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Adam Alter & Freedom Matters – Is Your Smartphone Irresistible?

Adam Alter Freedom Matters Irresistible

The author joined us to discuss the hidden forces in tech which shape our decision making

Do you sometimes feel like you are not in control of your day? Before you realise it, your plans and time have been hijacked by a diversion and you don’t know why. If so, you are not alone.

This week, we speak with Adam Alter, author of Irresistible and Drunk Tank Pink. He is a social psychologist and expert in the effects of subtle environmental cues on human cognition and decision making.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • Factors which shape our behaviour and decision-making, like names and colours
  • Why the technology we use is so influential
  • How addicted we are to technology
  • How technology companies are removing friction to hold our attention
  • Why our struggles with smartphones are just the beginning
  • Some top tips to resist the Irresistible.

This episode is part of a new mini-series, which explores ‘who’s in control – the tech, or us?‘. Look out for episodes with Nicholas Carr, Nir Eyal, and Anna Lembke, where they will be sharing their own views.


Georgie: Adam, welcome to Freedom Matters. Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today.

Adam: Thanks for having me, Georgie. I appreciate it. 

Georgie: To kick off, I think it would be really helpful to understand a little bit about what you are interested in and what the broad themes of your research have been throughout your career. 

Adam: Yeah. So I have bounced around a lot. I came to the US from Australia to do a PhD almost twenty years ago and during that PhD I met lots of researchers and ultimately gravitated towards human judgment and decision making; and I was especially interested in the consumer behaviour elements there. 

So how do people spend their time, their money and other resources? What drives them to engage in certain kinds of behaviours?

And not just how to extract money from people, but once we as consumers are spending money and time, how do we spend it in the service of wellbeing, in the service of happiness and productivity, social connection, fulfilment, meaning… all of these really important ultimate outcome variables. 

And so, that’s a very loose description of what I do then. It has to be loose because I study things in a lot of different areas. 

Georgie: Adam’s first book, Drunk Tank Pink, explores how there are different influences in our personal lives and environment that inform our decisions daily. This is excellent context for later understanding how technology can influence us. 

I asked Adam to provide an overview of the findings of Drunk Tank Pink. 

Adam: The big central argument is that we have this illusion of moving through life with purpose as though we are directing and guiding our decisions and all sorts of different outcomes. And in fact, when you look carefully at the way we end up in certain positions, jobs, in relationships we’re in, making the decisions we make… much of those outcomes are driven by forces that are hidden from us. They are having an unconscious influences. 

And the book is a sort of compendium of what those influences might be. It’s supposed to basically make the argument that you’re the billiard ball bouncing around and you don’t always know where the cue is and how it’s hitting you and why it’s hitting you in any particular direction. 

So that was the first book and I think it very naturally led to the next one, which was looking at technology, because in the first book the question was: What are all these things that are shaping us, and the next book was: What’s the biggest thing that’s shaping us today? And that to me was technology. 

Georgie: And before we get onto technology, what are these other things? What else are we influenced by without even perhaps realizing it?

Adam: Yeah. So I organized the book from these very small ones to a very large one. So I started thinking about things like the words we use to describe concepts or the names we give ourselves, our children, companies… Even hurricanes. There’s evidence that you name a hurricane a particular way and that’s supposed to just be an idle placeholder for the hurricane but it turns out that people who share the initial of the hurricane donate more to the hurricane.

So even these sort of trivial decisions end up having a huge effect on all sorts of outcomes in ways that people I think are surprised by. So that’s on the small end. 

There are also social influences like culture, the presence or absence of other people in a room or in a context and then at the very biggest end; things like the physical environment, temperature, the weather, the colour you paint a room. All of these factors have a huge effect on decision making and I was trying to understand the extent of those effects.

Georgie: Hence the title 

Adam: Hence the title! So Drunk Tank Pink is this pink colour that was used to paint the inside of ‘drunk tanks’ or jail cells, temporary jail cells, that house people who were drunk or unruly and what they discovered was this colour pink pacified the people who were put in these cells. 

Now there’s some question about the robustness of the effect. Is it still reliable today? This was about forty years ago that they discovered this effect. And I thought it was fascinating. Just the idea that using a colour to paint the inside of a jail cell could dramatically change behaviour and yet there’s evidence that it seems to do that. 

Georgie: So there’s the whole breadth of environmental and personal factors that you look at in Drunk Tank Pink, But as you said, you then when on to write Irresistble which is just about the influence of technology. 

So why is technology the biggest of all in influencing the decisions and judgments that we make?

Adam: I think one really useful objective metric for the importance of an influence on our lives and on our behaviour is: How much time do we engage with it? 

If you look at the rise of screen time, we spent about eighteen minutes on our phones in 2007 – which was the year that the iPhone was introduced. So eighteen minutes on the cell phone on the average day. 

And now fourteen years later that number is, depending on the demographic you’re looking at, between four and six hours. To spend a quarter or a third or even more than a third of your waking time every day in front of a device suggests that it has a colossal influence on your psychological experience of the world. 

And so to me it was critical to understand it. I also think its effects go beyond the moments you’re staring at the screen. The interactions we have on our screens influence our welfare, the self-image we hold; the way we think of ourselves; especially among teenage girls and to some extent teenage boys as well. 

You can spend a few hours a day on Instagram. That’ll have a lasting effect that will probably shape the way you think about yourself for the rest of your life, even if you stop using Instagram today. 

So I think no matter the demographic, no matter the platform… technology has a colossal influence on our experience of the world. So I wanted to understand it. 

Georgie: Given our recent conversations with Nicholas Carr and then Nir Eyal, I want to continue to explore this question: How addicted are we to tech? 

A third of Adam’s Irresistible is about the extent of behavioural addiction that we are displaying towards our devices. How does he define this addiction and how widespread is it?

Adam: Sure, yeah. I’ll just start by saying I have immense respect for Nir’s work and for Nicholas’s work. I think both books are tremendous and the work they do is incredible. 

I actually teach an MBA class at NYU and Nir was very generous to come into the classroom and we had a long debate about these issues. So we see eye to eye on many things, but obviously not on everything. 

So behavioral addiction to me is very much like substance addiction but it doesn’t involve a substance. So if you can engineer a behavior to make it sufficiently compelling, that it hits all the right psychological notes, the right neurological notes… you can make it feel to the perceiver just as difficult to resist and it can have just as much damage, perhaps, as substances do. 

The way I define behavioral addiction is it’s an experience that you’re engaging in that you want to engage in. It’s very important that you have that strong want in the short term, despite the fact that you recognize that it’s having negative effects for you in at least one way. 

That could be socially. It could be psychologically. It could lead to boredom, to anxiety, to loneliness, to depression. You could be bullied, or it could have effects on your finances. So you could end up spending huge amounts of money that you don’t intend to spend, which a lot of people experience; or it could have even physical consequences. 

So that’s really it. Those two features are critical. In the short term – you really want to do the thing. Long-term – recognize that it’s bad for you and it is actually bad for you. That to me is the same as substance addiction. You really want to use the substance or do the thing that you’re addicted to and you recognize that in the long run, it’s actually bad for you.

Georgie: Yeah. Okay. So how prevalent do you think it is?

Adam: I think it’s pretty prevalent! One way to assess this is if you’re speaking to an audience in person, which I haven’t been doing very much of late for obvious pandemic-related reasons. 

But if I go into a big room and say there are one to three thousand people, I’ll ask people to put up their hands and I’ll say: “Alright. I’m going to ask you to put up your hand when you hear a number that makes sense to you. 

We’re going to go from one to ten. Where one is “I am completely happy with my technology use. I think technology is only wonderful, it’s only improved my life and I want to change nothing” to ten – “Technology is destroying my life. It’s a huge problem and I have to change everything about my relationship with it”. 

And we talk about what those points in the middle might be. What you find it for most people in that room it’s between a six and an eight. So it’s very clear at the top half of the scale that people are unhappy with it and then they actually start speaking about it and they’ll say “It’s not just me. It’s my friends, my family, my loved ones”. It’s about the whole social network that they’re engaged in offline. 

I don’t have an exact figure because I think it’s hard to know exactly what the right metric is to use, but I would say more than half of the adult population, on reflecting, says “This is a problem for me”. 

Are they all medically addicted? No. I don’t think this is medical-grade where you need treatment. I think it’s a malady of society and that we all just need better ways to deal with it. So on that, I agree with Nir Eyal. I think the best thing we can do is empower ourselves and become Indistractable, as he says. But yes, I think for a lot of us this is a problem. 

Georgie: Yeah, and as you say, behavioral addiction is so easy to hide in many ways.

Adam: It is easy to hide and impossible to escape from. You can’t live a complete life today and say “I am just going to abstain from all tech”. You can’t travel. You can’t be in the workplace. You can’t connect with friends completely. It’s really insidious that way. 

Georgie: A big part of Irresistible is obviously about all of the different hooks that the technology companies use to keep us engaged in their products and you talk about goals, feedback, progress, escalation, cliffhangers, social interaction… You wrote this book in 2016/2017 and obviously in the last five years, the market’s become more competitive. They’re even better at holding our attention than ever before. 

Are you seeing other methods that these tech companies are also now using to try to hold us in this very competitive environment? 

Adam: Yeah. So they engage in a process known as a “friction audit” and what they basically do is they’ll take their products and try to find every single friction point that might lead people away from the product. 

So if you’re on Facebook and you have a feed that pops up on the screen, you might notice that every time a particular box appears people slow down by a few hundred milliseconds, and then you can predict that they’re more likely to leave the platform after that happens. So you know that you’ve caused friction. 

So what do you do? You try to intervene and you try to sand down that particular friction point and you find that people on average spend an extra few minutes a day on Facebook. If you do that over and over and over again; you do repeated friction audits, what you end up doing is you create this kind of weaponized version of your platform. Whether it’s a game, a social media app – whatever it is. 

So what you’re essentially trying to do is to eradicate stopping cues or friction points that might otherwise suggest “Hey! It’s time for you to go do something else”. Like a gentle nudge to move on. So that’s a large part of what I think the biggest tech companies are doing constantly; is they’re trying to think about how they can sand whatever friction points down that do exist. 

So that’s the holistic answer, which is that they’re constantly trying to make the platform less sticky.

Georgie: More sticky!

Adam: Or more sticky! So they’re attached to it.

Georgie: More sticky because it’s less sticky! 

Adam: Yes, exactly. The more sticky because it’s less sticky. So you can glide through the process of using it and therefore it becomes more sticky. 

Georgie: And networks become faster, too. So they’re less likely to be the limiting factor, although probably still — I don’t know. With them, or if the limiting factor is the apps and services themselves now. It’s difficult to tell sometimes. 

Adam: Yes! I mean the infrastructure now is so advanced that it’s almost never the infrastructure’s fault. For a long time in the first egghead of the 2000s, the infrastructure was the limiting factor. 

You know you’d create this fantastic platform and then something like YouTube, which came about in 2005, couldn’t have existed before 2005 because we didn’t have broadband in the same way. We didn’t have widespread WiFi in the same way. There was no mobile communication in the same way. 

So now we’re at the point where almost every platform can operate using the infrastructure we have. I think where we still fall short is augmented in virtual reality. So the infrastructure isn’t quite there to support those platforms and it will get there – fortunately or unfortunately or both. 

There’s this interesting illusion known as the “end of history illusion” which suggests that where we are right now always feels like a destination. Like we have reached a kind of endpoint of sorts. And the endpoint that I think we think we’ve reached is that phones are these incredibly intrusive devices. They have affected us in all sorts of different ways. 

But I think they’re going to look quaint in ten years or twenty years or thirty or forty or fifty because instead of having phones we’ll all be walking around with devices implanted in our heads and in our bodies and we’ll be able to just seamlessly move from the real world into a virtual world at any moment. And you won’t have to put on goggles.

There’ll probably be something that happens with your eyes and suddenly you look in a particular direction and suddenly you’re in the virtual world, no one else knows that you’re there and you’re completely unreachable – because for that moment you may be physically in one place but you’re virtually in another. 

That to me is a far more concerning situation than the one we’re in now. I think we’re headed there and I think one of the reasons why it’s so important for us to grapple with phone technology, though it will one day seem quaint, is that we’re building up a set of tools to deal with it. 

And I hope we’re building up legislation and ways of managing the tech companies now so that when they become even more powerful than they are when they have an even bigger effect on our lives, we have developed some broad coping skills that can be applied to whatever technology happens to emerge.

Georgie: I completely agree. Technology, you’re saying, is the most influential because we spend so much time around it. How is it influencing us? What impacts is it actually having on our decisions and our daily judgments?

Adam: I think the nature of these effects varies quite a lot for different people, but I think the biggest effects when you do a sort of a psychological audit are things like changing your threshold for boredom and your openness to actually think. 

When you have a device that visits itself upon you in every, even brief, moment of boredom… Think about getting into a lift, an elevator, now. And you stand in that elevator for ten seconds and every single person who is in the elevator for ten seconds opens the phone and has a look at the phone. We do not tolerate any moments of any social awkwardness, any moments of boredom where there’s not an obvious thing that we’re supposed to be paying attention to. What we do is we paper those moments over with a phone. 

I think that has really big effects in aggregate. If you trace a lot of invention, inventiveness, creativity, and lateral thinking; a lot of it people say “Oh, yeah. There was this moment. I was sitting in the park one day and then I had this big epiphany and now here is this incredible product that has changed the world”. 

And I think if you don’t allow yourself to have those proverbial moments in the park I just don’t think a lot of that happens anymore. So I think we’re changing the way society functions in fairly profound ways. 

And then of course there are all the social effects. It seems like the use of phones, especially among teens, is associated with rises in depression, anxiety, and suicide among teens; which is horrific. There are a lot of very profound effects that are very troubling and then there are obviously some that are more, I guess, pedestrian. But certainly, the effects are broad. 

Georgie: Yeah. We’ll come back to how you managed that in a minute, but I wanted to go back to a quote that you just recently put on Twitter which said: If tobacco companies said “We know kids are smoking the bad stuff, so we’re making a kiddie cigarette that has less tar and less nicotine” would you see that cigarette as a dangerous gateway to smoking, or a tool for child welfare? Now replace tobacco companies with Facebook/Instagram. 

I mean, you obviously feel really strongly about this 

Adam: I feel immensely strongly about it, yeah. I have a four-year-old and a five-year-old and that the idea that there could ever be a kid-friendly version, a gateway version of Instagram that gets kids into the platform now so that they can then graduate to the fully toxic, many milligrams of tar or micrograms of tar or whatever version of Instagram that’s available to adults… that’s terrifying and it’s completely dystopian. 

And also the idea that Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, coming out and saying: “We know all your kids are getting onto Instagram anyway, so why don’t we create a version that’s just for them so they can use that one instead”. It’s just absurd to me. 

Georgie: Yeah. And what of you personally? I mean, not just with the technology part but with all of these other factors that you’ve identified are influencing your daily decisions and judgment? Have you changed the way that you live? How do you manage it all?

Adam: I think anyone would be paralyzed if you tried to take into account every single influence!

Georgie: [Laughs]

Adam: You wouldn’t be able to move forward in life. You wouldn’t be able to go anywhere or do anything. So I don’t do that. What I do is I really ask myself: How big an influence is this particular influence? If it’s profound, if it’s having a really big effect on me or it’s likely to have a big effect on me – like technology – I’ll try to make some changes. 

If it’s something like when you go into a room that’s painted red your heart races a little bit more and you’re more likely to, for example, buy things. So people buy more products in a red store than they do in a store that’s painted blue. 

Well, then I’ll go into a store that’s red and say “Oh, I recognize that this store is red and I’ll just be a little more thoughtful about what I’m doing but I’m not going to change my behavior dramatically”. 

So for me, it’s always this analysis of how big the effect could be, how profound it is, and then deciding whether it’s something that warrants intervention. 

Georgie: Mm-hmm!

Adam: And if it is, then make that intervention; and if not, don’t worry about. Just get on with your life and be mindful. I think so much of it is just recognizing that these effects are there. Then once you know that they’re there and that these things are having an effect on you, you can decide whether and how much to try to curb them. 

Georgie: Mm-hmm. So with technology, how do you manage your relationship with technology? 

Adam: There’s an old idea in psychology known as “propinquity” and propinquity suggests that the closer things are in physical space to you the bigger effect they have on your psychological experience of the world. 

So the biggest thing for me is I know that I can’t resist my phone. If I know it’s there, I am going to go it. My wife still says to me: “You’ve written this book. What is wrong with you? You still turn to the phone”. 

Georgie: [Laughs]

Adam: And she is right because I’m human. So the best thing I can do is – during dinnertime, during the weekend, whenever I can do this – I try to keep my phone as far away from me as possible. And I do that. I do it a fair amount. 

So I’ll try not to keep it next to my bed at night. I will try to spend much of the weekend, especially when I’m with my kids, with the phone either on airplane mode (so that I don’t know that I’m getting any messages). So I can use it as a camera and to film them. That’s the biggest thing – is spending as much time turning the phone into a brick, as you can, and when you have it nearby sort of defang it. 

If there were certain apps, there’s a script you follow with those apps. You go from Instagram to Facebook to Twitter to Snapchat and back round again and you keep getting into this loop. Then, put them as far apart as possible from each other. Bury them on the fifth screen on your phone. Make them as hard to find as possible. Every three weeks, change where they are. Basically, introduce your own friction. 

Undo what the tech companies are doing. If they’re removing as much friction as possible… well, reintroduce it. Turn your phone on black and white mode, which makes it much less enticing. Turn of all your notifications except the absolutely critical ones that you feel you can’t do without. 

So what you’re effectively doing is you’re mitigating all of the effects that are brought into your life by the tech companies – unpicking them one step at a time – and that’s what we do in my family. 

Georgie: In Drunk Tank Pink Adam talks about attention restoration therapy as an antidote to the decision demands of modern life. It also seems useful as an antidote to our tech use. I asked him to explain what it means.

Adam: Yeah. Attention restoration therapy basically argues that much of what we do during the day saps us of our ability to exert self-control or control over the environment and a lot of that comes from the kind of attention that you exert when you navigate the world in general. 

So if you think about living in a city or being in a place with other people, you’re constantly trying not to bump into them. You’re trying to cross the road without getting hit by a car. You’re doing all sorts of things to survive in this world basically and to navigate the world. 

All of that, each successive little thing that you do in that context takes a little bit of a resource that’s finite and it ebbs over time so that by the end of the day you basically don’t have much left. It’s hard for you to make decisions. 

It’s hard for you to exert self-control. You are more likely to eat badly. You’re less likely to do the tasks you set out to do. You are more likely to sit in front of your phone for hours and so on.

So attention restoration therapy suggests that there’s a way to undo some of that and the biggest driver of that undoing process is that replenishment comes from nature. So the way you do this is you spend time in natural environments, in forests, in a place where there is running water, by the ocean. And if you’re in an urban area and you don’t have those options, put a potted plant in your home. Have the sound of running water. 

That’s a different kind of attention. It still draws your attention to that thing, whatever it is, but it’s in the background and it turns out to be quite restorative and there’s quite a lot of evidence for that. 

So I always I say at the end of a lot of the talks I give on technology: “What’s the antidote here?” The antidote is to spend some time in a natural environment or at least in an environment where, based on what you’re seeing with your eyes, you have no idea what year it is. There’s a timelessness to what you’re looking at. 

I can see right now that I have lights and I have cameras and I have all sorts of things that tell me it’s roughly 2021. But when I go later on today to the beach for a run, that is the same beach and the same run that people could have done a thousand years ago, in theory, and there’s a timelessness to that. I think that’s something we should all try to approach for at least part of the day. 

Georgie: We finish with one final question for Adam. What does productivity mean to him?

Adam: Productivity for me is a retrospective thing where at the end of a period where I’m meant to be doing something I ask myself: “Did you achieve what you were looking for?” And the reason I like that definition is because it’s very flexible. 

So sometimes I’ll go into a writing period where I’ll say “I want to write a thousand words. I’m going to spend a few hours doing that”… I know there’s going to have to be some research in there, which means I need the internet. Now I know that slows me down. It’s going to be harder to write. 

And so when I look back and I have written only five hundred words in four hours, I can look back and say “Well, yeah. That makes total sense because I was slowed down by having to do all this research, but I am happy with the product. So in retrospect that was fine. That was productive”. 

But sometimes when I have the ideas and I have done all the research and I say “Right. There’s not going to be any internet active here. I’m going to turn off all of my browsers. It’s just going to be me and the document” – then I have a completely different definition and in retrospect, I can say “Well, if I didn’t achieve that thousand words or whatever, that wasn’t very productive”. 

And writing is hard, you know? If you’re writing a book… I’m working on my third book now. So that’s hundreds of thousands of words of writing and all sorts of academic articles as well. For me, it’s not easy. It doesn’t come extremely easily. So I expect there to be friction built into the process. 

There’ll be these bursts where suddenly two thousand words just spill out of you and then you’ll go for a week or a month, depending, and you will write five words and then you’ll unpick them and go back to where you were. So I’m okay with that staccato output. It’s a little bit like looking at market performance in the stock market. You’ve really got to focus on the long term. 

As long as I can look back and say “Well that was a good month or a good three months”, then I’m okay. 

Georgie: Adam, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been absolutely fascinating and a real privilege to talk to you. I’m very grateful.

Adam: Thanks so much for inviting me, Georgie. I appreciate it. That was fun. 

Thank you for joining us on Freedom Matters. If you like what you hear, then subscribe on your favorite platform. And until next time, we wish you happy, healthy and productive days.