Imagine a world where every business is addictive

You might be getting old if you question why so many people spend most of their time looking at their phones. Or, you might just be old. The average person spends about four hours a day gawking at their phone and the elderly spend about a quarter of their day looking at glowing screens.

Yesterday at a Rotary meeting the group at my table was opining about millennials when I chimed in to say, “Every generation ever has always complained about the generation before and after them.” Everyone nodded. But it didn’t stop the conversation.

“Yeah, but millennials are so ‘Me! Me! Me!” someone said.

“I think that pretty much describes everyone most of the time. Everyone always cares about themselves first,” I said.

One example I gave was a generation of men and women who spent time reading newspapers standing in line, at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and on the bus. In other words, they were passing time in one boring place by adding something more interesting to their drudgery.

If you question how this happened, you need to understand behavioral addiction. Don’t confuse behavioral addiction with substance addiction. Almost every American has a behavioral addiction. That might be greasy foods, intense exercise, or more aptly: screen use.

Irresistible, the Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping us Hooked by Adam Alter talks about this in more detail. In it he describes a behavior addiction consisting of:

  • Compelling goals just-out-of-reach
  • Irresistible and positive feedback
  • A sense of incremental progress and improvement
  • Tasks that become slowly more difficult over time
  • Unresolved tensions demanding resolution
  • Strong social connections

If you imagine a newspaper, it can give positive feedback, a sense of improvement, difficult tasks, and unresolved tensions and social connections. A phone does all that and amps it up, all while adding compelling goals (get more followers, for example), and much stronger sense of social connections. Whatever comes after a smartphone will have to dial all these triggers even higher.

Alter talks about how these things are dangerous – and they can be. I tend to think smartphone use is a natural evolution in the search for always being entertained or productive.

This knowledge could help businesses and nonprofits make more interesting decisions. How much more money could a nonprofit raise if the donors felt a more direct sense of incremental progress and improvement? How much more profitable could you be if your business relied on improving people’s social connections? How much better could a gym be if it used stronger social connections and helped people see progress and improvement, reach more goals, and get irresistible feedback?

These behaviors can be engineered for better or worse. It’s hard to imagine what comes after a smartphone. It’s not hard to imagine a future where more businesses and organizations are going to take the tricks of tech companies and apply it to a host of other industries.

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Photo of Justin Harter


Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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