These 6 Things Will Make You Addicted To Digital Technology

December 21, 2017 Social Influence 5 comments

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Do you know what the single biggest irony of the digital age is?

Namely this: Many founders and CEOs of the world’s leading technology firms have pretty low-tech households.

These paradoxical luminaries include…

  • Apple founder Steve Jobs, whose children had never used the iPad but are voracious readers of books.
  • Microsoft magnate Bill Gates who only gave his children hand phones when they were 14, practices no cell phone dining, and imposes strict screen time limits.
  • Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired magazine famed for his Long Tail His five kids cannot use screens in their bedrooms.
  • Evan Williams, founder of Blogger, Twitter and Medium, whose two young sons have hundreds of books but no iPad.

Never Get High On Your Own Supply

Thanks to the book Irresistible by Adam Alter (bestselling author of Drunk Tank Pink), I learned that these tech gurus followed the cardinal rule of drug dealing, which is this:

Never get high on your own supply.

From smartphones, sport sensors to social media, online games to online TV, technology has changed the game. While we welcome how digital tech improves our lives (heck, I’m a digital marketer), it comes with a warning label of possible behavioural addictions.

Tracing the rise of addictive behaviours and the psychological tricks which made them so compelling, Irresistible highlighted six ingredients which made technology as addictive as a drug like Heroin or Cocaine:

  1. Compelling goals that are just beyond reach
  2. Irresistible and unpredictable positive feedback
  3. A sense of incremental progress and improvement
  4. Tasks that escalate in difficulty over time
  5. Unresolved cliff hangers that demand resolution
  6. Strong social connections

Let us dive into each to understand how they work.

Goals Just Beyond Reach

We are all driven by goals, especially if they push us just a little further.

Citing studies done on getting Parkinson’s disease patients to walk straight and marathon runners to strengthen finishing times, Alter showed that whittling an overwhelming goal into smaller incremental goals can improve our drive.

These same milestones goals are present in wearable tech (walk certain number of steps each day) and virtually all smartphone games like Candy Crush, Angry Birds, and others.

Unpredictable Positive Feedback

Humans love feedback. It is the reason why kids can’t stop pushing buttons, and why TNT’s campaign in a sleepy town in Flanders featuring a big red button “Push to add drama” triggered so much interest.

Studies done on pigeons revealed that feel good hormone dopamine is triggered when avian rewards (food when they peck certain buttons) were given erratically. This is the same reason why we are drawn to the uncertainty of gambling.

Beyond random feedback, what Alter termed as “juice” – sounds, text pop-ups, melodies, and flashing lights – further fuels our ongoing interest. This is the reason why Augmented Reality games like Pokemon GO can be so popular.

Sense of Incremental Progress

Super Mario Bros. is easy to play, yet fiendishly difficult to master. Considered by game designers to be the “greatest game of all time”, its gameplay is designed to teach while preserving the illusion that nothing is being taught at all.

This functions like a bait-and-switch, luring gamers with easy levels to conquer, while showing them a sense of progress through increased points, health bonuses and other “collectibles”.

Quoting game designer Nick Yee from the book…

“One of [the factors that attract people to online role-playing games] is the elaborate rewards cycle inherent in them that works like a carrot on a stick. Rewards are given very quickly in the beginning of the game. You kill a creature with 2-3 hits. You gain a level in 5-10 minutes. And you can gain crafting skill with very little failure. But the intervals between these rewards grow exponential fairly quickly. Very soon, it takes 5 hours and then 20 hours of game time before you can gain a level. The game works by giving you instantaneous gratification upfront and leading you down a slippery slope.” – Nick Yee

Escalating Difficulty

We love gradually increasingly challenges. Paced at the right difficulty and interval, they help us to develop a sense of mastery.

Citing Russian psychological research on the hugely addictive game Tetris (which I was addicted to in the past), Alter wrote that people are most motivated when the material they’re learning is just beyond reach of their current abilities.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Known as the “zone of proximal development”, constantly exposure could trigger “flow” – defined by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as an euphoric sense of joy of rapture when they enter “the zone”.

Experts term this the ludic loop. You enter a ludic loop when you enjoy the brief thrill of solving a piece of a puzzle, and immediately after, a new and incomplete piece presents itself.

Cliffhangers and the Zeigarnik Effect

Have you been binge watching on Netflix recently? You’re probably drawn to the cliffhangers which introduced in each episode of your favourite serial.

I learned that the phrase cliffhanger first came from a 1969 movie called The Italian Job. In the movie, a minibus veered off a mountain road and teetered dangerously on the edge of a cliff. It see-sawed as the 11 thieves tried to reach their stolen gold at the other end of the vehicle to hair-raising effect.

One of the men crawled towards the gold, rolled onto his back, and said calmly to his companions: “Hang on a minute, lads. I’ve got a great idea.” The movie then ends. Watch it here:

This phenomenon is characterised by what’s called the Zeigarnik Effect, which is defined as “the tendency to experience intrusive thoughts about an objective that was once pursued and left incomplete.” It is widely used in films and television serials, and is the reason why Harry Potter gained such a phenomenal following during its run.

Social Interaction and Connection

Last, but certainly not least, behavioural addictions are fed through social interactions and connections.

Social networks like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and Snap are addictive primarily because every activity you post either attracts – or doesn’t – likes, shares (or retweets), comments and clicks.

Our love for social feedback catapulted the website Hot or Not to a stratospheric two million hits a day when it first arrived on the scene. Visitors weren’t just rating photos, but were uploading their own as they were curious to know what the online world thinks of their “hotness”.

Appealing to socially awkward teens and youths, this sense of community is responsible for spurring the massive growth in MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) like World of Warcraft and many others like them.

How To NOT Be An Addict

So what can you do to address these factors leading to addiction?

In the book Irresistible, Alter recommends that you nip the problem from young by managing the screen time of your kids (here are some ways to do so), rewire your habits so that you consciously change our routine whenever we are presented with a cue (more here), and create the right environment to break the chains of addiction.

You could also use gamification in a positive manner. For example, it could be used to sharpen business strategy, motivate employees, and strengthen customer loyalty. However, such experiences should not be over-enhanced to the degree that they become not just indispensable but addictive.

Learn more about digital addiction (and how you can prevent it) at MLC’s website here.

By Walter
Founder of Cooler Insights, I am a geek marketer with almost 24 years of senior management experience in marketing, public relations and strategic planning. Since becoming an entrepreneur 5 years ago, my team and I have helped 58 companies and over 2,200 trainees in digital marketing, focusing on content, social media and brand storytelling.


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