As a bookworm-turned-nomophobia-turning-psychology-enthusiast, I’ve been trying to understand human’s behaviors. One of the topics that interest me most, is why we can’t just look away from our screens. I came across the book Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Hooked by Adam Alter. It is a pretty recent book (published in Match 2017) written by a young professor (36 years old then) so I decided to give it a shot. It turns out to be really worth the time.

Irresistible Book CoverIrresistible Book Cover

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Ingredients of Addiction
    1. 1. Goals
      1. Why?
      2. Then how?
    2. 2. Feedback
    3. 3.Progress
    4. 4. Escalation
    5. 5. Cliffhangers
    6. 6. Social
  3. Future and Possible Solutions
  4. Epilogue
  5. Summary


  • Addiction consists of (more than one of these) six ingredients:
    1. Compiling goals just beyond reach. E.g., video games; social medias because of need of social connection.
    2. Irresistible and unpredictable positive feedback. E.g., video games, needn’t mention why; social medias being “liked”.
    3. A sense of incremental progress and Improvement. E.g., video games; wearable devices and workout apps.
    4. Escalation: tasks that becomes slowly harder overtime.
    5. Cliffhangers: unsolved tensions that demand resolution. E.g., TV series binge-watching.
    6. Strong social connections.
  • Addiction isn’t just a physical response; it is how you respond to that physical experience psychologically. So no one else can turn you into an addict.
  • What is addiction: it has to be something you enjoy doing in the short term, that undermines your well-being in the long term — but that you do compulsively anyway.
  • We’re biologically prone to getting hooked on these sorts of experiences. If you put someone in front of a slot machine, their brain will look qualitatively the same as when they take heroin. If you’re someone who compulsively plays video games — not everyone, but people who are addicted to a particular game — the minute you load up your computer, your brain will look like that of a substance abuser.
  • The late Steve Jobs said in a 2010 interview that his own children didn’t use iPads. Chris Anderson, the former editor of WIRED, enforced strict time limits on every device in his home, “because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand.” His five children were never allowed to use screens in their bedrooms. Evan Williams, a founder of Blogger, Twitter, and Medium, bought hundreds of books for his two young sons, but refused to give them an iPad. And Lesley Gold, the founder of an analytics company, imposed a strict no-screen-time-during-the-week rule on her kids. She softened her stance only when they needed computers for schoolwork. In fact, there are a surprising number of Silicon Valley titans who refuse to let their kids near certain devices. There’s a private school in the Bay Area and it doesn’t allow any tech — no iPhones or iPads. The really interesting thing about this school is that 75 percent of the parents are tech executives.
  • Facebook has an endless feed; Netflix automatically moves on to the next episode in a series; Tinder encourages users to keep swiping in search of a better option. Users benefit from these apps and websites, but also struggle to use them in moderation. According to Tristan Harris, a “design ethicist,” the problem isn’t that people lack willpower; it’s that “there are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self-regulation you have.”

Ingredients of Addiction

1. Goals


  • Numbers pave the way to obsession. E.g., all those analytics and records of how much you use the app.
  • How long do you think the average office email goes unread? I guessed ten minutes. The truth is just six seconds.
  • By one estimate, it takes up to 25 mins to become re-immersed in an interrupted task.
  • If you approach life as a sequence of milestones to achieve, you are in a state of nearly continuous failure.
  • But today, goals visit themselves upon us, uninvited. Sign up for a social media account, and soon you’ll seek followers and likes. Create an email account, and you’ll forever chase an empty inbox. Wear a fitness watch, and you’ll need to walk a certain number of steps each day. Play Candy Crush and you’ll need to break your existing high score. If your pursuit happens to be governed by time or numbers—running a marathon, say, or measuring your salary—goals will come in the form of round numbers and social comparisons. You may find you want to run faster and earn more than other people, and to beat certain natural milestones. Running a marathon in 4:01 will seem like a failure, as will earning $99,500. These goals pile up, and they fuel addictive pursuits that bring failure or, perhaps worse, repeated success that spawns one new ambitious goal after another.

Then how?

  • Live your life by systems, “something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run”.
  • Goals functions like placeholders that propel you forward when the daily systems that run your life are no longer fulfilling.

2. Feedback

  • Lovematically is an app designed to like every picture that rolled through its users’ news feeds. On Valentine’s Day 2014, the founder allowed 5000 users to download it and the app was shut down after only 2 hours. Chawla said, “Using drug terminology, you know, Instagram is the dealer and I’m the new guy in the market giving away the drug for free.”
  • Other examples like slot machines, VR, etc.


  • Dollar Auction shows how an early hook fuels many addictive behaviors.
  • Game designers use color coding to find out which part of the game is most addictive.
  • Beginner’s luck (新手光环) is a powerful hook.

4. Escalation

  • People don’t seem to be embrace ease when you give them a choice.

  • Why some degree of hardship is essential: to some extent we all need losses and difficulties and challenges, because without them the thrill of success weakens gradually with each new victory. That’s why people spend precious chunks of free time doing difficult crosswords and climbing dangerous mountains—because the hardship of the challenge is far more compelling than knowing you’re going to succeed.

  • The zone of proximal development is deeply motivating. Addictive experiences live in the sweet spot between “too easy” and “too hard”. You don’t just learn efficiently; you also enjoy the process. Famous known as the flow:

Flow ChannelFlow Channel

5. Cliffhangers

  • Examples like Netflix binge-watching, making people need to actively check box, etc.

6. Social

  • People are endlessly driven to compare themselves to others. We take photos to capture memories that we’ll revisit privately, but primarily to share those memories with others. In the 1980s, that meant inviting friends over to watch slides of your recent vacation, but today that means uploading photos of your vacation in real time. What makes Facebook and Instagram so addictive is that every activity you post either does—or doesn’t—attract likes, regrams, and comments. If one photo turns out to be a dud, there’s always next time. It’s endlessly renewable because it’s as unpredictable as people’s lives are themselves.
  • People are never really sure of their own self-worth, which can’t be measured as height, or weight, or income. We’re social beings that can’t ever completely ignore what other people think of us. And more than anything, inconsistent feedback drives us nuts.
  • Bad is stronger than good“ principle in psychology: scroll to the negative reviews on Amazon, TripAdvisor and Yelp, because nothing cements an opinion like sharp criticism. You are also more likely to remember bad events from past.
  • A dud photo that attracts only three likes on Instagram is a bit like a Barry Manilow shirt (bad looking shirt). It’s embarrassing to its owner, who assumes that other users are staring and laughing, when in fact they’re far more concerned with their own photos, or at least with the endless line of photos that come before and after the “Manilow” shot.

Future and Possible Solutions

  • Hardship inoculation: this is the idea that struggling with a mental puzzle—trying to remember a phone number or deciding what to do on a long Sunday afternoon—inoculates you against future mental hardships just as vaccinations inoculate you against illness. Reading a book, for example, is harder than watching the TV. There is good early evidence to support the idea that small doses of mental hardship are good for us. Young adults do much better on tricky mental puzzles when they’ve solved difficult (rather than easy) ones earlier.
  • Motivative interviewing: the key to motivational interviewing is getting the costs and also the benefits of the addictive behavior on the table. We all know how terrible addiction is, but it also has benefits, and this tends to be the most meaningful part of the puzzle. Unpacking the behavior’s benefits is great because then you can understand the underlying needs that the behavior addresses.
  • Suppression alone doesn’t work—but suppression paired with distraction works pretty well. The key to overcome addictive behaviors, then, is to replace them with something. You can confine addictive experiences to one corner of your life, while courting good habits that promote healthy behaviors.
  • Recent studies have shown that merely looking at an illuminated screen shortly before bed severely hampers your ability to sleep deeply.
  • Behavioral architecture: it acknowledges that you can’t escape temptation completely. Whatever’s nearby will have a bigger impact on your mental life than whatever is farther away. Proximity is so powerful that it even drives which strangers you’ll befriend. Just as we tend to befriend strangers who are nearby, we are also drawn to whatever temptation happens to with arm’s reach. You may be an adult now, but the future version of you is more like a child. The best way to wrest control from your childish future self is to act while you’re still an adult—to design a world that compels your future self to do the right thing. Rewards are a lot more fun than punishments, but if you’re looking to change a habit small punishments or inconveniences are often more effective.


  • We can’t abandon technology, nor should we. Some technological advances fuel behavioral addiction, but they are also miraculous and life enriching. And with careful engineering they don’t need to be addictive. It’s possible to create a product or experience that is indispensable but not addictive. Workplaces, for example, can shut down at six—and with them work email accounts can be disabled between midnight and five the next morning. Games, like books with chapters, can be built with natural stopping points. Social media platforms can “demetricate,” removing the numerical feedback that makes them vehicles for damaging social comparison and chronic goal-setting. Children can be introduced to screens slowly and with supervision, rather than all at once.


It is a great book about tech addiction. By understanding the neuroscience and psychology part of behavioral addictions, we can do better to cope with them. The book says half of the developed world is somehow addictive to at least one of such behaviors, yet I believe in China, it is even worse. People stare at their phones every where. Dunno why. But we all know life shouldn’t be like that.

I recommend everyone should spend one afternoon reading the book.

Here is also a good post about nomophobia to get start: