with Nir Eyal

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Addiction, distraction, and technology

Nir Eyal

Expert Where Behavior, Business & The Brain Meet

Lessons Learned

For the first time, we have the means to identify addicted users. Adopt ‘use & abuse' policy.

Most people know how to put technology in its place but about 1-5% will become addicted.

Distraction is an age old problem, only the tools and devices change.


Lesson: Hooked with Nir Eyal

Step #10 Manipulation: Addiction, distraction, and technology

So I think a lot about the morality of manipulation. And in the book, I talk about how to think about this from a maker perspective, which we talked about this earlier about this matrix of what I call the manipulation matrix, of when do I feel good about spending my human capital for changing user behavior? I think there's also the user side, that we need to think about how do we as users of these technologies put these technologies in their place.

And a lot of times people use this misnomer of addiction to describe what I'm doing, and it's not at all addiction. And in fact, addiction has a very specific definition, which is a behavior compulsive that hurts the user. It is something the user can't control not doing, even when they don't want to do the behavior. And that's the difference, that addictions are always bad for the user. They always hurt the user, whereas habits, we have good habits and we have bad habits. Habits are just behaviors that occur with little or no conscious thought; they're not necessarily bad or good. Addictions are always bad.

And there's a segment of the population that becomes addicted. Turns out it's a very small percent of the population, it's about 1 to 5% depending on what different technology, whether it's machine gambling in Las Vegas or whether it's playing an online game, there's a certain percentage of the population that becomes addicted. And for those people, just because they're a small portion of the population doesn't mean they're not important.

I actually advocate for the fact that I think companies need what I call a use and abuse policy because for the first time they know. That's never happened before. An alcohol distillery could say, “We don't know who the alcoholics are. It's not our problem.” Casinos 20, 30 years ago could say, “We don't know who plays too much. We don't know who the gambling addicts are. It's not our problem. We have no idea.”

They can't say that anymore. Companies that make habit-forming technologies know the user. They have personally identifiable information on that user. Facebook knows if someone is spending 60 hours a week using Facebook. Farmville knows if somebody is spending too much time playing a game. They have that information. And to me, that gives me great hope because, for the first time, they can do something about that user.

Stack Overflow is a great example of this. If somebody is overusing the product, I think it's 20 hours a week, they can't accrue anymore uploads. They deprecate some features of the product to make it less rewarding so that the hook is essentially broken. You can't get the rewards anymore and so that's one of the things they do to get people to use the product less. One because they've noticed the content suffers when people use and use too much and, two, because Jeff Atwood, one of the co-founders of Stack Overflows wants people to go and get a life. It should be something to make your life better, not something that sucks up all your time.

So I'm very hopeful that we can do something about the addicts. That we can, for the first time identify them. It's maybe the silver lining of the invasion of privacy is that now we know who is abusing these products for the first time. But for that the vast majority of people, they're either not susceptible, or susceptible. And I don't know what that breakdown is. But that most people, 95% of the people, either have no propensity towards addiction at all, period, like they just won't get hooked, or they'll only get hooked during certain periods of their life. It tends to be when there's high degree of stress, something else is going on in their lives, they're temporarily addicted to these products.

And again, when I say addiction, I'm talking about these unhealthy behaviors, not healthy habits. Healthy habits, I think, are great and I think that technology has an amazing ability to help people live better lives by helping them create habits. We're just talking about addiction and these people that are temporarily addicted.

The good news there is that most people figure out how to put technology in its place. So I'll give you an example. A year ago now, I noticed that I was spending too much time with my technologies and not enough time with my wife, particularly around bedtime. That 10:00, 11:00, midnight, I was still playing with my phone as opposed to spending quality time with my wife. And I didn't like that. I wasn't getting sleep, I wasn't spending quality time with someone I love, and so I wanted to do something about this problem. And it was a compulsion. I don't know if it was an addiction. It was a bad habit at least and I wanted to break that habit.

So I took a look at the hook model and I looked at it and I said, “Well, what can I do here? How can I break the hook?” So I went to Home Depot, I got myself a $5 timer and I connected this $5 timer to my router so that every night my Internet router shuts off at 10:00 PM. Now I could turn that router back on. I could unplug it, put it into a different plug, but that takes a lot of effort, so I've increased the amount of effort it takes to do that intended behavior. So I made the hook less likely to be completed. I broke the hook.

So what do I do? Now I go to bed on time. That's just one example. I think all of us are going to figure out how these new technologies, which by their very nature are great and also potentially addictive and habit-forming, we're going to have to figure out how to put them in their place. But this is nothing new, right? The ancient Greeks struggled with a world that was too distracting and there was too much to do, and how do we focus on our power of will to do the things we should be doing? This is an age-old problem; it's just that these tools are new, and so society hasn't evolved the rules and the manners and the mores and the practices to know how to put these technologies in their place. And we're all going to figure that out, the 95% of us that don't have an addiction, as I mentioned before. Those that do have an addiction, that's a different problem altogether and there's a different solution for those folks who really can't stop even though they want to.

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