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The Psychology of Addiction or How We Are Getting Hooked to Tech Products

by - 19 July

Most people check their phones 150 times a day. About 80% of smartphone users check their mobile devices within 15 minutes of waking up each morning. How digital companies are building so addictive products? Nir Eyal, an investor and entrepreneur has spend 3 years of his life crystallizing an answer. The result is his best-selling book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. It gives an overview of one of the most interesting battles in modern business: the intense competition to create new digital products that monopolise people’s attention, writes The Economist. 

In this talk we had some years ago Nir revealed the patterns that explain why some products are incredibly sticky and others - not so much, and how companies like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram became masters of engagement.

Nir, which are the masters of "habit-forming" products?
Email, Apple products, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, WhatsApp, Slack.

If you think about email it's a great example of what I would call the the "mother of habit forming technology". Email incorporates these four steps: a trigger, action, reward,  investment. And through successive cycles through these hooks, this is how consumer habits get formed.
Why email is so addictive? The email's hook starts with an internal trigger.

The external trigger of email is when you get some kind of notification that tells you: "Hey you just received an email from somebody". The action phase - the next step of the hook, is opening the app.

The reward - the third step of the hook, is all around these social rewards or who wrote to me. "The reward of the hunt" is what's actually in the message. And then there's also this "reward of the self" around clearing your inbox, this keeps us engaged time and time again. And then finally the investment phase is replying. So every time you send someone email response you're loading the next trigger for you to receive an external trigger in the future. And you're also creating a mental association with an internal trigger for that every time you have a few minutes and you're bored or you're feeling unproductive, the first thing you do is check email time and time again.

Why do some products engage us more than others? You said that better products are not necessarily the successful ones. Why is that?
The reason is habits. The products that can keep us continue using them with little or no conscious thought, are the ones that win. Sometimes it's not the best product, it's just the product that's the stickiest,  the ones that created the mental association for us to use them without thinking.

Are the negative emotions the strongest triggers?

Negative emotions are the most frequent internal triggers. And these internal triggers are that prompt us into actions. So when we're feeling bored, we check YouTube. When we're lonely, we're on Facebook. When we are uncertain, we google. And so these negative emotions, these are pain points. These are things that the user doesn't want to experience in their life and so they're looking for a solution. They're looking for something to take away that pain. And that's why they're such frequent internal triggers.

Do these companies really offer us solutions to our problems or just distract us from them? Because if we go to Facebook, when we feel lonely, don't we feel lonelier after that?
That's the big question. So we don't know the long-term impact of these habits. And we are the guinea pigs,  where the test generation right now. Because we don't know the long-term impact. Remember, we used to think that cigarettes were healthy a long time ago, right? We had this misconception that  cigarettes are  good for us. And Ronald Reagan used to be on television dressed like a doctor telling Americans that they should smoke this particular pack of cigarettes because it's better for them.
Now we know that cigarettes are very bad for us. But we haven't had the time to figure out if these products are good for us or bad, if these habits help us or hurt us. That is a big reason why I wrote this book. I wanted to expose the fact that the people's behavior and habits around these products are not by mistake, they're not a coincidence. They occur by design. These products are built to be engaging, to be habit. But they can create unhealthy habits in people. And so it's only by understanding these steps of the hook and how these products are so persuasive, that we can do something about it, and choose to use them as opposed to having these products use us.

How could we break the hook with these technologies?
So the first step is to recognize what's going on, to understand these four steps of the hook and then to break the hook. I'll give you an example. I was noticing that every night my wife and I were going to bed later and later, and we weren't having any time to be intimate together, because I was busy scrolling on my phone, and she was fondling her iPad, and we weren't having any time for each other.
So I decided to take a look at the hook and to think of a way to break the hook. So I went to the hardware store and I bought a very inexpensive timer. I plug my internet router into this timer so every night at 10pm my internet shuts off. So what did that do - it broke the hook, so now every time I feel the trigger of what's happening online and and should I check Facebook, and Twitter, and I'm stressed about my meeting tomorrow, and I want to go online to try and do something about it, I can't. It's a little bit more difficult. I can't go to action phase.

Where's the line between manipulation and habit-forming technology?
All of its manipulation. We manipulate people every day and we like to be manipulated. When we put on makeup, when we dressed nice, when we act a certain way, or casting a certain image in order to persuade people, in order to manipulate people, when we go to a movie theater we know that it's just flashing light on a screen and yet we suspend disbelief. We want to be manipulated and to believe that these stupid images on the screen are real people. We want to be persuaded, we want to be manipulated. And that's fine, there's nothing wrong with that.
What I believe though is that when we're designing these products and we're consuming these products, we need to be aware that these products do manipulate us.

Are we as consumers more easily manipulated in the digital era?
Sure, so the fact that there's a  feedback. What's different today, is that there's interactivity - the fact that we give companies data about us and our preferences, so that they can change the products faster to meet our needs. The products are customized based on our data and that's very new, that's just a recent development, which makes products potentially more addictive.
What's the first - the habit or the product?
Typically the entrepreneur will have this great idea but they might not have a way to bring people back and so that's where my work comes in handy. If you're building a product that hopefully is building a healthy habit, and you want people to come back on their own, then what my work would be, is to help you refine your product so that it can bring people back.

As our attention is so preoccupied today, do you think there is a space for new engaging products?
Yes, absolutely. There's never been a day when we've been done with innovation. There's still plenty of room for innovation, there's still lots of ways to engage users and to solve their problems.  I mean the point of all these habit-forming products is to give the users what they want, to help people live better, happier, healthier, more productive lives, by creating these habits, So I think there's still tons of opportunity.

If big businesses are relying on our emotions, what do you think will be the next Facebook?Good question. If I knew that, I would invest in it. Look a company like Facebook comes around once a decade, so it's not like there are many of them. But there are lots of these companies that are using habit-forming technology and becoming extremely valuable.

With emotion detection technologies, which could read our deepest feelings, what products could we expect?
That's a very interesting question. So I think one of the promises of wearable technology is that they can tell more about us. So you could envision a future where products can tell our emotional situation. There could be a day where when you're feeling tense, the product responds  to you and provides you with some kind of support or assistance to end your stress in some way.
I don't think we're very far from a future where these products know that we're feeling a certain way before we even do so.

In a speech you gave you said that products become more valuable with use. Why's that? Is is the same with Facebook? Is this why it's so difficult for most of the people to delete their account?
The investment phase, the fourth step of the hook, is all about putting something into the product in anticipation of a future reward, that's the investment phase. So the reason that investments are so important is, that they they make the product better and better the more you use it. Most businesses have a very tough time with this, because they think their business is purely transactional, they get people to do what they want from the product and then leave. And that's a mistake. What habit forming product do, is that they ask the user to put something into the product - some bit of work into the product. On Facebook it's photos, it's friends, it's comments, it's likes. All of this data makes the product better and better, the more we use it. The product literally changes for you. 

How these digital products could evolve in the future?
I think we're going to see the feedback loop happen faster. We're going to see products that path people through the four steps of the hook at more and more rapid paces, which means that the world is going to become potentially more addicted place. This isn't going away. This trend of products becoming more and more addictive is going to certainly continue.

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