[00:00:06.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:12.1] MB: Welcome to The Science of Success, the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than a million downloads and listeners in over a hundred countries. In this episode we discuss the danger of getting addicted to your screens. We look at how technology is designed to be as addictive as possible and how those addictions specifically make you spend more time on things like social media and news that make you less happy.
We also look at how screens rob us of time and attention and why it's so hard to break away from them. We also look at how you can structure your environment to spend more time away from your phone and create ways to get out of these addictive behavior loops with our guest, Adam Alter.
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In our previous episode we discussed how to become a super connector. We looked at the idea that networking is not about tactics. It's about a fundamental shift in how you think about interacting with people. We examine how to break free from the lazy and shallow networking that social media often creates. Discussed why you should never ask how can I help. Looked at the power of curiosity and asking better questions and much more with our guest, Scott Gerber. If you want to learn why you should throw out networking and start focusing on building real human relationships, listen to that episode.
Now, for the show.
[0:02:59.4] MB: Today we have another exciting guests on the show, Adam Alter. Adam is an associate professor of marketing at New York University Stern School of Business and as an affiliate appointment in New York University psychology department. His research focuses on judgment, decision-making and social psychology. He’s the best-selling author of Dunk Tank Pink and Irresistible. His work has been featured in New York Times, Washington Post, Wired and much more. Adam, welcome to The Science of Success.
[0:03:21.2] AA: Thanks, Matt. Good to be here.
[0:03:22.8] MB: We’re excited to have you on here today. So something that we were talking about kind of before we started recording, which I think is a great starting point. There's been a lot of revelations in kind of the technology world in the last few months about the core thesis of your book, Irresistible. I’d love to start out with Sean Parker came out recently and talk about how Facebook is essentially designed to sort of make you addicted to it, and I’d love to hear your thoughts about both kind of what's been going on recently and also that idea more broadly.
[0:03:50.7] AA: Yeah. It's one of the big questions people ask me whenever I speak about this work and the question I have is; are these companies just making the best product possible, which happens to be hard to resist because that's part of what makes a product good, it’s something you want to keep using, or is there an explicit call when they’re creating the product to get you to use it for as long as possible irrespective of whether that's good for you? For a long time I had to hitch, because it's hard to get behind the curtain of these companies.
Then I think it was November, Sean Parker came out and said, “Well, actually, Facebook from its very early days was focused much less on the consumer well-being and much more on ensuring that you spend as many minutes as possible on, first, on the program online and then on the app.” That basically validated what I assumed to be true, and it certainly true at other companies. We've heard from other tech giants at other companies, early investors, people who are quite seniors in these companies saying the same thing, that essentially they’re in the attention economy. There’s a hot wall for your attention. There are a lot of different companies that are vying for your attention at all times. So every company in this arms race has to use every tool at its disposal, and as a result, they’re all trying their very best to tweak even very small features that they think will capture an extra minute or two here or there from everyone who uses the platform.
Yeah, this is something that I’ve been focused on, and it's also — It's been great, because now when people ask the question, I actually have people that I can point to. I can say, “Yes. These companies admit, or the people who’ve invested in these companies admit that the companies are founded on the principle that we need to get you to use these products for as many minutes as possible, and actually, to be totally honest, your well-being as a consumer is a secondary concern.”
[0:05:26.7] MB: It's interesting. I think you mentioned in your TED talk as well that, for example, Steve Jobs didn't let his children use iPads.
[0:05:35.7] AA: Yeah. That was very surprising to me. It was quite early on in the research for the book and it’s one of the nuggets I discovered that led me to really pursue the book. What I basically found was that a number of tech giants were very, very careful about their own personal use and the use by their kids of the same products they were touting publicly. Publicly they’d get up on stage and say, “This is the greatest product of all time. You should all earn one. Your kids should earn one. You should use it a lot.” But then when you look at the way they approach the same products privately, behind closed doors, they were much more wary about their use.
It’s, I wouldn't say, quite universal, but the number of tech giants in this position is pretty staggering. There’s a school in Silicon Valley that doesn't allow kids to use screens, like iPads. It's a private school. They don’t allow kids to use iPads until they’re in 8th grade, so roughly 13 or 14 years old, and 75% of the kids there have parents who work in fairly senior positions in Silicon Valley. So these are parents in the tech world who are choosing to send their kids to school that explicitly forbids the use of screens until age 13 or 14, which is staggering, I think. The idea that these are tech evangelists who are being very careful about how much tech they expose their kids to.
I guess what that suggested to me early on was there was some digging to be done. What is it exactly that these people know that we don't know, the rest of us don’t know, and what should we be concerned about? If they’re not letting their kids near the same products they’re promoting publicly, should we also be concerned in the same way? What exactly is it we should be concerned about? And that's why I have spent so much time on this topic.
[0:07:06.5] MB: So let's dig into that a little bit. Why exactly is it dangerous or bad to be addicted to our phones and our screens?
[0:07:14.7] AA: Yeah, it's a good question. So there are four main effects that spending too much time, not just on screens, but in general, in anyone behavior can have on your well-being. The four main areas, they can affect your psychological will being. So for example we know that when you spend a lot of time with screens your threshold for boredom declines pretty dramatically. This is what you see when you get in an elevator and people are using their phones even when they go in between two floors for three seconds in the elevator. No one is capable of dealing with boredom today. We all pull out our phones instinctively. It's important to be bored occasionally, because what boredom does is it pushes you to think a little bit different, be a little bit more divergently, a little bit more creatively. Otherwise, you keep thinking down exactly the same well-trodden paths over and over and over again. It's boredom that acts as a roadblock that pushes you into new territory. So that's one effect; psychological.
Second effect is social. So we know that people who spend a lot of time on screens, especially kids but also adults, are less capable of distinguishing emotions, subtle emotions that other people are sending off to them or giving off to them. Especially kids again, are less capable generally as social beings. It becomes more difficult for them to interact with others.
So for example, we take for granted that if humans are empathetic as a species. So we care about the well-being of others. Of course there were exceptions to that rule, but most of us don't like to be in the presence of someone whom we've hurt or whose upset or unhappy. That comes to some extent over time, you learn how your behavior affects other people. A child needs to sit in front of another child and take a toy from that child and see that other kid’s face crinkling and the tears start to flow to learn that taking someone else's things is not a good idea. But if that same child never gets that experience because most of his or her time is spent in front of screens for many of his or her first few years, that's obviously a problem. You never really developed those same capacities.
Now, that the kids who were born into the smartphone and tablet ear now are now only about 7 to 10, maybe 11 years old, some of them. We don't know what they’ll look like when they’re teens, when they’re entering the workforce, when they run in government and so on, and there’s a chance that, in some sense, this generation that’s growing up with screens will look socially quite different from other generations that came before, and that I think is a big concern.
We’ve got the psychological, the social, the financial. So a lot of the screen experiences we have can be quite costly for us. This applies especially to games, where you start playing a game, you end up deep down the rabbit hole and you spend many hours playing the game and then you hit a roadblock where the producer of the game says to you to continue playing now or to level up so that you are a stronger character in this game so that you can beat the next boss and continue, you’ll need to pay $10. Things like that, and a lot of people say that play these games with in-app purchases, these premium games where they end up spending hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars that they don't have. So a lot of these addictive experiences are designed to capitalize on the idea that once you spend a lot of time immersed in them, you will end up spending a lot of money to continue, and so they can be financially quite damaging.
Then the final consequence is physical, that some of us are spending a lot of time without exercise, without spending time outdoors, because we’re spending so much time in front of screens. So that's another fairly major concern. That, again, this whole generation is spending so much time sedentary in front of screens that we just aren’t exercising in the same way, we’re not moving around, and that's obviously bad for us.
[0:10:40.5] MB: So let's dig in, I’d love to talk a little bit more about kind of the psychological aspect and some of the negative psychological consequences of screen addiction.
[0:10:49.1] AA: I think the main thing is how we develop socially and how we perceive the world socially. So if you spend a lot of time in front of screens, anything you do gets very delayed feedback, if it gets any feedback at all. This is one of the reasons why YouTube comments are so incredibly nasty, and a way that most people would never be face-to-face. We would never say most of the things that you see people on YouTube saying. It's not that everyone who is on YouTube is a horrible person or the people making these comments are horrible people, it’s that the platform allows you to distance yourself from the consequences of the things you’re doing. So if you're saying things that are critical, you can do that without accountability and without having to expose yourself to the negative feedback that you’d get as you obviously make the person who's posted the content upset or unhappy. It’s one of the consequences.
I mentioned also that this tendency to boredom, to struggle with boredom in a way that we as a species haven’t been really had to struggle before, and again I think it's quite important that we caught boredom, that we accept it, that we deal with it, that we work our way through it so that we can get the other side where really interesting things start to happen. I think those are the two biggest consequences psychologically for us.
But obviously when people say, “Why is this bad?” This is a personal question. The question is what exactly is your screen time encroaching on? So what is it taking away from? And for a lot of us it takes away from sleep, which is obviously psychologically very damaging. A lot of us it takes away from our ability to work an efficient way. So every time you check your email, which happens constantly for most of us throughout the day, depending on which statistics you look at, it can take a number of minutes for you to delve back into the task you are in before you check your email. As a result, you’re never really in the zone of maximum productivity. Email just keeps distracting. It keeps removing you from that zone. So you end up spending much longer, eating up many more hours doing much less good work. That seems like a problem as well.
Of course, something that's very personal for many of us is the idea that spending a lot of time on screens means you're not spending time with loved ones, with friends. Even my wife and I a number of years ago noticed that we were sitting on the sofa together and we were both on our screens for sometimes hours at a time not speaking. The room was completely silent. And obviously that wasn't good for our relationship. And so we vowed to change the way we were using our screens in each other's company. So I think that there a lot of consequences, but the biggest thing that screens do, broadly speaking, is they eat up the time that you would spend doing things that I think can be for a lot of us very enriching and important throughout our lives.
[0:13:16.4] MB: Those are great examples. It's funny, we've had a couple of previous guests who’ve touched on the importance of some of these different things. For example, talking about attention and having your attention being robbed. We had a previous interview with Cal Newport where he talked about deep work and how getting into that state of distraction-free work is such a highly valuable place to be. For listeners who interested, that’s definitely something you can check out. Or we had another one about how important sleep is, Dr. Matthew Walker. It’s incredibly important. It is amazing how few people actually get enough sleep and how important sleep really is for you. So I think that those are really, really key lessons.
[0:13:52.4] AA: Yeah, I think so. I think this idea of deep work, of having time that's not fragmented during the day where you can really delve into a task. All of us take a little bit of time to get deeply embedded in the task to enter that state known as flow that's become so popular recently that’s proposed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Hungarian psychologist. This idea that when you're in a flow state you really are embedded in the task, you stop noticing time passing. That requires a level of engagement that we don't really have very easily anymore. You have to actively turn off your emails, put your phone on airplane mode. Otherwise, you’re constantly interrupted. You’re removed from that flow state.
Obviously, sleep, again is a massive thing. The fact that our ability to sleep is declining. The depth of our sleep is declining. What's most staggering for me about smartphones is that for the hour and a half before bed, if you happen to be exposed to the light that is emitted from a smartphone, your body effectively interprets that as a queue that it's daytime. So you’re inducing jetlag. Basically, by looking at your phone in the hour and a half before bed, you may as well be traveling across the world and subjecting yourself to the same effects that you'd have if you were jetlagged, which is not good for us, and a lot of us do that every single day.
[0:15:03.4] MB: I'm curious, have you seen or read — There’s an article in the Atlantic in, I think, September of 2017. It’s called; Has Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? And it was all about how teenagers today are physically the safest teenagers in history; automobile accident, racer down, not getting into as much trouble, crime, etc. They’re very physically safe, but there are also sort of from a psychological standpoint experiencing record levels of anxiety and depression and negative psychological states and it’s because, essentially, they're just not leaving the house. They just sit in their bedrooms on their phones all the time.
[0:15:40.3] AA: Yeah, it's a sort of staggering, depending on how you look at it, the staggering upside, is that the accident rate has declined. The other thing that's declined is teen drug addiction and drug use, and that's because the drug of choice today is the phone. It's the screen. So what usually happens is if there is a psychological deficit, if there's something that needs to be treated, you're unhappy or depressed, you're lonely or anxious, whatever it may be, some people turn to drugs in those cases. But what we usually do is we turn to the path of least resistance.
Now, for those of us who have strong social networks and strong relationships, often the path of least resistance is to get social support, but if drugs are the path of least resistance, a lot of people turn to drugs. Today, for a lot of teens though, easier than drugs is just pick up your phone. Go and talk to someone. Go check Instagram for the 78th time that day. That is soothing in its own right, and it ends up being an alternative to drug use, which is a sort of perverse, but positive effect of this huge use of screens among teens and among other generations as well.
But it also shows, I think, how powerful these screen experiences are, that they’ve become a substitute for drug use. It shows you that they have many of the same effects on us. They are effectively like drugs without the substance. So the thesis of the book, of Irresistible, is that there's been a huge rise in behavioral addictions. Behavioral addictions began with gambling. Gambling is not particularly new, but now you find many of the same mechanics that make gambling and slot machine so addictive in a lot of the experiences that we all have access to from birth. So there's been this huge rise of behavioral addictions that have replaced substance addictions to some extent and certainly replaced going out of the home, and so you do see a drop in accident rates as a result.
[0:17:22.7] MB: I want to dig in to the science of behavioral addiction, but before we do, one of the other things I found fascinating was — There are a few apps that are kind of beneficial from the sense that they leave users happier before they started, but many of the apps that people spend the most time on, things like news, social media, etc., were actually some of the biggest culprits for making people unhappy.
[0:17:45.5] AA: Yeah. This is something that I found very surprising, that the creator of an app called moment, this is a tracking app that basically measures how long you spend on your smartphone screen and what you're doing during that time. His name is Kevin Halasz, and he's in Pittsburgh, and I spoke to him and I asked him about some of the data which he shared with me, and what he does is he basically asks people a couple of questions as they’re using the app during the course of the day. He'll say, “What are you using now and how happy are you?”
He finds that some things routinely make us happy and some things routinely make us less happy. Social media makes us less happy. We fill sort of hollow and unfulfilled. The same is true of spending hours trolling through the news. The same is true of a number of other things like spending a lot of time on games. We just feel a little hollow and unfulfilled when we do that.
What he found looking through the data was that people spend about three times longer on the apps that make the most unhappy than on the apps that make them most happy. So we’re spending a huge amount of time doing things that are actively making us unhappy. Part of the reason for that is the things that make us unhappy are the things that are easiest to get hooked to or hooked on. It’s easiest to bake these hooks into those particular platforms, things like social media and games in particular. That's less true of the things that make us happy. The things that make us happy are educational tools, meditation tools, mindfulness tools. Those make us happy, but by nature they tend not to have those hooks built into them. They’re not designed to exploit you in the same way, and as a result we spend much less time on them.
That I think really encapsulates the problem here that the screen itself is just a vehicle for content. It itself is kind of neutral and it can be used for the good of for the bad, and that's true of almost all tech. What we happened to be seeing today is that most of the things we do on our screens happen to be bad for us, happen to make us unhappy. That doesn't necessarily need to be true. There could be a world in which the things we do on our screens are good for us, that we do them in moderation, that the things on the screens that we interact with are not designed with maximum use in mind, but rather with maximum consumer well-being, and that’s what people like me, like a number of others, what we’re trying to suggest, that that is an alternative that's really appealing that I think we should work towards.
[0:19:57.4] MB: So what you say to someone who hears this and sort of accuses you of being a Luddite?
[0:20:02.4] AA: Yeah. I mean, I think a sort of lazy description of what I'm saying and what people like me is saying. I think tech is absolutely miraculous. When I first moved to the United States in 2004 I had to talk to my family on the phone but could never really see them. The capacity of the web cams in those days wasn’t great. Now I have FaceTime, I have Skype I have incredible tools to expose my kids who are under the age of two, I have two children under two, to their grandparents who live in Australia. I think technology is a wonderful thing. I just think we need to be more mindful about how we use it. In fact we wouldn't be having these discussions if technology were bad, because no one would want to go near it.
So I don't think tech is bad. I'm certainly not a Luddite. I don't think we should roll back the curtain to the 50s. I just think we should be more mindful going forward about how we use tech, and part of the reason why I think we need to be mindful is because we aren’t at some destination. The world we’re in right now is not the end point. We’re still moving forward, and we’ll look back in 10 years at Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat and we’ll think of them as curiosities to some extent as early versions of what we’ll be doing in 10 years. We don't even know what that will look like.
One thing we know, though, is virtual and augmented reality will become a bigger part of our lives as general consumers, that we already got a place, that we got a niche place in the world now, but if you speak to people in AR, in VR, in those tech worlds, they'll say to you that in the next few years we will all our own personal AR and VR devices. We’ll have goggles, possibly haptic vests that give us feedback as though we we’re actually immersed in that world, and when everyone owns those devices in the same way as they on the screens that we use today, on our phones and things like that, imagine how difficult it will be to immerse yourself in the real world, because what you’ll effectively be doing at any moment in time is trying to decide between this perfect idealized game universe and the complex, messy, real- world, and if we can't spend time in that real-world when we just have these small rectangular devices nearby, imagine how much more difficult it will be when we have whole rich phenomenal worlds in front of us that we can turn to. That's my concern, and I think we need to deal with this today and consider it today, because tech is marching forward as it should, but our ability to deal with it, to use it in a way that's good for us, I think is going to be compromised unless we are very careful about how we engage with tech and how much we allow it to take over our lives.
[0:22:24.4] MB: I think this is a good point to kind of dig into a little bit more concretely, the biology of behavioral addiction and kind of what happens behind the scenes when we get addicted to these devices. Can you tell me little bit about that?
[0:22:36.2] AA: Yeah. I think people are very focused on what's going on inside the brain during these experiences, and to me that's to some extent a red herring. It's not really the right question to be asking on its own. People will publish papers saying things like; when a teenager checks Instagram then sees a like, the brain will look much like the brain of a heroin addict. That's sounds really interesting. It sounds fascinating, and I think the public, when it hears things like that, freaks out, because that makes it sound like looking at a like when you’re a teenager as much like taking heroin, like taking a drug, and that sounds very concerning and alarmist.
The thing is when kids eat ice cream, the brain also looks that way. When people who are being treated in hospital after surgery, when they’re getting very, very pure opioids, drugs that are treating the pain, their brains look the same way. The thing is when most people leave hospital after they've had that treatment, after they've had those pain drugs, they don't develop an addiction. Some people certainly do, but the people who leave a hospital who don't develop an addiction tend not to, because they have social support networks, they tend to have jobs that they return to, and it's not just about the fact that the brain is experiencing this great flush of pleasure, although that is certainly part of the biology here. It’s about that being paired with some psychological deficit with the thing that needs to be soothed, and that can be a lot of different things. For a lot of us it’s things like anxiety, or depression, or loneliness, and those things are certainly major concerns and they can be soothed by, for example, checking Instagram one more time. People, when they’re nervous and anxious, will do that. They will use their phones as a way of soothing those nerves, those concerns. But you need both of those things. You need that experience, that flush of pleasure that you get from the release of dopamine in the brain, but you also need to have that psychological deficit that that that experience is treating, that it's soothing.
If you don't have that deficit, if you have strong social networks and social support and you have all of the frameworks that protect most people from those kinds of addictions. You won’t see these sorts of behavioral addiction. So you need pairing of those two things; the deficit and that flush of pleasure that comes from experiencing these rewards.
Much of it really rests on unpredictable rewards. For example, if you look the way we play slot machines, we play and mostly lose, but when we win, there’s this huge flush of pleasure, this little spritz of dopamine that our body and brain interprets as pleasure, and that obviously feels very good to us in that moment, that unpredictable reward that comes through from time to time. That's true of how we experience a lot of social networking. We might post something, and every so often a post will catch fire and it will be shared widely, re-tweeted, re-gramed, shared, liked and so on. Many comments will be made in response to it, things like that.
So this unpredictability, these unpredictable awards are a really big part of what drives us to pursue these experiences, and companies will bake them in, these unpredictable rewards. They are huge part of what they're trying to do.
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Back to the show.
[0:27:06.5] MB: So, in essence, these apps are being designed to function like a slot machine where you're getting kind of a variable reward that constantly keeps you addicted to it.
[0:27:16.5] AA: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, basically if you follow the money, all of these begins with the gambling world, with the casino world, with the design of slot machines. Slot machines today am much more sophisticated than they ever were 20, 30. 40 years ago and they continue to become more and more sophisticated over time. There are very smart people who devote all their time to building a slot machine that gets you to sit down and play for as long as possible.
Now a lot of the mechanics that go into that were then borrowed by game designers. If you're designing a videogame, you could take some of the elements of that slot machine experience and put them into your game. More recently still, people who are designing social networks and other apps in the online platforms are borrowing from those videogame designers who in turn borrowed from the gambling world. So the same tools that were being used to encourage people to gamble are being used to create irresistible behaviors and in domains like social networking, like app usage, like email, like texts, things like that, they use a lot of the same mechanisms.
We've already mentioned one of them, which is this unpredictable or variable reward feature that humans find, and actually all animals find very, very attractive, and appealing, and interesting, and engaging. You even see this in pigeons, in rats, in monkeys, they will do the same thing. If you put some of them in a cage where if they push a button they will get predictable rewards. Say, every time they push a button 10 times, they get food. They will do that for a while and when they’re no longer hungry, they’ll stop. But if you put them in a cage where pushing a button is unpredictable, sometimes they'll push it three times and get a reward. Sometimes they’ll push it a hundred times and then the reward will only come then. The ones who are playing in that casino environment with uncertainty built-in, they will keep pushing that button long past the point when they’re hungry just because it's fun to see whether they’re going to win. And so these mechanics have very low level evolutionary roots, and they’re a big part of what's going on.
Another thing a lot of these companies do is they are building goals, artificial goals. Humans don't like open loops. We like to close loops. We like things to be tied in a neat bow. What a goal is, essentially, is the opening up of the loop that isn't closed until the goal is reached. And so you see people with smart watches, with Fitbits, things like that who’ll say, Today, and in fact every day, I need to walk a certain number of steps, and the loop is open until I've hit that number.”
So it may start out being 10,000 steps and you’ll do that for a few days. Your watch will beep to say you’ve hit 10,000 steps, and that's that little burst of positive reinforcement. But eventually what you find, and this again borrows from some of the terminology in the drug world, is you develop a tolerance. So 10,000 doesn't really do for you what it used to do. You hear that ding, but after 10,000, that's not really enough, and so you'll see people escalate. You typically see that people after they’ve walked a certain of number of steps for certain amount time will go to 11,000, or 12,000, or 14,000 steps, and so they escalate from there.
This creation of goals that escalate over time also encourages engagement and increasing engagement across time. So those are just two of the mechanisms, but there are a whole lot of these little hooks that can be baked into products and experiences, all of which together make those experiences quite hard to resist.
[0:30:18.5] MB: It's funny to see some of the lessons of B.F. Skinner’s work with pigeons many, many years ago. It’s some of the foundational work in kind of modern psychology. Has so many modern-day applications.
[0:30:29.3] AA: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think the basic principles of behaviorism, stimulus and response of doing something and receiving a reward for doing that thing. Those principles are very powerful. There’s a reason why they work in animals and why they work in humans. There are elemental parts of human psychology and of animal psychology as well. And so if you can find a way to weaponize them, to turn them into tools that get people to continue doing something that they might otherwise not do for their own well-being, they might turn to some other experience.
That's when you start to see these kinds of outcomes, and that begins in the gambling world, but it obviously doesn't end there. We’ve now seen the same thing happening in social networking and use of email as a culture, and in fact almost entirely as a planet all rests on, basically, the same principle, the same set of principles that Skinner and then his successes discovered, that the way you present these pairings of stimulus and response of behavior, and the reward can guide people and animals behave in a certain way, sometimes many days or even months at a time.
[0:31:30.1] MB: One of the other things that I find interesting with kind of modern-day applications and how they become addictive is the absence of stopping cues. Can you talk a little bit about that and why those are important?
[0:31:39.4] AA: Yeah. If you think about media in the 20th century, there was stopping cues everywhere. Stopping cues were little signals that say to you, “It's probably time to at least consider moving on to a new task.” If you think about the way we used to read books, you’d get to the end of a section or chapter. If you think about the way we used to watch longform TV where you'd have, say 12, or 13, or 22 episodes in a season, you’d get to the end of an episode, the episode would end and you would know that it would be another week before the next episode would come on the TV. So you knew that for that intervening period you had to do something else. The stopping cue was the end of one episode and then you had a week between that time and the next one.
The same is true of the way we consume written material; newspapers, magazines, everything has a natural endpoint. You can either complete the whole newspaper or the whole magazine or you can just complete an article or a section of an article. Everything had these built-in stopping cues, these moments when you were led to believe, “Hey, it's time to move on now.”
I think what the tech world, and in fact what the business world broadly is trying to do now is to remove as many of the stopping cues as possible. Again, going back to casinos, they’ve been doing this for a long time. There's a reason why casinos are dark. You can’t see what time of day it is. There were no clocks anywhere. They don't want you to have a cue that says, “Oh! 6 PM. It's time for me to stop.” They want you to just keep going, to lose track of time.
The same thing happens on social networks. There’s a bottomlessness to feeds that we troll through. They automatically repopulate with new information. The same is true of news sites. The news just rolls on. You can find a million different interpretations of pretty much every event that occurs and you can keep reading endlessly. The same is true of email. Email just keeps coming. There’s one comment that email is a lot like zombies. You can kill them all one day and when you wake up in the morning there’ll be more waiting for you.
And so this tendency for things to just roll on is really what's happening, the systematic eradication of the stopping cues, and that's made it harder for us to know internally that it's time to move on to do something new, and so we just perseverate. We spend much more time doing the same thing over and over and over again in the absence of these cues.
You even see now this removal of friction from experiences happening in the way we shop. So Amazon Go, for example, the idea you can shop without needing to check out. That is the removal of a barrier. That's the removal of a friction point or a pain point that might have discouraged people from shopping for longer or shopping as often as they otherwise might.
Big companies know the best way to encourage people to spend is to remove those friction points and to ensure that the point, the line between, “I think I need that thing,” to actually paying for the thing is as direct as possible, as straight as possible with as few barriers as possible.
[0:34:20.8] MB: Is there a way that we can artificially create stopping cues in our lives?
[0:34:25.3] AA: Yeah. I mean, I think we have to be very mindful as consumers. You set your own stopping cues or your own stopping rules. You could set an alarm if there's something you want to be doing at a certain time. You need to set your own alarm because of this cycle, the platform itself may not do that for you. You see some people have 50 alarms programmed on their phones or even more alarms. Create one. Say something like, “In an hour, I’m going to watch this one episode of TV,” and with Netflix, for example, the next episode will automatically roll on. So there is no stopping cue there. But what I'm going to do is I know that in 47 minutes this episode will end. I'm in a set my alarm on my phone to ring at the 47 minute mark and I'm going to put my phone at the other end of my home, my apartment, whatever it is. The only way I’m going to be able to shut it off is to get up and walk over and turn it off. It's going to be annoying to keep watching while that alarm goes off constantly. So I’m going to be forced to get up and move. That is the stopping cue that you introduce yourself.
There are lots of little things we can do. We become the architect of our own environments, or our own local environments. And that's the sort of thing you can do if you know that your self-control alone is not going to guide you to behave the way you'd like to behave your long term will be. So setting alarms is just an easy one.
Another thing that a lot of people do is they’ll say, at a certain time of the day, “Every day, I will make sure that my phone is far away as physically possible.” Some people will start with dinner, for example, and they’ll say, “No matter where I am, who I'm with, what I'm doing, I'm going to take my phone and put it in the next room. It's going be either in a bag under the table or it's going to be in my bedroom locked in a drawer, and for the entire time I'm having dinner there will be no screens, no tech around whatsoever.” Things like that. I think these natural stopping rules that we have that when dinnertime begins, tech time ends. Those things become habits over time just through repetition, and I think the more mindful we are about how we’re using tech, the better equipped we are to create the stopping cues and to adhere to them.
[0:36:21.7] MB: And what about more probably, are there opportunities to use some of the kind of the strategies that this technologist is using to make us addicted? Can we use those same tactics to break our addictions or even sort of, conversely, to create positive habits?
[0:36:37.5] AA: Yeah. It's an interesting question. I was grappling with this, and when I was writing the book I kept thinking about that. If these experiences are very hard for us to resist, truly, there are things we should be doing more of where it would be good for us to struggle to resist at least to some extent. Now, it's a slippery slope, right? If you think about the Fitbit, which I mentioned earlier, it's great that a lot of Americans who used to be sedentary are now moving around more, and that's one really positive effect of this smartwatch or fitness watch industry.
The problem is that it can go too far. A lot of people go to the point of injury and then beyond. They’ll sustained major stress fractures and injuries. So even good things, you can have too many of those good things, and that's a concern. But having said that, I think you can think of a lot of outcomes that people struggle to achieve, things like exercising more, eating better, saving more money spending more time learning rather than procrastinating, things like that. I think you can engineer experiences that encourage those positive outcomes in the same way as you engineer experiences that are not great for you, that just suck up a lot of your time, and you can use many of those same tools, things like setting goals that open up a particular loop for you. That's one approach.
Obviously, the variable reward you get. There are some companies where you never really know what you're going to get from there the app or the platform, but as you use the platform, you may get positive rewards. It may be a case where you don't get positive rewards and it’s unpredictable. There’s a variable reward feature built-in, and some people keep doing the thing over and over hoping that they'll get positive outcome. You can certainly use that to encourage people to save. So maybe you could create a little finance app where every time you take a little bit of money from your bank account to the app, every, say — There’s a randomizer built-in and occasionally the app itself will double the amount that you’ve just invested, which encourages you to invest more and also means that you're going to be encouraged to do it just because we know people like to find out if they’re winning, if they’ve won.
So you could imagine a lot of ways to bake these experiences into more positive contexts. We also know for example that games and other experiences can treat pain. There’s fascinating study showing that people who are being treated for burns, for very serious burns, when they’re having the dressing changed, which is very, very painful, they actually do better when they play certain virtual-reality games. They feel better, they feel less pain than when they’re given morphine. The reason is these Virtual-reality game experiences are so immersive that a lot of the cues that they normally spend so much time attending to, watching the burns being removed and anticipating the pain. Those are replaced by the subversive world they’re in the virtual-reality context.
The immersive properties of virtual-reality might remove you from the here and now for the bad. That might mean that don't spend time with loved ones and doing work. But if you're having dressing changed of the burns, that's obviously a great thing to have, to have the option to be removed from the here and now. I think all of these is context based, and certainly a lot of the same tools can be used for the good.
[0:39:34.2] MB: I know we touched on a couple of them, but are there any other strategies for breaking a phone addiction that you’ve found to be really effective?
[0:39:43.4] AA: I mean, I think always the best strategy is to actively introduce a rule that distances you as much as possible from the device. That sounds really simple, but it's easily the most effective and that's the easiest one. You want to pick a strategy that's not hard for people to follow and that they tend to adhere to. So the thing that's been most successful in my experience is people saying, “I'm going to pick at time and a space each day that is tech free,” and it may be dinner. It may be between the hours of five and seven. It may be the hour and a half before bed at the hour and a half after waking up. Those kinds of rules are very effective.
I don’t think it's easy or desirable to live in a tech-free universe. Since the book came out, it's almost a year now, I've had maybe half a dozen emails from people who say to me, “I don't use tech at all. I’m tech-free,” which makes me wonder why they're emailing. Anyway, that aside, let's imagine the email is the only form of tech they’re using. That seems undesirable to me. It's very hard to be exist in the mainstream world when you are completely tech free. You can't really work easily. You can't interact with other people very easily to a large extent, especially people who aren’t nearby. It's hard to travel and so on.
So I don't think what we’re trying to do here is say that people shouldn’t use tech at all, but just that they should use less of it and use it more carefully. We know that in the last two years, from 2015 to late 2017, the average time spent by an adult on screens went from three hours to four hours a day. Now three hours is staggering, because we don't have that many free hours in the day. It's now four hours. So in the space of just two years it went up in a whole hour, so an increase of 33%. Not much changed about the infrastructure. We’re still using smartphones. We’re still using tablets. VR and AR had not gone mainstream. So I this is, I think, in a bit of a concern. So what we can do is just roll that back a little bit. Look at your feedback, download a tracking app. Try to implement these strategies like not using your phone at certain times and then look at whether your usage goes down over the course of weeks and months, and it should. If you’re using the strategy and adhering to it, it certainly should go down and you should find that you have more time to do other useful important enriching things with your time.
[0:41:59.7] MB: It's funny, that reminds me of kind of one of the simplest or easiest strategies to lose weight or stop snacking, which is basically just don't have snacks in your house. And that’s something that kind of we do at our house. I’ll often find myself two or three times a day sometimes going and looking in the pantry, looking in the fridge. There's no snacks to eat of any kind, but I keep doing it, but then there’s nothing that I end up eating. So in many ways it’s kind of the same strategy. As long as you sort of physically remove your phone and make it hard to access, you’re changing your environment enough that you can actually create behavioral change.
[0:42:32.9] AA: Yeah. I mean, it seems simplistic, but it actually works. We know that very old principle in psychology known his propinquity. It’s basically the idea that the things that are occupying your physical space. The things that are closest to you in physical space have the biggest effect on your psychological experience of the world.
It’s not surprising. It makes sense, surround yourself with people who are productive, you will be productive. Surround yourself with people who eat well and you will eat well. The same is true of the objects we surround ourselves with. If you keep your phone on you all the time, and we know that 75% of American adults can reach their phones 24 hours a day without moving their feet. They sleep next to their phones in addition to being with them during the day. You will use your phone more if that's your approach.
So just as a very, very small step, try to make sure that for at least an hour or two, or 3, or 4 a day, and maybe when you're asleep as well, you would have to move your feet to get to your phone. Even that for many of us is an improvement. We keep our phones near us, they’re mobile for a reason. They’re basically almost implanted the way we use them.
So the extent to which you resist that, I think, predicts whether you will be able to spend less time on your phone, and that seems like — For most people it's an admirable goal. When I speak to big audiences about this, I get a range of responses. Not everyone wants to change. Some people are quite happy with how much they’re using screens and tech, and that's fine. I think there should be a range. But the vast majority of people say they’d like to change either something bigger or something small, and I think a lot of the first steps are small steps that any of us is capable of making. So I think it’s something that certainly we could do better on.
[0:44:06.8] MB: Getting into kind of the discussion of how environment shapes behavior reminds me of some of the core ideas from your first book, Drunk Tank Pink. I know we don't have a ton of time to go into it, but I’d love to just hear kind of a short synopsis or at least tell the story of Drug Tank Pink and kind of what that is and how it came about.
[0:44:25.5] AA: Yeah. I've always been very interested in how very subtle changes in the world around us. As I mentioned, propinquity; this idea that things that are close to us have the big effect on us. I've always been curious about how subtle changes in the environment where in the people we surround ourselves with, the colors around us, the weather, all these different factors can have outsized effects on how we experience the world. So Drunk Tank Pink is basically a compendium of these effects. It looks at a whole range, from very small to very large cues and how they influence us.
Starting very small with the things like the names we give each other, the names we give our children, the names we give companies, how that influences outcomes. All the way to very big physical cues, like the weather, the colors we paint rooms with. Drunk Tank Pink, the title, is based on an anecdote from the late 70s, early 80s. There was a couple of psychologists in Canada who decided they were going to test whether certain colors improve the behavior of students in schools, and the Canadian government allowed them to paint a whole lot of different classrooms across Canada, and they used a whole lot of different colors from blues, to greens, to yellows, and one of the colors they used was this bright pink.
I found that the students in the bright pink rooms behave the best. The ones who were badly behaved before behaved better. They were more engaged. They became curious about the properties of this bright pink color and they found — They argued, at least, that bright pink tranquilized people. It was a nondrug tranquilizer that calmed people down and it made them more engaged. They started to use it in other place as well. They used it in jail cells, in a naval prison. This is where it gets the term Drunk Tank Pink, it was the idea that you would take someone who is badly behaved, or drunk, or aggressive and put them in a drunk tank that was painted pink just briefly, and they would emerge 15 minutes later bitter behaved, more compliant, and that's what these researchers reported.
Some football coaches started to use it as well. They paint the visiting locker room drunk tank pink colored where they wouldn’t do that for the home locker room. So, in theory, the visiting team would be tranquilized weaker.
Even very recently, there were reports that some of the players of the Australian Open Tennis tournament has grand slam tennis tournament were wearing pink, because they thought they could tranquilize their opponents. They could weaken their opponents. It's a fascinating anecdote.
The science behind Drunk Tank Pink is a little shaky, and may be more than a little shaky. We don't know how strong the effect is. It replicates on occasion, but not all the time. It’s not the most robust effect, but it's very interesting, and I thought it was a nice emblem for what I was discussing in the book, which is this idea that you could make changes to a feature in the world and that would then have big effects on how people engage with that world. And so that's what Drunk Tank Pink is.
Then Irresistible is the natural flow on from there. After writing Drunk Tank Pink I started to wonder, “What is the biggest thing right now? The biggest cue that is shaping us?” I think, to a large extent, for many of us, by time and by its effect on our psychological experience of the world, it is the screens. It’s the technology we’re interacting with.
[0:47:22.5] MB: What would one kind of piece of homework be that you would give somebody listening to this interview if they wanted to concretely implement some of the ideas we’ve talked about today? What do you think would kind of be one simple action step that you would recommend for them?
[0:47:35.2] AA: I think it would go back to this idea of creating as much distance between yourself and your phone as possible for as much time of the day as possible. So I would say to everyone, it usually works better when you don't focus on time of day, because we’re doing different things at different times every day, but all of us eat dinner every day pretty much, most of us at least. Say, tonight, or if you don't want to start tonight, say, tomorrow night. Whatever you’re doing for dinner, your phone will not be within reach of the table.
Ideally it should be in a different room. It should be on silent and it shouldn't be vibrating in a way that makes it noticeable. You should put it as far away from you as possible, and you may have a [inaudible 0:48:12.3]. You may experience, basically, withdrawal in the first day or two as you do this, but you will find that over time you enjoy dinner more. You’re more engaged with the people around you. If you're alone, it'll give you a chance to think. You don't have to be with other people obviously when you’re having dinner. But even if you're having dinner alone, maybe read a book. Just think. Sit and think. We do that so rarely now that it's a real luxury to have a chance to just sit and think. So that would be the first step, I think, is just to carve out this time in the day where every day you will be tech free, you will be free of your screens.
I think in my experience working with a lot of people, almost everyone, it's almost universal that people feel better over time doing this. It makes the rest of the day a little bit brighter, a little richer, a little more interesting, and it certainly makes that moment, that screen free, more interesting and more enriching.
[0:48:59.7] MB: Where can listeners find you and your books and your work online?
[0:49:03.4] AA: I have a homepage, adamalterauthor.com. I'm on Twitter, @AdamLeeAlter. The books, available wherever books are sold pretty widely, and so those, I think, are the best places to begin.
[0:49:16.1] MB: Adam, thank you so much for coming on the show for sharing all these wisdom. Some really practical and powerful advice about how we can break our phone addictions, and I think it's really something that personally I’m going to take into account and change some of my own behavior. So thank you so much for coming on the show and for sharing all these wisdom.
[0:49:32.5] AA: Thanks so much, and thanks for having me, Matt.
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