'Irresistible' By Design: It's No Accident You Can't Stop Looking At The Screen

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Could smartphones and other screens be decreasing the human attention span? Author Adam Alter thinks so.

"Ten years ago, before the iPad and iPhone were mainstream, the average person had an attention span of about 12 seconds," Alter tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. Now, he says, "research suggests that there's been a drop from 12 to eight seconds ... shorter than the attention of the average goldfish, which is nine seconds."

Alter links our diminished attention spans to the "mainstream adoption of screens." His new book, Irresistible, explores the consequences of living in an increasingly computerized world.

Alter says that technology is designed to be addictive and that the gratification it provides is similar to that of other addictive behaviors, such as drug abuse or gambling.

"If I'm addicted to, say, World of Warcraft, the minute I start firing up the game ... my brain will look [in a scan] very much like the brain of someone who's addicted to heroin and is preparing the next hit," he says. "During the act of playing the game ... my brain will look very much like that person's brain will look as they're taking heroin, or the brain of someone who is addicted to gambling, as they sit in front of a slot machine and play the game."

Interview Highlights

On how World of Warcraft game designers make it to be more addictive

One hundred million, roughly, have played the game, and by many measures, about half of them have developed an addiction, at least temporarily. So that to me suggests that it's a weaponized game; it's an experience that's very, very hard to resist.

Part of the reason for that is, I think, that these large game companies have access to an incredible trove of data. So one thing that a lot of the designers do is they'll release different versions of missions ... to different people, sort of A/B test these different missions. They'll look at how long you play, whether you return to the game, and generally how engaged you are. They generally call this "time on device," which is a term that's borrowed from the gambling world — how long are you on the slot machine.

What they'll find is, for example, when you have to save [rescue] something, you spend more time playing than say, when you have to kill or find something. So what they'll do is they'll take the missions that aren't as successful and they'll cast them aside, and now they'll form three new versions of saving missions. ... They'll continue that process through generation after generation after generation. So what you're left with after, say, 20 generations is this weaponized evolved version of the game, or a weaponized evolved mission, that is maximally addictive.

On an extreme case of World of Warcraft addiction

There was a person I spoke to, he was a straight-A student, he was very high-achieving, and he was also on the football team at his college. He started playing World of Warcraft because he, as he described it, was quite lonely and he found that there were a lot of other like-minded people on the game.

He developed an addiction pretty quickly because he found that it was basically a much better alternative world to the real one, and he spent a lot of time there. ... He played instead of sleeping, and his greatest binge was a 45-day binge where he played almost continuously. He paid a doorman in the building to bring up pizza, so by the end of this binge there were stacks of pizza boxes to the ceiling. He put on about 40 pounds of fat. His skin was pale. He lost hair. He ignored hundreds of phone calls.

He eventually picked up a phone call 45 days later after sleeping roughly an hour each night. It happened to be his mother and she came, collected him, and took him to reSTART, this Internet addiction treatment center. He's now thriving, he's doing very well, but he had to go through multiple rounds of treatment.

On the idea that tech designers should have an oath similar to the Hippocratic oath that doctors take, pledging not to harm their patients

Google, for example, had for a while a person on board known as a "design ethicist." Now, you don't have a design ethicist on board unless you're concerned about the ethics of the products you're creating. This person, named Tristan Harris, worked at Google for a while and eventually there was a sense that perhaps they weren't responsive enough to some of his concerns. ...

The suggestion there that you need an ethicist, it suggests at least to me that they're concerned about the addictiveness of the products. In fact, Tristan himself has written about that, and that's exactly what he says. He suggests that there should be, in the design world, a Hippocratic oath — just as in medicine doctors should "do no harm," he believes the same should be true of designers of these kinds of platforms; that people who design tech, people who design social media platforms, should be forced to obey the same rules — do no harm.

On how virtual reality is the next big thing to become mainstream

Virtual reality is basically when you put on goggles and you inhabit a virtual world that feels like it's real. You can move around in that world, you can interact with other things in that world, you basically are living in that world for all intents and purposes, and your brain often can't distinguish.

There's amazing footage of people doing all sorts of things when they're in the virtual reality world. They will walk into walls, not realizing the walls are there. They will not walk forward if in the virtual world there's a cliff, even though they know, they know they're in a world where they're safe — the real world. ...

If you talk to experts in the industry they'll say something like, say, between two and four years from now just as most of us own smartphones, we will pretty much all own these virtual reality goggles. ... What that will mean is that at any moment in time you'll have a device that will allow you to escape the imperfect real world, and you'll be able to go to a perfect virtual world. ... You can be where you are right now, or you can go to a beach in Greece, which might sound more appealing. You can be where you are right now, or you can interact with a beautiful person. You can be where you are now, or you can go traveling. You can do basically whatever it is you want to do, so it's hard to imagine people will want to inhabit the real world, when there's this perfect virtual world right there ready for the taking.

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