Adam Alter
Read Time
Solid star iconSolid star iconSolid star iconSolid star iconSolid star iconOpaque star iconOpaque star iconOpaque star iconOpaque star iconOpaque star icon
More Info
This book is an overview of addictive behaviours, examining where they begin, who designs them, and the psychological tricks that make them so compelling. Alter offers some useful suggestions for changing your own bad habits.

What is Behavioural Addiction?

Behavioural addiction consists of six ingredients: compelling 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.

“Nomophobia” - the fear of being without mobile phone contact (an abbreviation of “no-mobile-phobia”

Behavioural addictions arise when a person can’t resist a behavior, which, despite addressing a deep psychological need in the short-term, produces significant harm in the long-term.

There's a weak correlation between social media use and shorter attention span (Microsoft consumer report)

Those who spent less time on social media have longer attention spans.

Distracted parents cultivate distracted children, because parents who can’t focus teach their children the same attentional patterns.

Olds and Milner

Discovered the 'pleasure centre' of the brain. They implanted a small probe, which delivered a burst of electric current to each rat’s brain when the rat pressed a metal bar. To their surprise, instead of retreating, Rat No. 34 stubbornly scampered across his cage and pressed the bar over and over again.

Product designers are smarter than ever. They know how to push our buttons and how to encourage us to use their products not just once but over and over.

The Ingredients of Behavioural Addiction


The answer is that, if you want to compel people to act, you whittle down overwhelming goals into smaller goals that are concrete and easier to manage. Humans are driven by a sense of progress, and progress is easier to perceive when the finish line is in sight.

Humans are inherently aspirational; we look ahead rather than backward, so no matter where we stand, we’ll tend to focus on people who have more.

Scott Adams promotes an alternative to goal-setting: instead of goals, live your life by systems. A system is “something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run.”


Feedback—in the form of lights or sounds or any change in the state of the world—is pleasurable.

Juice refers to the layer of surface feedback that sits above the game’s rules. It isn’t essential to the game, but it’s essential to the game’s success. Without juice, the same game loses its charm.


Many game designers know that beginner’s luck is a powerful hook. Nick Yee, who has a doctorate in communication and studies how games affect players, has written about the role of early rewards in online role-playing games. Inbox


There’s very little evidence that people with regular lives become happier when you replace challenges with ease.

David Goldhill explained why some degree of hardship is essential. “People don’t understand why movie stars are often miserable,” Goldhill said. “Imagine getting the girl every night, and never paying for a meal. A game in which you always win, for most people, is boring.”

Csikszentmihalyi created a useful diagram that shows why escalation of difficulty is such a big part of Flow.

It takes up to twenty-five minutes to become re-immersed in an interrupted task.

Tracking steps and counting calories “doesn’t help us manage our weight any better; it just makes us more obsessive.”


Zeigarnik Effect—incomplete experiences occupy our minds far more than completed ones.

When the rewards were unpredictable, participants enjoyed them that much more—and continued to enjoy them through to the end of the experiment.

People who shop obsessively become the same people who tidy obsessively, and the process becomes a self-perpetuating loop.

Social Interaction

People are endlessly driven to compare themselves to others.

People are never really sure of their own self-worth, which can’t be measured like weight, or height, or income. Some people obsess over social feedback more than others do, but we’re social beings who can’t ever completely ignore what other people think of us. And more than anything, inconsistent feedback drives us nuts. Instagram is a font of inconsistent feedback.

Social Media is a system based on social approval, likes, validation, in views, success in followers. It’s perfectly orchestrated self-absorbed judgment.

The Future of Behavioural Addiction

The truth is that we won’t know how children will respond to tech overuse for some years still. The first generation of native iPhone users is only eight or nine years old, and the first generation of native iPad users is six or seven.

The significant downside is that nothing is spontaneous and very little is ambiguous when you follow the rules of text-speak. There are no non-verbal cues; no pauses and lilts and unplanned giggles or scoffs to punctuate your partner’s message.

Reading emotions is a finely tuned skill that atrophies with disuse and improves with practice.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT). SDT explains that people are naturally proactive, especially when a behavior activates one of three central human needs: the need to feel in command of one’s life (autonomy); the need to form solid social bonds with family and friends (relatedness); and the need to feel effective when dealing with the external environment—learning new skills and overcoming challenges (competence).


Taking a non-game experience and turning it into a game.

In many contexts, laziness is the human default. Social psychologists Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor describe humans as cognitive misers to suggest that we avoid thinking the way a miser avoids spending.

People think about the experience differently as soon as it adopts the hallmarks of fun

Image credits: Irresistible by Adam Alter