The Rise of Addictive Technology: How FB, Instagram, Netflix, and Other Tech Companies Get You Addicted to Their Services (And Why You Should Care)
In 1930, Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner came up with an experiment. He took a hungry rat and placed it in a box with a lever on one side. As the rat explored its new cage, it would accidentally hit the lever and, when it did so, a food pellet would drop on the floor.
After the rat had been put in the box a couple times, it learned to go straight to the lever and press it. The rat had learnt that pressing the lever equaled getting food, and Skinner had learnt that a behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated. As he himself put it: the reward reinforced the behavior.
Skinner then performed further experiments with his box and discovered that not all rewards were equally effective in driving the rats behavior. When the rat received the same reward each time, it pulled the lever only when it was hungry. However, when the rat received a different reward each time – one pellet, none, or several – it pulled the lever over and over again. In other words, the rat became psychologically hooked on what Skinner would later call a variable reward schedule.
Variable reward schedules, Skinner concluded, had two features: 1) They maximize the number of times an operant (a rat, pigeon, or human) repeats a behavior. 2) They result in behaviors that Skinner said were “hard to extinguish.”
Fast forward to 2018. Skinner would be delighted by what he’d see: Human beings acting very much like the rats in his box, compulsively pressing levers in the pursuit of rewards.
We Are Hooked
Americans check their phones up to 150x per day. 79 percent of smartphone users check their device within 15 minutes of waking up. Ten percent check it when they wake up at night. One third of Americans say they’d rather give up sex than their phones. Ten minutes after taking a millennials phone, they start experiencing FOMO.
We are hooked.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines being hooked as “unable to stop taking a drug” or as “enjoying something so much that you are unable to stop having it, watching it, doing it, etc..”
Just like the rats repeatedly pulled levers in the hope of getting some food, human beings now repeatedly pull out their smartphones in the hope of getting some social approval or entertainment.
And it’s no accident, either. As you’re about to learn, our compulsive behavior is engineered by tech companies who, in the drive to maximize ad revenues, deliberately make their apps as addictive as possible. Their #1 goal is to increase “time-spent,” for the more time they get you to spend on their application, the more money they make.
Welcome to the attention economy, in which your attention is worth a lot of money, and everyone is fighting tooth and nail to get a piece of it.
The Science of Getting Hooked
Taking Skinner’s experiments further, psychologists have come up with a 3-part model of addictive/habitual behavior: Trigger, routine, reward. Every addictive behavior involves all three elements.
Let’s begin at the end. To get someone hooked, you must maximize the reward they’ll get from an experience. The more rewarding a behavior, the more likely it is to be repeated – and the more addictive it is.
When you post something on Facebook, check back after ten minutes, and see that you’ve received 50 likes, you feel a massive emotional rush. You feel socially approved. You feel good about yourself. You feel popular. You feel liked. The experience feels so good that you’ll want more of it, and the better it feels, the more you want it.
Tech companies deliberately design their apps to be as rewarding as possible. They quite literally sprinkle rewards all over their interface. When you upload a picture to Instagram, the app lets you try different filters. Why? Because it makes you feel special, like you’re an artist. You feel good about yourself – and you’ll come back for more.
The next element is routine. The key to make this part as addictive/haibtual as possible is to make it as easy as possible. The easier a task is, the more likely you are to engage in it. When you get to the end of an episode of “Ozark” on Netflix, the next episode begins automatically unless you stop it. The level of difficulty to engage in this behavior is zero. If you had to wait five minutes for the next episode, the chances of getting hooked would be much smaller.
Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and co. now all use the autoplay feature in some form or another. They also show you related videos, movies, and tv shows – hey, you don’t even need to search anymore. The next piece of content is right here waiting for you! And thanks to sophisticated algorithms, it’s precisely the type of content you are most likely to consume. How convenient.
The last element is the trigger. In order to become truly addicting, a behavior needs to get cued repeatedly. Various triggers need to become associated with the behavior. Rat sees lever (cue) --> presses it (routine).
That’s why hanging around smokers is so problematic for someone trying to quit – he or she gets triggered to light one up. When researchers put sweets on a secretary’s desk in a clear rather than opaque (lightproof) bowl, snacking increases by 46 percent. Why? Because the clear bowl makes the sweets visible and, by seeing the sweets, the secretary gets triggered to consume them.
Push notifications and emails are nothing but triggers. Netflix sends you an email asking, “What’s playing next?” or “Netflix tonight?” LinkedIn continually tells you that “people are looking at your LinkedIn profile.” Facebook shoots you alerts saying someone tagged you or posted an update, an event is happening tomorrow, it’s someone’s birthday, and so on. Tech companies send you trigger after trigger in the hope of bringing you back to their application.
These external triggers are bad enough, but once a behavior is repeated multiple times, it can get linked to an internal trigger – a process called Pavlovian Conditioning, named after Ivan Pavlov who conditioned dogs to salivate in response to hearing a bell. When you feel bored, you check email. When you feel lonely, you check Facebook. When you feel insecure, you check Instagram.
Tech companies, in their pursuit of maximizing time spent on their platforms, employ teams of hundreds if not thousands of engineers with the sole job of optimizing the three aspects of addictive behavior – trigger, routine, reward. They’re in the business of getting us hooked, and they’re doing a great job at it.
7 Specific Ways Facebook, Google, Netflix, and Co. Are Getting You Hooked
Here are seven examples of exactly how these companies are exploiting human psychology and getting you to come spend more and more time with them.
1. Slot Machines
Slot machines are the darling of the gambling industry. They make more money in the US than movies, theme parks, and baseball combined. Casinos make between 65 and 80 percent of their money with them.
Compared to other types of gambling, people get “problematically involved” with slot machines 3-4x faster according to Natasha Dow Schull, author of Addiction by Design. Descriptions for slot machines she collected from gambling experts and former addicts include: the crack cocaine of gambling, electronic morphine, the premier addiction delivery device, or the most virulent strain of gambling in the history of man.
The psychological ingredient that makes slot machines so effective: variable reward schedules. The gambler, similar to Skinner’s rats, pulls the lever without knowing what they will get or if they’ll get anything at all.
The inconvenient truth is that nowadays billions of people carry a slot machine with ourselves everywhere we go:
- When we check email, we pull to see what new email we got
- When we hop on Instagram, we pull to see what stories are there
- When we pick up our phones, we pull to see what notifications we got
- When we visit a news website, we pull to see what happened over the last 24 hours
- When we swipe on Tinder, we pull to see if we got a match
Modern technology provides a never-ending rush, what some people call the “magic of maybe.” Maybe I’ll get 100 new likes. Maybe I’ll get nothing. Maybe I’ll get a new email from my lover. Maybe I’ll get a fun video. Maybe I’ll get a new friend request. Maybe I get new messages.
2. Social Approval
Human beings have a deep need to belong, be liked, appreciated, and approved of by our peers. Nothing feels quite as good as the approval of others; and nothing feels as bad as the rejection or disapproval of others.
The entire social media kingdom is built on that primal human motivation. Every time you get a new friend request, new followers, new “likes” or “hearts” or “retweets,” you get an incredible rush of positive emotion. And because it feels so good, you’ll want to come back for more.
Tech companies shamelessly exploit this feature of human psychology. Facebook asks you to tag friends in your photos – e.g., by showing you a box with a 1-click confirmation, “Tag Mike in this photo?” – and when you do, your friend gets a small experience of social approval. When you change your profile picture, Facebook ranks it higher in the news feed, so more of your friends see it, like it, or comment on it – and voilà: a massive spike in social approval, and you’ll want to come back for more.
Remember: behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated. And the more rewarding a behavior, the ever more likely it is to get repeated. Since social approval is one of the most rewarding experiences we can get, we are likely to repeat whatever behavior led to that experience. And boom: we’re hooked.
3. Social Reciprocity
Have you ever felt the need to return the favor and help someone who has helped you in the past? This is known as the law of social reciprocity, which basically states, “If you do something nice for me, I’ll do something nice for you. I feel obligated to reciprocate.”
Tech companies take advantage of this need for reciprocity in an effort to get users to spend more time on their apps. When you get a friend request on LinkedIn, the app asks you to accept or decline and automatically shows you a list of “People You May Know.” You can then do two things: 1) accept the request, which sends an immediate notification to your new contact, and 2) send a friend request to a person LinkedIn recommended to you. This simple design feature creates an avalanche of social reciprocity opportunities.
Your new friend gets the notification that they are now friends with you and gets requested to “Write Your New Friend a Message” and gets shown a new list of “People You May Know.” If they decide to write you a message, you’ll then feel obliged to respond. If they decide to add a new friend, the other person will feel obliged to respond as well. And there’s the person you sent a friend request yourself, who then gets shown a list of “People You May Know”, and if the person accepts your request, you’ll get a notification bringing you back on LinkedIn as well.
LinkedIn is deliberately trying to create as many social reciprocity events as possible, thereby bringing its users back to the site over and over again.
On Snapchat and Facebook, other people see when you’re typing a message, which creates an obligation in you to actually send something. When you receive an email, it’s commonly expected that you’ll respond. Facebook automatically tells the sender of a message when you saw it, putting you into a situation in which you’re feeling forced to respond – “now that she knows I’ve seen the message, I feel obligated to respond within the next few minutes.”
4. Infinite Feeds, Autoplay, and Lack of Stopping Cues
Modern technology lacks “stopping cues,” that older mediums had built-in, such as chapter endings in books. Games like Tetris or World of Warcraft can literally be played forever. Social media feeds auto-refill with stories, allowing you to scroll and scroll and scroll. There’s no cue for you to pause or consider leaving.
Netflix, YouTube, and Facebook now autoplay the next video after a short countdown. If you don’t make the conscious choice to stop, the decision to continue watching will be made for you.
5. Related Videos, TV Series, and Movies
Isn’t it convenient that YouTube and Netflix show you videos, TV series, and movies you might enjoy? Well, it’s surely convenient for these companies because by showing you related content, they increase the likelihood that you’ll stay on their site for a little longer.
The truth is, these companies use sophisticated algorithms to show you precisely the type of content you are most likely to consume. Or put differently: the content that is most likely to get you hooked.
6. External Triggers
Netflix sends you emails titled, “Netflix tonight?” “New on Netflix for you,” or “Top suggestions for You.” Facebook sends you notifications for new friend requests, likes on your photos, instant messages, posts of your friends, and countless other events. And so do Instagram, Snapchat, and other social media applications.
We get bombarded with messages essentially telling us the same thing in different ways: COME BACK!! WE WANT YOU TO SPEND MORE TIME WITH US. WE NEED TO SELL MORE ADVERTISING AND MAKE MORE MONEY!!
7. Distracted Lingering
Tech companies lump multiple services together and don’t allow you to use them exclusively, creating a sort of distracted lingering. You just wanted to look up a Facebook event happening tomorrow, but five minutes later you find yourself watching some video in the News feed.
On Facebook, you can’t access events without being forced to first land on the News feed. You can’t answer friend requests without landing on the News feed. And that is on purpose. Even if you just want to accept a friend request, once you’re on the feed, you might as well scroll a little and watch some videos. Voila: You’re spending more time on Facebook, and they’re making money.
What Can You Do About This?
Don’t like the fact that tech companies are trying to get you addicted to their apps? Don’t like the time you waste on social media, Netflix, YouTube, and co.? Want to reclaim your life?
Check out the next article in this series to learn exactly how you can break free from addictive technology. Or check out this article to learn more about the consequences our excessive tech use has on our lives.
Addictive Technology Article Series
This was the first of three articles on addictive technology. Check out the full series below:
- (You've just read this.) The Rise of Addictive Technology: How FB, Instagram, Netflix, and Co. Get Us Addicted to Their Apps – Explains how tech companies exploit human psychology to make their platforms as addictive as possible.
- Why Addictive Technology is Silently Ruining Your Health, Happiness, and Productivity – Explores all the negative consequences of excessive tech use.
- How to Break Free from Tech Addiction: 16 Strategies to Reclaim Your Life and Stop Wasting Your Time on FB, Instagram, Netflix, and Co. – Gives you the tools to end your tech addiction and use your time more wisely.