Novel: Irresistible by Adam Alter | Goodreads
Release Date: March 7, 2017
Publisher: Penguin Press
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.
I got rather obsessed with Adam Alter over the summer, because I devoured his nonfiction. His topics were engaging, and his content pinpointed human behaviors that permeate every aspect of our daily lives. What could be more relevant?
The book itself was delightful and alarming. Alter discusses behavior addiction with such dexterity, and the digital sphere in such depth. It’s not patronizing at all, but rather just curious and illuminating. He does a thorough job cramming in studies and information, while the book itself is fluid and fun to read.
Some of the statistics were absolutely staggering to me, like this one: we’ll spend eleven years of our lives on our phones. Eleven years. (On average, this computes to about three times an hour.)
For students below those of us graduating now, it’s even more.
I don’t demonize technology. For me, it’s connected me to a world of people and interests that I never would have discovered elsewhere — but I also don’t use it socially as much. It’s always felt connected to the curatorial qualities of running my blog, and I’m also enormously picky about photos of myself and others that I put up.
I took a digital detox for mostly personal reasons, but it was helpful. My world felt too small; it was a fear I’d had in the fall that was ultimately confirmed by the winter. Social media can be great in expanding my worldview but at times, it just intensifies it instead. Feeling that, I took a step back for the summer, wanting to just turn my phone off and disappear.
Later in the summer, there were unexpected benefits, like freshly evaluating my online presence before trying to get a job, and just getting a break from the small town bubble that exists during most of my year. When I’m physically away from school, I prefer to be mentally away as well.
It was the summer of being a terrible communicator, and it was glorious. I had so much time. I was so untethered to any aspects of my identity, because nothing was codified. I got to be much more serendipitous and relaxed without feeling pressured to keep up with anyone or convey any of my experiences to anyone else.
The phone issue isn’t a new one — I read How to Break Up with Your Phone in January and enjoyed the dissection of how addictive technology is — but I always like to check myself. I wouldn’t say I’m any better or worse than anyone my age in how long I spend on my devices in a given day, but I do prioritize nature and get frustrated if I spend too long cooped up, so I try and keep afloat. Stay aware, even if I can’t always act on it as effectively as I’d like.
According to Tristan Harris, a “design ethicist,” the problem isn’t that people lack willpower; it’s that “there are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self-regulation you have.”
One of the reasons this piqued my interest is because of watching people interact with others, especially the middle school girls I mentor, who struggle a bit more to have real world interactions that they can’t quantify in terms of likes. They refer to texts, absent of gestures and intonations that convey nuance. One of the studies discussed in the book talks about how young students will refer to conversations to others as if they occurred face-to-face, not recognizing that virtual interactions lack many of the visual and unconscious cues we use to interpret others, meaning that we’re more likely than ever to misinterpret everything. (A fact made more intense by a recent read I loved about our failures of memory.)
Online interactions aren’t just different from real-world interactions; they’re measurably worse. Humans learn empathy and understanding by watching how their actions affect other people. Empathy can’t flourish without immediate feedback, and it’s a very slow-developing skill. One analysis of seventy-two studies found that empathy has declined among college students between 1979 and 2009.
Most of us dislike being so dependent on our phones, but refer to them out of habit. Irresistible stresses habit formation and behavioral addiction throughout the book.
Human behavior is driven in part by a succession of reflexive cost-benefit calculations that determine whether an act will be performed once, twice, a hundred times, or not at all. When the benefits overwhelm the costs, it’s hard not to perform the act over and over again, particularly when it strikes just the right neurological notes. A like on Facebook and Instagram strikes one of those notes.
I’ve always been a poster rather than a scroller, although I — like most my age — do participate in it a lot. This summer, I loved being completely offline. I only checked my phone to pay rent or update my parents on my (changing) locations. While I wouldn’t say I was exclusively in the moment — still listening and reading often, which has a similar effect of taking me outside of myself — I had a lot more free time and a lot of time to reflect.
Almost everyone — according to Irresistible — guesses their screen use in a given day to be about 50% too low. And young adulthood is when behavioral addictions are most likely to form, because of their soothing effects on our psychological needs.
In many respects, substance addictions and behavioral addictions are very similar. They activate the same brain regions, and they’re fueled by some of the same basic human needs: social engagement and social support, mental stimulation, and a sense of effectiveness. Strip people of these needs and they’re more likely to develop addictions to both substances and behaviors.
I’m almost finished reading The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World, which focuses on the sort of alternative reality generated by your virtual world — the landscape you enter when you open an app, the mental picture in your mind when you’re texting someone. I’ve always been interested in spatial awareness, as I’m a person heavily influenced by my environment and physical surroundings. Reading philosophy about digital spatiality was fascinating and accurate. Whenever you pick up your phone in the middle of a conversation with someone, you’re essentially leaving your body and existing in that fourth dimension. (It gets a little trippy, but bear with me.)
That concept was shown in a study Alter references in which pairs are studied. Couples, friends, strangers. Even the presence of a phone was disruptive and distracting to how well people connected to each other.
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.
The book doesn’t only talk about smartphones or laptops, however; it also discusses the implications of fitness tracking and addiction, the neurological feedback loops in video games, and other technologies. I also loved particularly how Irresistible didn’t only focus on technology, but behavioral addiction as a whole, creating a valuable foundation of information about why we like what we like. (I’ve gotten really into reading about taste and pleasure this summer since I’m so fascinated by aesthetic appeal.) The book distinguishes between passions and addictions, between positives and negatives, acknowledging the nuance of technology’s benefits and downfalls.
Irresistible contains a lot of staggering statistics, like:
70 percent of office emails are read within six seconds of arriving.
42% of Americans have struggled with a behavioral addiction in the last 12 months.
About 95% of people charge their phones by their beds (and sleep quality has drastically declined because of that.)
Up to 59 percent of people say they’re dependent on social media sites and that their reliance on these sites ultimately makes them unhappy. Of that group, half say they need to check those sites at least once an hour.
I love to read statistics, because they solidify concepts in my head so effectively. I love to read about our relationships with the digital sphere because it’s such a huge part of my daily life as a young adult, and Irresistible is the most capable and influential read I’ve devoured so far on the subject. It’s well-written and persuasive without being preachy, and captures the nuances of technology with empathy and grace. Even now, scrolling through quotes, I have dozens that I want to include that will likely crop up later on the blog in additional reads about digital minimalism. For now, I’m missing my unconnected summer, conscious of how long I’m spending writing this blog post and staring at the screen.