I’ve discovered this new podcast (new to me anyway) called “The Art of Charm.” Apparently it’s supposed to be for men only (their tag line is “Where ordinary guys become extraordinary men”), but I find the content really fascinating so I listen anyway.
Last night in my car, I started listening to an old episode, interviewing consumer psychologist Nir Eyal who wrote a book called “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.” He described the cycle of the “hook,” required to get a consumer addicted to a product. They were:
- The Trigger (e.g. an app you download on your phone suddenly starts sending you alerts);
- The Action (you respond to the trigger, anticipating some kind of reward — like you go check your Facebook newsfeed);
- The Variable Reward. This is the part I found most interesting: the concept that getting a reward all the time does not lead to addiction. It’s the fact that sometimes you get it and sometimes you don’t that leads to obsessive repetition. (e.g. maybe you see something that interests you on the feed and maybe you don’t, but the feed always changes.) And finally:
- Investment. This requires the user to do some work in anticipation of a future reward. (Like you post a status update.) This then sets you up for a future ‘trigger’ which now is internal rather than external (e.g. you’re obsessively checking your status in hopes that 150 people will ‘like’ it.)
Think about it. How many times a day do you check your social media profiles? If you have a smart phone, how many times an hour?
Eyal likens the concept of Variable Reward to an experiment in which one set of pigeons gets rewarded with food every time they peck at a disc, while another set sometimes gets rewarded with food for pecking, and sometimes doesn’t. The results: the pigeons that received food only sometimes pecked far more than did those who received the food without fail!
Personally, this makes me think of Pinterest even more than Facebook… even if the last 20 pins haven’t interested me, there’s always that chance that if I scroll down just a little lower, I’ll find something extraordinary! Right? …Before I know it, five minutes have turned into forty-five, and I’m like an hour past my bedtime. Total time vortex. (Now the only time I let myself get on Pinterest is on my phone if I’m waiting in line for something, so that there’s a definite end point. Plus, the time would have been wasted anyway.)
Addiction Beyond Social Media
What interested me most was that these concepts can apply to other types of addiction too. Think of gambling: you sit at a slot machine and pull the lever. Most of the time you lose, but every now and then you win… and when you win, the dopamine rush associated with that reward is pleasurable enough to keep you in the chair, long after you lose most (if not all) of what you won. What’s the message? Pull the lever just one more time… maybe the next time you’ll hit the jackpot!
This is a dumb example, but years ago I wondered what it was that made “Twilight” so addictive to young women. My theory: when they put themselves in Bella’s shoes, they, too, felt the variable reward of Edward’s behavior. One minute he’s saving her life; the next minute he’s giving her the cold shoulder. (Isn’t this the very reason why “players” manage to break so many hearts even when EVERYBODY warns the girl that he’s a jerk, while nice guys often get ignored until later in life? Or, on a darker note, isn’t this often the reason why women stay with abusers, because “they can be so sweet, you just don’t understand”?)
Grasping to put this into words to my friends at the time, I described the book like “crack”–both addictive and unhealthy. The first time I tried to read it, I made myself put it down—for a few years—until I started doing YA market research and read it again just to analyze what made it so “sticky.” I concluded that the draw came from the variable reward aspect of Edward’s behavior, but still lacked the language to describe it at the time. (I also decided that while I probably could write a book with that quality, I wouldn’t feel good about myself if I did.)
Where else do you see this “hook” cycle in action?