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How We Are Enslaved

Behavioral Addiction is ubiquitous, and most of us can’t do without the dopamine rushes that come from social media, shopping, gambling, and even exercise. Adam Alter’s book Irresistible explains the extent and the mechanics of our addictions.

I have a deep interest in addiction. I was a professional poker player for a few years, and noticed that many of the people around me were addicted to poker. I played the game with regard to math and game theory, but others were chasing dopamine rushes. I felt, after a while, that I was exploiting their addiction. I tried to make interventions in the case of a couple of people I became close to, and they agreed with my analysis on a rational level, but remained slaves to their impulses.

Eventually, I saved up enough to quit the game and get back to writing. But I worried, What if, despite my scientific approach to the game and my winning record, I also happen to be addicted? To my relief, I felt no craving to play poker once I quit. But I did need the dopamine. I would sometimes play online chess all day. And I would spend far more time on social media than I should have. There is no dopamine rush stronger than that of the next notification.

Does that sound familiar to you? If so, you might be a citizen of the fourth-largest country in the world, after China, India and the USA. That’s the United State of Nomophobia. ‘Nomophobia’ is a term that broadly means smartphone addiction, and this notional country is invoked by Adam Alter in his excellent book, Irresistible.

The conventional view of addiction involves substances like cocaine or alcohol or nicotine – but one does not get addicted to substances alone. Irresistible is a book about ‘behavioural addiction’, and details the various mechanisms of such addiction, with suggestions of how to mitigate them. It also begins by describing the extent of such addiction – and the statistics are frightening.

“Most people spend between one and four hours on their phones each day,” Alter writes, “and many far longer.” One study found that its subjects spent “an average of a quarter of their waking lives on their phones – more time than any other daily activity, except sleeping.” Over a lifetime, this amounts to eleven years that you spend on your smartphone. (We tend to underestimate the amount of time we spend on our smartphones, so I’d recommend you download an app called Moment that tracks your smartphone usage. The results will surprise you.)

It’s not just the time that you spend on your smartphone that is disturbing. It is also the impact it has on your attention. On average, we tend to pick up our smart phones three times every hour. Each distraction is costly, as estimates suggest that once we’re distracted from a task we’re working on, it takes us 25 minutes to re-enter that state of focussed work. The constant distractions around us, and the addictions that weaponize them, ensure that we can never enter a state of sustained focus. That affects our productivity, as well as the quality of our work.

An important thing to note about such addiction is that it is not a defect of character. It is not a weakness of willpower but the wiring of our brains that causes and sustains addiction. The mechanics of both substance addiction and behaviour addiction are identical: the same regions of the brain are involved, and the same chemicals cause our cravings. One illustration of the biological basis of addiction came from an experiment carried out by the psychologist James Olds and the engineer Peter Milner.

Olds and Milner made their discovery after a blunder on their part. The experiment involved giving electric shocks to rats, through probes inserted in their brains that would release a current when the rat pressed a metal bar. They expected the rats to recoil and scamper away, which all but one rat did. The famous Rat No. 34 kept pressing the bar again and again. He did this repeatedly for 12 hours, ignoring other positive inducements, and then died of exhaustion.

Olds “removed the probe from the rat’s brain and noticed that it was bent.” All the other probes delivered the current into the rat’s mid-brain, but this probe was flawed, and the current went into Rat No. 34’s septum – which Olds called the “pleasure center” of the brain. Humans also have this “pleasure center.” Alter writes:

Some years later, when neuroscientist Robert Heath inserted an electrode into a depressed woman’s pleasure center, she began to giggle. He asked why she was laughing, and although she couldn’t offer an explanation, she told him that she felt happy for the first time in as long as she could remember. As soon as Heath removed the probe, the patient’s smile disappeared.

Altering the chemical balance of the brain can have a similar result. Alter writes about Andrew Lawrence, a professor of neuroscience at Cardiff University, who noticed a range of unexpected addictive behaviours among people who had Parkinson’s Disease. As Lawrence told Alter, “Parkinson’s results from a dopamine deficit, so we treat the disease with drugs that replace dopamine.” Dopamine, of course, is the key chemical involved in addictive behaviour. Lawrence published a review paper in 2004 that contained the following story (in Alter’s words):

One man, an accountant who had been a dedicated and careful saver for over half a century, developed a gambling habit. He had never gambled before, but suddenly he felt drawn to the thrill of risk. At first he gambled conservatively, but soon he was gambling a couple of times a week, and then every day. His hard-won retirement savings shrank slowly at first, and then more quickly, until he went into debt. The man’s wife panicked and asked their son for money, but their son’s contributions merely fuelled the man’s addiction. One day his wife found the man rummaging through the garbage, hoping to retrieve the lottery tickets she’d torn up earlier that day. Worst of all, the man couldn’t explain the change in his character.

It wasn’t just this one man.

Other elderly patients developed sexual fetishes, and pestered their husbands and wives for sex throughout the day. One man, a lifelong fashion conformist, took to dressing up like a prostitute. Others developed addictions to Internet pornography.

That these mechanisms of addiction exist in all of us is just part of the problem. Every addiction benefits a supplier somewhere, and there is now a science to getting people hooked onto a poison of choice, and keeping them hooked. Alter compresses a significant part of his book into one paragraph when he writes:

Behavioural addiction consists of six ingredients: compelling goals that are just beyond reach; irresistible and unpredictable positive feedback; a sense of incremental progress and improvement; tasks that become slowly more difficult over time; unresolved tensions that demand resolution; and strong social connections.

Alter explains and illustrates each of these ingredients, with examples of how companies, sometimes unwittingly, use one or a few of them to fuel addictive behaviour. (As you might expect, Tetris comes up as an example of a game designed to be addictive. So do slot machines. So does Netflix’s ‘post-play’ feature, that promotes binge watching.) Blaming these suppliers, though, would miss the point: those who design a user-experience can hardly be blamed for wanting to make the experience as pleasurable and habit-forming as they can. The onus has to be on those of us who recognise ourselves as addicts to find a way out of our addictions.

The last section of Alter’s book is about mitigations. We cannot change the way our brains are wired, but we can reduce the probability of being addicted by controlling our ‘Behavioural Architecture’.  This involves two elements: the creation of “temptation-free environments”; and measures that “blunt unavoidable temptations.” Alter writes:

Behavioural architecture acknowledges that you can’t escape temptation completely. […] The first principle of behavioural architecture, then, is very simple; whatever’s nearby will have a bigger impact on your mental life than whatever is farther away. Surround yourself with temptation and you’ll be tempted; remove temptation from arm’s reach and you’ll find hidden reserves of willpower.

Fending off addictive temptations is a new industry, and Alter describes many innovative attempts. There is an app called Facebook Demetricator that hides the likes, comments and retweets on our social media apps. (All those metrics trigger dopamine.) One entrepreneur named Maneesh Sethi created a wristband named Pavlok, that gave its users an electric shock when they indulged in an activity they wanted to control. (This is known as Aversion Therapy. Before inventing Pavlok, Sethi had once hired a girl to slap him every time he went on Facebook.) Even companies have tried innovative ways to save their employees from addiction. Alter writes, about two companies that recognise work and email respectively as potential addictions:

A Dutch design studio called Heldergroen has rigged its office furniture to automatically rise to the ceiling at six o’clock every evening. […] German car manufacturer Daimler has a similar email management policy. The company’s one hundred thousand employees can set incoming mails to delete automatically when they’re on vacation. A so-called mail on holiday assistant automatically emails the sender to explain that the email wasn’t delivered, and suggests another Daimler employee who will step in if the email is urgent. Workers come back from their vacations to an inbox that looks exactly as it did when they left several weeks ago.

Most companies aren’t as enlightened as the two above, and the onus falls on us citizens of Nomophobia to do something about our addictions. This is not an abstract subject for me – I have been addicted to my smartphone for a long time now, and need to find a way to sort this out. You will be glad to know that I have found a way to do this, and I’ll share it with you in my next book review, next week this time. For now, do read Adam Alter’s Irresistible to understand the extent of our enslavement.

About the author

Amit Varma

Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. A journalist for a decade-and-a-half, he won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007 and 2015. He writes the blog India Uncut, and hosts the podcast, The Seen and the Unseen. He is the editor of Pragati.