Irresistible: Why we can’t stop checking, scrolling, clicking and watching by Adam Altar

ISBN : 978-1-847-92459-9

Published 2017 by The Bodley Head 354 pages Available from independent publishers

Those who avoid temptation in the first place tend to do much better. That’s why heroin-addicted Vietnam vets fared so well when they returned to the U.S. and escaped the drug-taking context altogether, and why it’s so important to construct your environment so temptations are far away.

I first heard about Irresistible listening to an interview with the author on The Art of Manliness podcast, during which Altar provided intriguing examples of behavioural addiction. Prior to listening, I had been labouring under the misapprehension that I don’t have addictions, aside from nailbiting and chocolate. But it turns out watching a whole season of The Bridge in one go counts. As does receiving a dopamine hit when I thought Scott Ludlam retweeted me (only to discover it was @ScottLudlamsHair). Or feeling stressed if my friend texts me a dinner invitation and I don’t answer immediately. Or being late for work because I am listening to just one more episode of the Trace podcast. Or checking the stats on my WordPress blog and then boasting about it, ‘Hey I have a follower in Panama.’

How far are you from your phone right now? Can you reach it without moving your feet? And, when you sleep, can you reach your phone from your bed?

This book made me realise that my definition of addiction was narrow, and that I am riddled with behavioural addiction. And why wouldn’t I be? Altar writes, ‘…the environment and circumstance of the digital age are far more conducive to addiction that anything humans have experienced in our history.’

Altar is an Associate Professor of Marketing at NYU’s Stern School of Business and has an affiliated appointment with the NYU Psychology Department. His academic research looks at decision-making and social psychology. He writes brilliantly, and has published articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, and the New Yorker. Irresistible is Altar’s second book—the first was 2013’s Drunk Tank Pink: The subconscious forces that shape how we think, feel and behave. That book is known for its classic dinner party examples of how the environment shapes our actions—for example, crime statistics decline when the street lighting is blue,  seeing a picture of a pair of eyes makes you behave more honestly, and if you stare at the colour pink for two minutes, you weaken in strength.

Irresistible opens with a telling anecdote about how Steve Jobs (creator of the Apple iPad) wouldn’t let his own children near an iPad. Irresistible is as readable as Drunk Tank Pink—the writing is sharp and rife with well written explanations of behavioural addiction experiments.

It wasn’t so long ago that when we heard the word addiction we thought of gambling, cigarettes, heroin or Jane Fonda compulsively doing star jumps, but the rise of the smartphones, iPads, streaming services, video games, internet porn and Fitbits means addiction is rampant. According to Kevin Holesh, an app developer who designed Moment (an app that tracks how much you use your iPhone and iPad each day), ‘Most people spend between one and four hours on their phones each day—and many far longer.’

Irresistible is divided into three parts. Part 1 looks at what behavioural addiction is, the rise of behavioural addiction, the addict in all of us, and the biology behind addiction. Part 2 explains the design of addictive experiences and the psychological tricks employed to make things addictive. (Altar lists these as: goals, feedback, progress, escalation, cliffhangers and social interaction.) Part 3 examines the future of behavioural addiction and provides some solutions for dealing with it.

In the chapter, ‘The rise of behavioural addictions’, Altar cites a 2011 study that showed that moderate behavioural addictions are common. He writes, ‘The bottom line: a staggering 41 percent of the population has suffered from at least one behavioural addiction over the past twelve months.’ Altar explains that technology is designed to addict us. He defines addiction as a behaviour that is good in the short term, wrecks you in the long term, but that you engage in regardless. He describes how the addict’s brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine when they are engaged with the behaviour that are addicted to, be it World of Warcraft or Snapchat, (or in my case Saga Noren’s crimesolving abilities).

The character Saga Noren holding a gun.

Irresistible’s merit lies in Altar’s ability to explain scientific experiments in a lively and engaging way. In ‘The Addict in All of Us’ Altar writes of the Vietnam War, ‘By the war’s end, 35 percent of the enlisted men said they had tried heroin, and 19 percent said they were addicted.’ He explains subsequent research showed something surprising—once they returned to the US, 95% of the addicted veterans kicked the habit. Altar writes, ‘Location isn’t the only factor that influences your chances of becoming an addict, but it plays a much bigger role that scientists once thought.’

My favorite example comes from the ‘Goals’ chapter. Altar writes ‘…we’re living through an unprecedented age of goal culture’. He provides the example of Robert Beamon, an Olympic athlete who abandoned athletics after breaking the world record for long jump at the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

Like the curse that doomed Sisyphus to roll a boulder uphill for eternity, it’s hard not to wonder whether major life goals are by their nature a major source of frustration. Either you endure the anticlimax of succeeding, or you endure the disappointment of failure.

The ‘Habits and Architecture’ chapter explains why abstinence doesn’t work when it comes to curbing addiction, interrogates the science behind habits and describes behavioural architecture. Altar writes, ‘The key to overcoming addictive behaviors, then, is to replace them with something else.’ He cites the example of a tongue-in-cheek product called Realism, that is designed to make us question our smartphone addictions. It is a plastic frame that looks like a smartphone but you can look through it to see what is actually in front of you.

I’ve never played World of Warcraft, I don’t own a Fitbit and I’ve muted everyone I know on Facebook but some chapters of Irresistible are about me. I saw myself in the ‘Cliffhangers’ chapter, where Altar draws on the examples of the addictive ambiguity of the final episode of The Sopranos and the entire Serial podcast. ‘When David Chase wrote the eighty-sixth and final episode of The Sopranos, he posed a question that he refused to answer: was Tony Soprano dead?’ Altar writes about how in 2012 Netflix introduced a feature called ‘post-play’ that meant as one episode of a show ended, the next one automatically started playing. That feature stole years of my life!

I am going to stop checking my WordPress stats for a while and channel my dopamine addiction into learning Danish on Duolingo. I have ushered in Screenfree Sunday, installed Moment and quit post-playing Nordic noir (unless I’m watching it in moderation with another person). My quest to undo behavioural addiction is a young experiment but I can already see a marked correlation between time away from screens and productivity. Irresistible is a timely and important book.




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