The world is becoming ever-more addictive and distracting, showering us with short-term rewards. But we can still take control of those mechanisms in order to do good in the world, and make ourselves into better people.
Taking a walk in a beautiful forest, I come up with the opening for a brilliant essay or short story. Burning with the inspiration to write it down, I hurry back home and open up my computer. As I wait for my word processor to boot up, I instinctively check whether I have any new e-mails or Facebook notifications. It turns out that I do, so I stop for a moment to read them… and answer them… and look at the link that somebody shared…
Half an hour later, I wrench myself away from these distractions and return to my writing task. But both my inspiration and motivation are gone, and I scarcely even remember what I was intending to write. I stare at the blank screen for a moment, make a haphazard attempt of writing something, and then switch back to Facebook. I re-share the funny link that kept me entertained earlier, find some more things to post, and spend the rest of the evening checking back to see if there have been any new “likes” on those items. When not, I go back to my e-mails to see whether anybody has had anything to say to me. I go to bed feeling twitchy and deflated, feeling like I’ve wasted the whole day – not only have I done nothing useful, I did not even get to relax.
A few days pass, and a new computer game is released. I figure I’ll give it a try… and I end up playing it for the whole day. The next day, I feel compelled to continue playing, until I’ve finally beaten it. If I am lucky, the game continues to be fun throughout. If I am unlucky, as often happens, it loses its charm at some point, and playing becomes tedious; but something forces me to keep playing nonetheless, even when I am starting to find it actively unpleasant. When I’m finally free, several days have gone by, and I again feel like I’ve wasted them.
We are being surrounded by addictive influences from all directions, and increasing amounts of money and science are used for changing our behavior.
Marketers use sophisticated statistical profiling to identify new parents as early as possible, because the birth of a child changes entrenched habits and allows a supermarket chain to tempt the parents into becoming loyal customers. Of course, marketers and companies have been always been trying to influence our habits, and often been quite successful. Fast food is no doubt popular because it is quick and convenient, but it may also be addictive.
Still, as anyone who has gotten stuck checking their Facebook status or mail inbox knows, there are more serious dangers online. A person isn’t in a constant risk of visiting a supermarket or fast food place – going there takes too much effort. But you never know when there might be a new notification, interesting status update or worthwhile e-mail waiting for you, and it takes very little effort to check. Whenever you do check for new items and find something interesting, your brain registers a small amount of reward. Thus, the action that led to the reward – the act of checking your inbox, say – gets reinforced and more likely to be repeated when you’re in a similar context. The more you are online, the more situations there will be that your brain registers as a similar context… and pushes you to check the inbox once again.
At worst, you will be compulsively checking your status and mail, to the point where it prevents you from getting anything else done. Sure, you could go do something more productive, but then the reward would be a long time away… while the Internet always provides a potential opportunity for an instant reward.
Games are also addictive and easy to access. People refer to EverQuest as “EverCrack”, not always entirely jokingly. A bit of Googling brings up news articles about World of Warcraft addicts, and I know at least one person who broke up with her boyfriend after he became too obsessed with the game. Several authors have analyzed the various psychological and outright deceitful tricks that games like Candy Crush Saga pull on their players to keep them hooked. And as Charles Stross comments, even the news media does it:
When a particular incident like today’s bombing of the Boston marathon kicks off a news cycle, a common pattern asserts itself. First, there’s photographic evidence and rumour. Then there’s some initial information—immediate numbers of dead and injured, scary photographs. But the amount of new information coming out tapers off rapidly after the first hour or two, and gives way to rumour and speculation. There probably won’t be any meaningful updates for a couple of days: but the TV channels and newpapers have to fill the dead air somehow, to keep the eyeballs they’ve attracted on the advertisements, so they cobble together anything they can grab—usually talking heads speculating without benefit of actual information. Such speculation in turn increases anxiety levels and causes depression, bringing the onlookers back for more.
Why have things become so addictive now?
In part, it is because of general technological progress. Paul Graham discusses this point in his essay The Acceleration of Addictiveness: technological progress causes things to become more efficient. Solar cells, computers, medicine… everything gets both better and cheaper to produce, but the same process also makes it possible to create drugs, games, and services that are ever more addictive than before. Technological progress makes everything better at its intended task – whether or not everyone would consider that task a good one.
There are also some more specific reasons which are worth mentioning.
I already mentioned low switching costs. If you have a smartphone or tablet with a fast Internet connection, you can pretty much always engage in the addictive activity. You don’t need to expend much effort to do so – in fact, it soon starts requiring more effort not to engage in the activity, as it becomes a thoroughly automated habit.
Next, addictions become intertwined with useful things. I complain a lot about Facebook making me less productive, and ruining entire days of work. So why do I keep using it? Because despite all its problems, I find it really valuable in meeting new people, keeping in touch with acquaintances, inviting people to different events, finding valuable and insightful articles, and exposing my thoughts to feedback from many different people. I have occasionally taken complete breaks from Facebook, and while I have felt more productive and content during times, I have also felt more socially isolated.
Similarly, even though many people find e-mail addictive, few if any can really stop using it. Way too much communication happens via e-mail.
Dropping a psychological addiction would be much easier if we could just quit the source of the addiction entirely. But for many current-day addictions, it is impossible to “just say no”. We have to keep coming back – and then we end up spending much more time with those things than we intended. While the things in question are useful when used in moderation, overuse causes them to become harmful.
There are also economies of scale involved. If you make a silly game that costs .99 cents to play, once a week, and get a million people to play it, you are already making close to four million each month. Online, it’s easy to increase your ability to serve more people, especially if you provide minimal to no customer support – just add more servers. Zynga, the company behind FarmVille, made $1.28 billion in revenue in 2012. That’s a downright crazy sum for a company making simple online games.
So you can make a lot of money making things more addictive… which means that everyone will be eagerly looking at the companies who are successful, and copying everything that those companies did right. Meanwhile, those companies themselves have lots of money to spend on further research aimed at making their games ever more addictive.
Which brings us to tight feedback loops. A company that is selling a physical product has a harder time making improvements to it, since that requires manufacturing new physical copies and then trying to gauge the effect of the changes. An online games company, on the other hand, can tweak a couple of settings in a product, see how this influences the behavior of a randomly selected 5% of their user base, and then adopt the settings which produce the highest returns. The behavior of each user can be tracked, with extra rewards being offered to customers who are in a danger of quitting the service. The most addictive ways of hooking people can be found very quickly.
Feedback loops also show up in the broader economy. The companies which are the most successful in addicting their customers prosper and grow. Companies which fail to do this will either go entirely out of business, or at least fail to grow any further.
This gets us an addiction economy: an economy in which the most successful companies are those which are the best at addicting us, and where their success feeds into itself, making the world ever-more addictive.
What is wrong with this? If people are voluntarily engaging in these activities, is that not a good thing?
Well, if people genuinely enjoy those activities, then maybe so. And sometimes that is what happens. But often, my experience at least is quite different: I just end up feeling drained and miserable – either afterwards, or even during the activity itself. When I do manage to avoid the addictions, I often feel happier and get more done.
Most people want to feel like they’re doing something meaningful with their lives. And many people do not feel like these kinds of addictions cause them to do anything meaningful. Quite the opposite.
But this is not another doom and gloom essay about how technology will destroy us. (If you are into that kind of thing, I do have another essay for you.) For even though these things may be addictive and reduce our productivity, they can also increase it.
I’ve written essays that have started off as Facebook updates and then been expanded as people critiqued them and forced me to express a more nuanced position, until I could just copy-paste pieces of my original update and of my later comments into a whole essay. Where traditional essay-writing may be a lonely activity requiring a lot of focus and motivation, having a dialogue with people is easy, and good tools allows us to merge the two processes.
Or let’s look at the potential of addictive games for education, a topic I have a special interest in. Why do I have problems gathering the motivation to do many traditional math exercises, whereas games that might require just as much intellectual effort addict me without problems?
At least one of the differences is that with traditional exercises, I often need to do quite a bit of work to understand the problem and the desired method well enough that I can get even started on it. Even after I do get started, solving the exercise is often a laborious process. Research on procrastination suggests that we are much more likely to procrastinate on tasks that have remote rewards and which feel like we might not be able to solve them.
In contrast, a game will start with easy problems and provide a smooth and gradual path to the hard ones, keeping you suitably challenged all the time. The classic game structure starts off with a simple level that even a beginner can beat, and then proceeds to ever-more complicated and challenging levels, while regularly giving the player access to new kinds of powers once they’ve mastered the old ones. At the same time, it constantly keeps the difficulty exactly right, so that even as the player gets better in the game, it always feels just challenging enough to be interesting but not so challenging as to be frustrating. (By tradition, there should be a reference to flow theory here, though the challenges may occasionally also be tough enough to make one drop out of flow.)
The math courses that I’ve enjoyed the most, and also felt like I’ve learned the most from, have been ones that employed a similar methodology. They broke the problems down into small pieces and made them easy to approach, and then gradually ramped up the difficulty. This is not just anecdote, either – math courses where the exercises have been similarly broken down into smaller subproblems have seen better results. Hautala et al. (2012) provide the example of a large linear algebra exercise that has been split into four parts, and comment:
Now the set of tasks guides the students through the solving process. This is important especially when the topic is introduced for the first time. If the students encounter difficulties, they are able to ask detailed questions instead of just saying “I don’t understand a thing.”
As an aside, this is part of the reason why I don’t like the term ”gamification” very much – because games are still generally considered something trivial and frivolous, and gamification makes it sound like one is adding pointless and frivolous things on top of education in order to trick students to study. But although there are exceptions, one could say that a game is good if it also employs good educational techniques to constantly keep the player challenged and engaged… and once you take that perspective, “gamification of education” really is just the same thing as good education.
So part of the reason why we keep getting sidetracked by various addictions is that the other things that we should or could be doing in life don’t feel as rewarding. And that is because those other traditional activities haven’t been designed to be properly motivational, and they have always been flawed in this way!
Previously, the best ways of motivating people haven’t been as clear, and there also hasn’t been as much pressure to make our traditional activities more interesting, because there weren’t that many addictive alternatives. The addictive alternatives that did exist were things like drugs and sex, which weren’t as strongly intertwined with useful things and which one could either “just say no” to, or split them off from the periods when one was supposed to be working. So we could just grit our teeth and force ourselves to do things, even if they weren’t much fun. Today, that is becoming harder and harder, so we will become forced to also make our work and studies just as fun. And all the reasons for why things have been becoming more addictive also let us make things like education and work more addictive.
Of course, there are tradeoffs between things such as educational value and entertainment. A game that can just focus on being as entertaining as possible might always be more fun than a game that also has to be educational. An educational game has to teach things that are true, an entertainment game can just make up whatever seems most fun. And in general, the things that are being optimized for pure addictiveness might be able to do that more effectively than the things that are also trying to be useful.
But although it would be great if the best educational games were as fun as the best entertainment games, they don’t necessarily need to be. If they are just fun enough that we can enjoy them without constantly getting the feeling that we’d rather be doing something else, that could be enough. There have been plenty of silly little games that were nowhere as fun as the best entertainment games, but still enjoyable enough that I kept playing them once I’d gotten started. And if I knew that a game was actually teaching me useful content, that would give me an extra incentive to keep playing.
The same principle should generalize to things beyond just games: as long as we make the activities that we engage in rewarding enough, we have an easier time resisting our addictions. And while the pure addictions can provide us with plenty of short-term rewards, ultimately it is the long-term rewards which feel the most fulfilling. If we can make ourselves addicted to those, we can break the grip of the useless addictions.
So. Let us take all the psychological tricks and intricate reward systems and other things that various groups are developing in order to addict us. And then let’s turn our attention to the things that we currently have to force ourselves to do, and make those just as compelling and intrinsically enjoyable, so that we can achieve the things that we really want to achieve.
As I have presented it, my argument suffers from one major problem.
“Let’s use these techniques to make everything more compelling” works fine as long as we are dealing with well-understood problems that can be broken down into small chunks with a clear and logical progression. But not every problem is like that. Somebody who is tackling a truly novel problem often feels at a complete loss, having no idea of whether they are even on the right track. Someone who is facing a tough problem that is known to be solvable, but which nobody has yet turned into an addictive one, might feel similarly. If we motivate people to work by giving them frequent external rewards, does that train them to become even more impatient and eager to quit in cases where no such rewards are forthcoming?
Apparently, Western cultures are already doing badly with this. According to this NPR piece, American first-graders who were given an impossible math problem to work on tended to give up within less than 30 seconds. Japanese students, on the other hand, spent a whole hour trying to solve it, stopping only when the researchers told them to. We Westerners have already been trained to desire instant gratification, and it might not be a good idea to turn society even more in that direction.
I am not at all sure that we have a choice, however. It is all well and good to say that we should stop being so focused on instant gratification and train ourselves to work on problems for longer before giving up. But how are we going to do it in a society that keeps becoming ever more addictive? Most people have big projects and noble goals that they say they intend to accomplish, one day – and then they never do, because there are easier rewards available. “We should train ourselves to have a longer tolerance for uncertainty and delayed rewards” is exactly the kind of goal that provides an uncertain reward sometime late in the future… and is thus likely to be put aside in favor of easier goals.
Unless we find a way to make that goal, too, more rewarding. I actually think that the techniques for making things more compelling could even be used for helping us do things which aren’t as immediately compelling. We just have to figure out how, and I’ve personally been experimenting with some such tricks.
Previously, each new Facebook notification created in me an urge to click it. Now I have been training myself to instead take pleasure in seeing the number of unread notifications go up. Accumulated 27 notifications over three days? Yay! Good job at not having clicked on those! Maybe I could get that number up to 28 if I waited for a bit longer!
When I started meditating, I used an IRC channel to train myself to meditate for longer at a time: after each meditation session, I reported the duration of my session to that channel. It was pleasing to gradually make the number grow higher.
Similarly, we can train ourselves to get rewards from the process rather than the result. Those Japanese kids were so persistent partially because they had been taught that hard work is a virtue, so not giving up was already a reward by itself. We could learn to reward ourselves for working without interruptions for some set amount of time, regardless of how much got done. Arguably, the reason why many people find the Pomodoro Technique so effective might be because it does exactly this.
Ultimately, the rise of addictiveness is because we are learning to more reliably modify our behavior. That knowledge can be used for bad ends, but it can also be used for good ends – even for increasing our resistance to becoming addicted.
I experiment with various techniques for improving my own effectiveness and breaking the hold of harmful addictions. I make public commitments, such as declaring on Facebook that I will not be making any Facebook posts for a week. I employ structured procrastination. When I notice that I’m having trouble working from home, I try to find a job where I’m actually surrounded by other people. I ease on my perfectionism and my desire to write big essays in one go, and encourage myself to write down my ideas even if I only have energy or material for a couple of paragraphs.
I look for ways of motivating myself by briefly playing non-addictive games that are related to what I want to do. I tell myself that shipping is what differentiates a generalist from a dabbler. I employ different instant motivation techniques. I practice meditation, both to increase my tolerance to delay, and to develop a better awareness of my mind to help me notice motivating feelings better.
Some of these work better. Some of them work worse. But I’m slowly making progress. This essay gets finished by the “write a few paragraphs at a time” technique; I find the motivation to finally provide some people with feedback on their philosophy paper by playing Socrates Jones: Pro Philosopher and arguing with John Stuart Mill in-game. I also write this essay partially to motivate myself to continue working on the topic of educational games.
It is a struggle, but there is yet hope.
Edited to add: Technology is Heroin is a great essay that makes many similar points, though it’s more focused on the doom and gloom side.
Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.