Irresistible: Why we Can’t Stop Checking, Scrolling, Clicking and Watching by Adam Alter

Reviewed by Liz Dexter

Before: Phone on bedside table, checked for the time whenever I woke up and checked for emails / Facebook updates if I woke sufficiently; a “quick” go on my preferred PC-based game when I first got onto my computer, accompanied by a panicky feeling that I was delaying work or other important matters. After: Phone silent, on the stairs from 9pm, not looked at through the night. Better sleep. Game removed from PC. More productive. Readers, this book might actually have changed my life.

This is a book by a renowned and experienced scholar about the phenomenon of behavioural (as opposed to substance) addiction, particularly as it relates to our increasingly online, digital and on-demand lifestyles. It looks at various activities such as using Facebook, playing computer games, uploading photographs onto Instagram, counting steps on fitness trackers, checking work emails and watching Netflix series and the higher risk of addiction these bring by their very nature, whether that’s to getting through the levels on a game, seeing the number of “Likes” on a post, buying “bargains” on Internet auction sites or watching “just one more” episode of your new favourite TV series, helped by the fact that it automatically loads as you finish the last one, and by research on cliff-hangers. We pretty well all engage in at least some of these activities, and we are shown how their creators work very hard at producing these addictions – or not, in the case of the Flappy Birds inventor who withdrew his game when he realised how addictive it was.

We start with an explanation of behavioural addiction, including the surprising fact that it triggers the same brain chemistry reactions as substance addiction, if not so instantly and so strongly. It can be a true addiction, defined as something that is used to mask or otherwise “solve” a problem in someone’s life, to the detriment of some other part of their life, such as work, health or relationships. There’s a lot of explanation here, linking the two kinds of addiction, around how people continue to do something because they have to, rather than because they actually want to, etc. We also look at why some sites and activities become addictive and some don’t, discovering that it’s the social aspect that is most compelling (I can believe this; the cooperative games aspect of my PC game was the last that I was able to give up). The book also looks at the profound effect on children and teenagers of running all their relationships through digital rather than face-to-face means.

The book then offers some solutions, again with a solid base of referenced research to back it up. In this area, it’s a little more difficult to do the most effective thing, which is to remove yourself from the environment – the place – in which the addiction takes place, rather than relying on willpower alone (this is referred to as behavioural architecture). For example, unlike drug addicts who found it easy to stop once they were in a different country, it’s impossible to avoid email or your mobile phone. But there are things you can do, for example moving the phone physically away from you for periods of time (one of the researchers the author (eventually) speaks to makes a point of “losing” her phone regularly, and most of the gaming and tech people he interviews don’t allow their children handheld technology or games far past the age most standard people give in). There’s also a complicated way to avoid watching episode after episode of a programme that leaves you watching chunks of narrative that aren’t exactly aligned to the start and finish of the episodes.

Other ways of avoiding addiction centre around the creators of these games; for example, it’s good practice to make games that actually finish or have natural breaks rather than those (like Tetris) that have an “infinite format”. However, games producers are found to pay lip service to this concept, even when they do accept it, putting up a feeble warning or asking for a fee to continue playing the game (which just feeds into their main motivation for getting people addicted in the first place).

The last part of the book looks at the history of gamification – the act of making a game out of getting people to do a good thing. This uses the rewards of an addictive computer game (league tables, badges and progression and the like) to encourage people to be more active, etc. This is of course not a particularly new concept, but Alter looks at it from the inside and shows how tweaking these games in various ways which are not always foreseen initially will have a stronger effect.

This is a well-researched and well-backed-up book. Some of what it says isn’t exactly revolutionary, but it’s taking a balanced and careful look at the history of thought on these topics and offers both useful information and practical ways to avoid this modern set of addictions. The balance is seen in the author’s acceptance of how a fitness tracker can be both a great way to gamify and motivate someone getting into exercise and healthy living and an addiction which can leave someone injured as they try to get steps or miles at the expense of health. I did love the graphs of predicted and actual marathon times based on addictive behaviours around milestones and the author’s personal stories around this particular aspect of what he was looking at. He also writes in a balanced way about the ethics of earlier science in terms of experimenting on both animals and people: there are no strong statements but no pat acceptance, either.

Useful and maybe even essential reading.

Liz Dexter has been successful in keeping her mobile phone off her bedside table and Bejeweled Blitz off her PC since reading this book.  Her book review blog (nothing wrong with being addicted to reading; right?) is at Adventures in Reading, Writing and Working from Home.

Adam Alter, Irresistible: Why we Can’t Stop Checking, Scrolling, Clicking and Watching (The Bodley Head, 2017). 978-1847923578, 352 pp., hardback.

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