“Irresistible is a fascinating and much needed exploration of one of the most troubling phenomena of modern times.” —Malcolm Gladwell, author of New York Times bestsellers David and Goliath and Outliers
“One of the most mesmerizing and important books I’ve read in quite some time. Alter brilliantly illuminates the new obsessions that are controlling our lives and offers the tools we need to rescue our businesses, our families, and our sanity.” —Adam Grant, New York Times bestselling author of Originals and Give and Take
Welcome to the age of behavioral addiction—an age in which half of the American population is addicted to at least one behavior. We obsess over our emails, Instagram likes, and Facebook feeds; we binge on TV episodes and YouTube videos; we work longer hours each year; and we spend an average of three hours each day using our smartphones. Half of us would rather suffer a broken bone than a broken phone, and Millennial kids spend so much time in front of screens that they struggle to interact with real, live humans.
In this revolutionary book, Adam Alter, a professor of psychology and marketing at NYU, tracks the rise of behavioral addiction, and explains why so many of today''s products are irresistible. Though these miraculous products melt the miles that separate people across the globe, their extraordinary and sometimes damaging magnetism is no accident. The companies that design these products tweak them over time until they become almost impossible to resist.
By reverse engineering behavioral addiction, Alter explains how we can harness addictive products for the good—to improve how we communicate with each other, spend and save our money, and set boundaries between work and play—and how we can mitigate their most damaging effects on our well-being, and the health and happiness of our children.
Adam Alter''s previous book, Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave is available in paperback from Penguin.
“As if to prove his point, Adam Alter has written a truly addictive book about the rise of addiction.
Irresistible is a fascinating and much needed exploration of one of the most troubling phenomena of modern times.”
—Malcolm Gladwell, author of New York Times bestsellers David and Goliath and Outliers
“Alter’s sweep is broad: He includes not just the more obvious addictive technologies such as slot machines and video games, but the whole sweep of social media, dating apps, online shopping and other binge-inducing programs. He takes in everything (which today is most things) whose business model depends on being irresistible . . . [An] enjoyable yet alarming book.” —
“If you can''t stop checking, clicking, surfing and liking, put your device down and read Adam Alter''s
Irresistible, an important, groundbreaking book about why we''re addicted to technology, how we got here, and what we should do next.”
—Arianna Huffington, author of The Sleep Revolution and
“One of the most mesmerizing and important books I’ve read in quite some time. Alter brilliantly illuminates the new obsessions that are controlling our lives and offers the tools we need to rescue our businesses, our families, and our sanity.” —
Adam Grant, New York Times bestselling author of Originals and Give and Take
“This important book explores how technology keeps us hooked, why that’s destructive—and how to take back control.” —
“In this smart, sharply-argued book, Adam Alter lays out the evidence for a hidden danger in our lives: behavioral addiction. From tracking social media “likes” to counting our steps, our actions are being guided less by our own volition than by the architecture of the technologies we use.
Irresistible is a fascinating read that will leave you enlightened—and alarmed.”
—Daniel H. Pink, author of To Sell Is Human and Drive
“For many, social media presents an ideal mode of expression, but it also holds the danger of becoming a crutch or—as Adam Alter’s brilliant new book illustrates—a behavioral addiction that threatens to undermine our mental health and relationships.
Irresistible offers a crucial understanding of how we are psychologically tethered to our devices, along with much-needed solutions so that we can live rich, meaningful and healthy lives in an increasingly tech-driven age.” —
Susan Cain, co-founder of Quiet Revolution and New York Times bestselling author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
“Adam Alter has achieved the Holy Grail: a book that’s important, insightful, and a pleasure to read. With cutting-edge research about our tech-obsessed world, he soothes us via novel solutions to wean us from our social networks, smartphones, games, fitness watches and other gadgets. He also illustrates the stakes: that these technologies are preventing us from forming meaningful relationships, raising empathetic children , and separating work from sleep and play.
Irresistible is essential reading if you’ve ever wondered why some experiences are so addictive, and how to regain control of your time, finances, and relationships.”
—Charles Duhigg, author of New York Times bestseller The Power of Habit
Irresistible, Adam Alter illuminates the surprising, fascinating, and frightening biological and psychological connections between a toddler hitting every button in an elevator, a surgical patient asking for painkillers, and the millions of people hooked on Facebook. No one who has ever seen an advertisement, checked their email on a smartphone, or used the Internet will come away quite the same.”
—David Epstein, author of New York Times bestseller The Sports Gene
“I originally wrote this sentence on an analog word processor—that is, paper. Such was the impact of Adam Alter''s meticulous research into behavioral addiction that I''ve become increasingly frightened of the monster that is my computer. Alter isn''t an alarmist, and is evenhanded and rational in his approach toward technology, which makes his fascinating and witty book all the more powerful. In a world of ever-increasing connectivity and omnipresent screens, Irresistible is absolutely essential reading. But for your own sake, buy the paper version.”
—Maria Konnikova, author of The Confidence Game and Mastermind
“There could be no better guide than Adam Alter to a technological landscape that’s increasingly designed to turn us into addicts.
Irresistible is both a brilliant exploration of the sometimes sinister ways we get hooked, and a manual for finding focus and human connection in the midst of it all. Your sanity will thank you for reading it.”
—Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can''t Stand Positive Thinking
“Looked at your phone recently? I thought so. Our devices have become more addictive than any drug, and thanks to
Irresistible, now we know why. A powerful look at how technology sucks us in, and what we can do to resist its pull.” —
Jonah Berger, author of New York Times bestseller Contagious
“We live in an age of addiction—seemingly benign and otherwise—and Adam Alter, mixing the latest in behavioral science with briskly engaging storytelling, wakes us to an age-old problem that has found troubling new expression in the era of ubiquitous technology. You may never look at your smartphone in the same way again.”
—Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic and You May Also Like
“Adam Alter’s brilliant book is a necessary map for navigating a digitally connected world that’s teeming with addictive temptations. It''s also a crackerjack box of fascinating scientific discoveries on games, habits, and behaviors. I circled, starred, underlined, or wrote exclamation marks on basically every page.”
—Derek Thompson, Senior Editor at The Atlantic, and author of Hit Makers
“A provocative, clearly written book that argues new technology causes new addictions.”
—Kevin Ashton, author of How to Fly a Horse
“[A] superb study of Internet addiction.”
“A book [that] lives up to its title.”
“Contains smart and fascinating analysis of how social media apps, gambling sites and computer games have been engineered to hook users.”
—New Statesman (UK)
“Adam Alter makes the frightening case that . . . modern connectivity threatens the health of not just our children, but everyone . . . Alter’s book is illuminating on the ways that designers engineer behavioural addiction . . . Fascinating.” —
“With a background in psychology and marketing, Alter brings a specialist eye to his material, and it shows . . . A fascinating, salutary read . . . Compelling.” —
The Daily Telegraph (UK)
“Digs down into exactly how technology has us hooked by tapping in to our deepest needs and desires . . .
Irresistible brims with insightful studies, explaining arcane concepts in science and tech with great clarity.” —
The Times (UK)
Adam Alter is an associate professor of marketing at New York University''s Stern School of Business. He is the author of the
New York Times bestseller,
Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave, and has written for the
New York Times, New Yorker, Atlantic, WIRED, Slate, Washington Post, and
Popular Science, among other publications.
The Rise of Behavioral Addiction
A couple of years ago, Kevin Holesh, an app developer, decided that he wasn’t spending enough time with his family. The culprit was technology, and his smartphone was the biggest offender. Holesh wanted to know how much time he was spending on his phone each day, so he designed an app called Moment. Moment tracked Holesh’s daily screen time, tallying how long he used his phone each day. I spent months trying to reach Holesh because he lives by his word. On the Moment website, he writes that he may be slow to reply to email because he’s trying to spend less time online. Eventually, after my third attempt, Holesh replied with a polite apology and agreed to talk. “The app stops tracking when you’re just listening to music or making phone calls,” Holesh told me. “It starts up again when you’re looking at your screen—sending emails or browsing the web, for example.” Holesh was spending an hour and fifteen minutes a day glued to his screen, which seemed like a lot. Some of his friends had -similar concerns, but also had no idea how much time they lost to their phones. So Holesh shared the app. “I asked people to guess what their daily usage was and they were almost always 50 percent too low.”
I downloaded Moment several months ago. I guessed I was using my phone for an hour a day at the most, and picking it up perhaps ten times a day. I wasn’t proud of those numbers, but they sounded about right. After a month, Moment reported that I was using my phone for an average of three hours a day, and picking it up an average of forty times. I was stunned. I wasn’t playing games or surfing the web for hours, but somehow I managed to spend twenty hours a week staring at my phone.
I asked Holesh whether my numbers were typical. “Absolutely,” he said. “We have thousands of users, and their average usage time is just under three hours. They pick up their phones an average of thirty-nine times a day.” Holesh reminded me that these were the people who were concerned enough about their screen time to download a tracking app in the first place. There are millions of smartphone users who are oblivious or just don’t care enough to track their usage—and there’s a reasonable chance they’re spending even more than three hours on their phones each day.
Perhaps there was just a small clump of heavy users who spent all day, every day on their phones, dragging the average usage times higher. But Holesh shared the usage data of eight thousand Moment users to illustrate that wasn’t the case at all:
Most people spend between one and four hours on their phones each day—and many far longer. This isn’t a minority issue. If, as guidelines suggest, we should spend less than an hour on our phones each day, 88 percent of Holesh’s users were overusing. They were spending an average of a quarter of their waking lives on their phones—more time than any other daily activity, except sleeping. Each month almost one hundred hours was lost to checking email, texting, playing games, surfing the web, reading articles, checking bank balances, and so on. Over the average lifetime, that amounts to a staggering eleven years. On average they were also picking up their phones about three times an hour. This sort of overuse is so prevalent that researchers have coined the term “nomophobia” to describe the fear of being without mobile phone contact (an abbreviation of “no-mobile-phobia”).
Smartphones rob us of time, but even their mere presence is damaging. In 2013, two psychologists invited pairs of strangers into a small room, and asked them to engage in conversation. To smooth the process, the psychologists suggested a topic: why not discuss an interesting event that happened to you over the past month? Some of the pairs talked while a smartphone sat idle nearby, while for others the phone was replaced by a paper notebook. Every pair bonded to some extent, but those who grew -acquainted in the presence of the smartphone struggled to connect. They described the relationships that formed as lower in quality, and their partners as less empathetic and trustworthy. Phones are disruptive by their mere existence, even when they aren’t in active use. They’re distracting because they remind us of the world beyond the immediate conversation, and the only solution, the researchers wrote, is to remove them completely.
Smartphones aren’t the only culprits. Bennett Foddy has played thousands of video games, but refuses to play World of Warcraft. Foddy is a brilliant thinker with dozens of interests. He works as a game developer and professor at New York University’s Game Center. Foddy was born and lived in Australia, where he was the bassist in an Australian band called Cut Copy—which released several best-selling singles and won a string of Australian music awards—until he moved, first to Princeton University and then to Oxford University, to study -philosophy. Foddy has immense respect for WoW, as it’s known, but won’t play it himself. “I take it as part of my job to play all the culturally significant games. But I didn’t play that one because I can’t afford the loss of time. I know myself reasonably well, and I suspect it probably would have been difficult for me to shake.”
WoW may be one of the most addictive behavioral experiences on the planet. It’s a massively multiplayer online -role--playing game, with millions of players from around the world who create avatars that roam across landscapes, fight monsters, complete quests, and interact with other players. Half of all players -consider themselves “addicted.” An article in Popular Science described WoW as “the obvious choice” when searching for the world’s most addictive game. There are support groups with thousands of members, and more than a quarter of a million people have taken the free online World of Warcraft Addiction Test. In ten years, the game has grossed more than ten billion dollars, and attracted more than one hundred million -subscribers. If they formed a nation, it would be the twelfth biggest on Earth. WoW players choose an avatar, which represents them as they complete quests in a virtual world called Azeroth. Many players band together to form guilds—teams of allied avatars—which is part of what makes the game so addictive. It’s hard to sleep at night when you know three of your guild-mates in Copenhagen, Tokyo, and Mumbai are on an epic quest without you. As we chatted, I was struck by Foddy’s passion for games. He believes without a doubt that they’re a net force for good in the world—but still refuses to sample the charms of Azeroth for fear of losing months or years of his life.
Games like WoW attract millions of teens and young adults, and a considerable minority—up to 40 percent—develop addictions. Several years ago a computer programmer and a clinical psychologist joined forces to open a gaming and Internet -addiction center in the woods near Seattle. The center, named -reSTART, houses a dozen or so young men who are addicted to WoW, or one of a handful of other games. (reSTART tried admitting a small group of women, but many Internet addicts also develop sex addictions, so cohabitation became a major distraction.) Computers have never before had the memory to run games like WoW, which are much faster, more immersive, and less clunky than the games of the twentieth century. They allow you to interact with other people in real time, a huge part of what makes them so addictive.
Technology has also changed how we exercise. Fifteen years ago I bought an early model Garmin exercise watch, a mammoth rectangular device somewhere between a watch and a wrist weight. It was so heavy that I had to carry a water bottle in my other hand to balance its weight. It lost its GPS signal every couple of minutes, and battery life was so limited that it was useless on long runs. Today there are cheaper, smaller wearable devices that capture every step. That’s miraculous, but also a recipe for obsession. Exercise addiction has become a psychiatric specialty because athletes are constantly reminded of their activity and, even more so, their inactivity. People who wear exercise watches become trapped in a cycle of escalation. Ten thousand steps may have been the gold standard last week, but this week it’s eleven thousand. Next week, twelve thousand, and then fourteen thousand. That trend can’t continue forever, but many people push through stress fractures and other major injuries to seek the same endorphin high that came from a much lighter exercise load only months earlier.
Intrusive tech has also made shopping, work, and porn harder to escape. It was once almost impossible to shop and work between the late evening and early morning, but now you can shop online and connect to your workplace any time of the day. Gone also are the days of stealing a copy of Playboy from the newsstand; all you need are Wi-Fi and a web browser. Life is more convenient than ever, but convenience has also weaponized temptation.
So how did we get here?
The first “behavioral addicts” were two-month-old babies. In early December 1968, forty-one psychologists who studied human vision met in New York City at the annual meeting of the Association for Research in Nervous and Mental Disease to -discuss why our ability to see sometimes fails. It was a who’s who of academic luminaries. Roger Sperry would win the Nobel Prize in medicine thirteen years later. Neuroscientist Wilder Penfield was once described as the “greatest living Canadian,” and Stanford’s William Dement was crowned “the father of sleep medicine.”
In attendance was the psychologist Jerome Kagan, who a decade earlier had joined Harvard University to create the first program in human development. By his retirement half a century later, he was listed as the twenty-second most eminent psychologist of all time—ahead of giants like Carl Jung, Ivan Pavlov, and Noam Chomsky.
At the meeting, Kagan discussed visual attention in infants. How, he asked, do two-month-old babies know what to look at and what to ignore? Their growing brains are bombarded by a kaleidoscope of visual information, and yet somehow they learn to focus on some images and look past others. Kagan noticed that very young babies were drawn to moving, hard-edged objects. In fact, they couldn’t look away when a researcher dangled a wooden block before them. According to Kagan, these infants were showing “a behavioral addiction to contour and movement.”
By modern standards, though, it would be a stretch to call the infants behavioral addicts. Kagan was right that they couldn’t look away, but the way we think of behavioral addiction today is quite different. It’s more than an instinct that we can’t override, because that would include blinking and breathing. (Try holding your breath till you pass out and your brain will eventually force you to breathe again.) The fact that we can’t help inhaling and exhaling means we’re unlikely to die from forgetting to breathe. Modern definitions recognize that addiction is ultimately a bad thing. A behavior is addictive only if the rewards it brings now are eventually outweighed by damaging consequences. Breathing and looking at wooden blocks aren’t addictive because, even if they’re very hard to resist, they aren’t harmful. Addiction is a deep attachment to an experience that is harmful and difficult to do without. Behavioral addictions don’t involve eating, drinking, injecting, or smoking substances. They arise when a person can’t resist a behavior, which, despite addressing a deep psychological need in the short-term, produces significant harm in the long-term.
Obsession and compulsion are close relatives of behavioral -addiction. Obsessions are thoughts that a person can’t stop having, and compulsions are behaviors a person can’t stop enacting. There’s a key difference between addictions, and obsessions and compulsions. Addictions bring the promise of immediate reward, or positive reinforcement. In contrast, obsessions and -compulsions are intensely unpleasant to not pursue. They promise relief—-also known as negative reinforcement—but not the appealing -rewards of a consummated addiction. (Since they’re so closely related, I’ll use all three terms in this book.)
Behavioral addiction also has a third relative in obsessive passion. In 2003, seven Canadian psychologists, led by the researcher Robert Vallerand, wrote a paper splitting the concept of passion in two. “Passion,” they said, “is defined as a strong inclination toward an activity that people like, that they find important, and in which they invest time and energy.” Harmonious passions are very healthy activities that people choose to do without strings attached—the model train set that an elderly man has been working on since his youth, or the series of abstract paintings that a middle-aged woman creates in her free time. “Individuals are not compelled to do the activity,” the researchers said, “but rather they freely choose to do so. With this type of passion, the activity occupies a significant but not overwhelming space in the person’s identity and is in harmony with other aspects of the person’s life.”
Obsessive passions, however, are unhealthy and sometimes dangerous. Driven by a need that goes beyond simple enjoyment, they’re likely to produce behavioral addictions. As the researchers defined it, the individual “cannot help but to engage in the passionate activity. The passion must run its course as it controls the person. Because activity engagement is out of the person’s control, it eventually takes disproportionate space in the person’s identity and causes conflict with other activities in the person’s life.” This is the video game that a teenager plays all night instead of sleeping and doing his homework. Or the runner who once ran for fun, but now feels compelled to run at least six miles a day at a certain pace, even as debilitating stress injuries set in. Until she’s on her back, unable to walk, she’ll continue to run daily because her identity and well-being are intimately bound with her as yet unbroken streak. Harmonious passions “make life worth living,” but an obsessive passion that goes unfulfilled distracts and plagues the mind.
There are people, of course, who disagree with the idea that addictions can be purely behavioral. “Where are the substances?” they ask. “If you can be addicted to video games and smartphones, why can’t you be addicted to smelling flowers or walking backward?” You can be addicted to those things, in theory. If they come to fulfill a deep need, you can’t do without them, and you begin to pursue them while neglecting other aspects of your life, then you’ve developed a behavioral addiction to smelling flowers or walking backward. There probably aren’t many people with those particular addictions, but they aren’t inconceivable. Meanwhile, there are many, many people who show similar symptoms when you introduce them to a smartphone or a compelling video game or the concept of email.
There are also people who say that the term “addiction” can’t possibly apply to a majority of the population. “Doesn’t that devalue the term ‘addiction’? Doesn’t that make it meaningless and empty?” they ask. When, in 1918, a flu pandemic killed seventy-five million people, no one suggested that a flu diagnosis was meaningless. The issue demanded attention precisely because it affected so many people, and the same is true of behavioral addiction. Smartphones and email are hard to resist—because they’re both part of the fabric of society and promote psychologically compelling experiences—and there will be other addictive experiences in the coming decades. We shouldn’t use a watered-down term to describe them; we should acknowledge how serious they are, how much harm they’re doing to our collective well-being, and how much attention they deserve. The evidence so far is concerning, and trends suggest we’re wading deeper into dangerous waters.