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How Addictive Technology Keeps You Hooked with Professor Adam Alter

by Dr. Rangan Chatterjee   /  November 18, 2020

Do you find it hard to resist the ping of a new email, the urge to scroll on social media, or watch the next episode when streaming? Do you wish you could stop checking, clicking, liking and sharing? Then put down your phone and listen to this episode.

My guest today is Adam Alter, an associate professor of marketing and psychology, bestselling author of ‘Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and The Business of Keeping Us Hooked’ and an expert on the compulsive nature of technology. Adam explains how tech companies make it their business to know exactly how to keep us engaged for hours on end. He shares some of the hooks embedded in products to ‘catch’ us, such as variable reinforcement (those likes and shares on social media), goals and rewards, and a lack of stopping cues (there’s always another video cued up, another game level to play…). And how do they know all these techniques work? Big data. They simply look at what makes us click.

Tech giants prey on our capacity for ‘behavioural addiction’, which like other addictions can undermine our mental health and relationships. Playing with a phone is not just trivial distraction it can have real consequences, especially for our children – something that as a parent really concerns me. Adam suggests we should be teaching our kids ‘digital hygiene’ in schools and I couldn’t agree more.

Of course, there are many positive uses of tech, like education, admin, communicating with loved ones we can’t see in person. But when screen time starts to harm our wellbeing, Adam says we need to look at what psychological needs it’s meeting. What’s lacking in our lives that leads us to numb the discomfort by picking up that phone or tablet?

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Adam says, it is possible to live a rich, meaningful, healthy life in our tech-driven age. And we discuss some of the solutions we’re both using to wean ourselves and our families off screens. We agree it’s about intention, using tech where we need and enjoy it, but making a conscious decision to do without it at other times. Starting with an hour or two a day when you put your phone out of sight is a great example.

If, like me, you’ve recently watched The Social Dilemma, Netflix’s fascinating (and scary) take on persuasive technologies and surveillance capitalism, I think you’ll really appreciate Adam’s insights – and his reassurance that tech addiction is not a human failing.

Disclaimer: The content in the podcast and on this webpage is not intended to constitute or be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.*

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Watch the video version of this interview – click below.

'If you have to guess how much time you're spending on your phone, it's probably half of what you're actually using.' Share on X

Connect with Adam:

Website      Twitter  

Adam’s books:

Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and The Business of Keeping Us Hooked

Drunk Tank Pink: Subconscious forces that shape how we think, feel and behave

Adam’s TED talk:

Why Our Screens Make Us Less Happy

Further Reading:

Related Feel Better Live More podcast episodes:

Dr Chatterjee’s books and resources:


*DISCLAIMER: Always seek the advice of your doctor or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have heard on the podcast or on my website.

†Disclosure: All books marked with a † are hyperlinked to an affiliate program. We take part in Amazon’s affiliate advertising program designed to provide a way for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon’s website. You are not charged any extra by using these links to purchase books.

Dr. Rangan Chatterjee MbChB, BSc (Hons), MRCP, MRCGP