Adam Alter’s Irresistible: Why We Can’t Stop Checking, Scrolling, Clicking and Watching


Jason Collins


October 5, 2017

I have a lot of sympathy for Adam Alter’s case in Irresistible: Why We Can’t Stop Checking, Scrolling, Clicking and Watching. Despite the abundant benefits of being online, the hours I have burnt over the last 20 years through aimless internet wandering and social media engagement could easily have delivered a book or another PhD.

It’s unsurprising that we are surrounded by addictive tech. Game, website and app designers are all designing their products to gain and hold our attention. In particular, the tools at the disposal of modern developers are fantastic at introducing what Alter describes as the six ingredients of behavioural addition:

[C]ompelling 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.

Behavioural addictions have a lot of similarity with substance addictions (some people question whether we should distinguish between them at all). They activate the same brain regions. They are fueled by some of the same human needs, such as the need for social engagement and support, mental stimulation and a sense of effectiveness. [Parts of the book seem to be a good primer on addiction, although see my endnote.]

Based on one survey of the literature, as many as 41 per cent of the population may have suffered a behavioural addiction in the past month. While having so many people classified as addicts dilutes the concept of “addiction”, it does not seem unrealistic given the way many people use tech.

As might be expected given the challenge, Alter’s solutions on how we can manage addiction in the modern world fall somewhat short of providing a fix. For one, Alter suggests we need to start training the young when they are first exposed to technology. However, it is likely that the traps present in later life will be much different from those present when young. After all, most of Alter’s examples of addicts were born well before the advent of World of Warcraft, the iPhone or the iPad that derailed them.

Further, the ability of tech to capture our attention is only in its infancy. It is not hard to imagine the eventual creation of immersive virtual worlds so attractive that some people will never want to leave.

Alter’s chapter on gamification is interesting. Gamification is the idea of turning a non-game experience into a game. One of the more inane but common examples of gamification is turning a set of stairs into a piano to encourage people to take those stairs in preference to the neighbouring escalator (see on YouTube). People get more exercise as a result.

The flip side is that gamification is part of the problem itself (unsurprising given the theme of Alter’s book). For example, exercise addicts using wearables can lose sight of why they are exercising. They push on for their gamified goals despite injuries and other costs. One critic introduced by Alter is particularly scathing:

Bogost suggested that gamification “was invented by consultants as a means to capture the wild, coveted beast that is video games and to domesticate it.” Bogost criticized gamification because it undermined the “gamer’s” well-being. At best, it was indifferent to his well-being, pushing an agenda that he had little choice but to pursue. Such is the power of game design: a well-designed game fuels behavioral addiction. …

But Bogost makes an important point when he says that not everything should be a game. Take the case of a young child who prefers not to eat. One option is to turn eating into a game—to fly the food into his mouth like an airplane. That makes sense right now, maybe, but in the long run the child sees eating as a game. It takes on the properties of games: it must be fun and engaging and interesting, or else it isn’t worth doing. Instead of developing the motivation to eat because food is sustaining and nourishing, he learns that eating is a game.

Taking this critique further, Alter notes that “[c]ute gamified interventions like the piano stairs are charming, but they’re unlikely to change how people approach exercise tomorrow, next week, or next year.” [Also read this story about Bogost and his game Cow Clicker.]

There are plenty of other interesting snippets in the book. Here’s one on uncertainty of reward:

Each one [pigeon] waddled up to a small button and pecked persistently, hoping that it would release a tray of Purina pigeon pellets. … During some trials, Zeiler would program the button so it delivered food every time the pigeons pecked; during others, he programmed the button so it delivered food only some of the time. Sometimes the pigeons would peck in vain, the button would turn red, and they’d receive nothing but frustration.

When I first learned about Zeiler’s work, I expected the consistent schedule to work best. If the button doesn’t predict the arrival of food perfectly, the pigeon’s motivation to peck should decline, just as a factory worker’s motivation would decline if you only paid him for some of the gadgets he assembled. But that’s not what happened at all. Like tiny feathered gamblers, the pigeons pecked at the button more feverishly when it released food 50–70 percent of the time. (When Zeiler set the button to produce food only once in every ten pecks, the disheartened pigeons stopped responding altogether.) The results weren’t even close: they pecked almost twice as often when the reward wasn’t guaranteed. Their brains, it turned out, were releasing far more dopamine when the reward was unexpected than when it was predictable.

I have often wondered to what extent surfing is attractive due to the uncertain arrival of waves during a session, or the inconsistency in swell from day-to-day.


Now for a closing gripe. Alter tells the following story:

When young adults begin driving, they’re asked to decide whether to become organ donors. Psychologists Eric Johnson and Dan Goldstein noticed that organ donations rates in Europe varied dramatically from country to country. Even countries with overlapping cultures differed. In Denmark the donation rate was 4 percent; in Sweden it was 86 percent. In Germany the rate was 12 percent; in Austria it was nearly 100 percent. In the Netherlands, 28 percent were donors, while in Belgium the rate was 98 percent. Not even a huge educational campaign in the Netherlands managed to raise the donation rate. So if culture and education weren’t responsible, why were some countries more willing to donate than others?

The answer had everything to do with a simple tweak in wording. Some countries asked drivers to opt in by checking a box:

If you are willing to donate your organs, please check this box: □

Checking a box doesn’t seem like a major hurdle, but even small hurdles loom large when people are trying to decide how their organs should be used when they die. That’s not the sort of question we know how to answer without help, so many of us take the path of least resistance by not checking the box, and moving on with our lives. That’s exactly how countries like Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands asked the question—and they all had very low donation rates.

Countries like Sweden, Austria, and Belgium have for many years asked young drivers to opt out of donating their organs by checking a box:

If you are NOT willing to donate your organs, please check this box: □

The only difference here is that people are donors by default. They have to actively check a box to remove themselves from the donor list. It’s still a big decision, and people still routinely prefer not to check the box. But this explains why some countries enjoy donation rates of 99 percent, while others lag far behind with donation rates of just 4 percent.

This story is rubbish, as I have posted about here, here, here and here. This difference has nothing to do with ticking boxes on driver’s licence forms. In Austria they are never even asked. 99 per cent of Austrians aren’t organ donors in the way anyone would normally define it. 99% are presumed to consent, and if they happen to die their organs might not be taken because the family objects (or whatever other obstacle gets in the way) in the absence of any understanding of the actual intentions of the deceased.

To top it off, Alter embellishes the incorrect version of the story as told by Daniel Kahneman or Dan Ariely with phrasing from driver’s licence forms that simply don’t exist. Did he even read the Johnson and Goldstein paper (ungated copy)?

After reading a well-written and entertaining book about a subject I don’t know much about, I’m left questioning whether this is a single slip or Alter’s general approach to his writing and research. How many other factoids from the book simply won’t hold up once I go to the original source?