decide how their organs should be used when they die. That’s not the sort of question we know how to answer without help, so many of us take the path of least resistance by not checking the box, and moving on with our lives. That’s exactly how countries like Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands asked the question—and they all had very low donation rates.
Countries like Sweden, Austria, and Belgium have for many years asked young drivers to opt out of donating their organs by checking a box:
If you are NOT willing to donate your organs, please check this box:
The only difference here is that people are donors by default. They have to actively check a box to remove themselves from the donor list. It’s still a big decision, and people still routinely prefer not to check the box. But this explains why some countries enjoy donation rates of 99 percent, while others lag far behind with donation rates of just 4 percent. After August 2012, Netflix viewers had to opt out of watching another episode. Many chose to do nothing and, slack-jawed, they began their eighth consecutive episode of Breaking Bad.
Overcoming Addictive Behaviors
is to replace them with something else. That’s the logic behind nicotine gum, which serves as a bridge between smoking and quitting. One of the things that smokers miss about cigarettes is the comforting sensation of having the cigarette balanced between their lips—a signal that nicotine will arrive shortly. That sensation continues to give comfort for a while after the smoker quits, which is why you can spot a recent non-smoker by his trail of chewed-on ballpoint pens. Nicotine gum is an effective bridge in part because it administers declining doses of nicotine, but also because it’s an oral distraction.
Distraction works just as well if you’re trying to overcome a behavioral addiction—if not more so, because you aren’t also grappling with substance withdrawal. Take the case of nail-biting. Millions of people bite their nails, and many of those people try a range of remedies that just don’t stick. Some paint their nails with a foul-tasting polish, and others swear they’ll overcome the habit by willpower alone. The problem with both approaches is that they don’t offer a replacement behavior. You might avoid biting your nails because they taste terrible in the short run, but you’re really just forcing yourself to suppress the nail-biting urge. We know that suppression doesn’t work, so as soon as you stop painting your nails you’ll go back to biting them as much if not more than you did before you tried to quit. The urge is so strong in some people that they just go on biting right through the nail polish, forming an oddly positive association between the horrible taste and the relief of satisfying the urge.
distraction, on the other hand, works quite well. Some people keep a stress ball or a key chain or a small puzzle nearby, so their hands are redirected elsewhere whenever they have the urge to bite. In his book, The Power of Habit, the writer Charles Duhigg described this form of habit change as the Golden Rule. According to the Golden Rule, habits consist of three parts: a cue (whatever prompts the behavior); a routine (the behavior itself); and a reward (the payoff that trains our brains to repeat the habit in the future). The best way to overcome a bad habit or an addiction is to keep the cue and the reward consistent while changing the routine—by replacing the original behavior with a distraction. For nail-biters, the cue might be the fidgeting that goes on just before they begin chewing—a subtle search for rough nail-ends that can be smoothed by chewing. Instead of chewing at that point, they might adopt the new routine of playing with a stress ball. And finally, since the reward might be the sense of completeness that comes from chewing the rough nail ends, the nail-biter might complete ten squeezes of the stress ball. So the cue and the reward stay the same, but the routine changes from nail-biting to squeezing the stress ball ten times.
When adults look back on the past, they tend to feel that much has changed. Things move faster than they used to; we used to talk more; times were simpler once; and so on. Despite the sense that things have changed in the past, we also tend to believe that they’ll stop changing—that we and the lives we lead right now will remain this way forever. This is known as the end of history illusion.
it happens in part because it’s much easier to see the real changes between ten years ago and today than it is to imagine how different things will be ten years in the future. The illusion is comforting, in a way, because it makes us feel that we’ve finished becoming who we are, and that life will remain as it is forever. At the same time, it prevents us from preparing for the changes that are yet to come.
Behavioral addiction is still in its infancy, and there’s a good chance we’re still at base camp, far below the peak. Truly immersive experiences, like virtual reality devices, have not yet gone mainstream. In ten years, when all of us own a pair of virtual reality goggles, what’s to keep us tethered to the real world? If human relationships suffer in the face of smartphones and tablets, how are they going to withstand the tide of immersive virtual reality experiences?
Facebook is barely a decade old, and Instagram is half that; in ten years, a host of new platforms will make Facebook and Instagram seem like ancient curiosities. They may still attract a large user base—it pays to launch early—but perhaps they’ll be gen-one relics that have a fraction of the immersive power of the latest generation of alternatives. Of course we don’t know exactly how the world will look in ten years, but, looking back on the past decade, there’s no reason to believe that history has ended today, and that behavioral addiction has peaked with Facebook, Instagram, Fitbit, and World of Warcraft.
So what’s the solution? We can’t abandon technology, nor should we. Some technological advances fuel behavioral addiction, but they are also miraculous and life enriching. And with careful engineering they don’t need to be addictive. It’s possible to create a product or experience that is indispensable but not addictive.
Workplaces, for example, can shut down at six—and with them work email accounts can be disabled between midnight and five the next morning. Games, like books with chapters, can be built with natural stopping points. Social media platforms can “demetricate,” removing the numerical feedback that makes them vehicles for damaging social comparison and chronic goal-setting.
Our attitude to addictive experiences is largely cultural, and if our culture makes space for work-free, game-free, screen-free downtime, we and our children will find it easier to resist the lure of behavioral addiction. In its place, we’ll communicate with one another directly, rather than through devices, and the glow of these social bonds will leave us richer and happier than the glow of screens ever could.