Growing up, Nir Eyal was a fat child; so fat, in fact, that his fatness is the defining memory of his childhood.
“I was clinically obese,” he tells me, speaking down a crackling phone line from New York. “I weigh as much now as I did when I was 11-years-old,” he laughs. “I lived in Orlando, FL in a condominium complex where all the kids played in the pool. I would be the only kid who would never take off their shirt because I didn’t want anyone to see my rolls. That experience was pretty life-defining.”
In fact, that experience became the springboard for his lifelong quest to understand human habits: how they’re formed, how they’re broken – and, crucially, how they can be harnessed. “Yeah, if I stop and look back on it, I think being fat started me down this path.”
Eyal is no longer obese. In fact, if the video from his 2015 TED talk – “What makes technology so habit forming” – is anything to go by, he’s pretty lean. And kinda hot.
But his fascination with how humans get hooked on certain pastimes never abated. From Orlando he went to Silicon Valley.
“I was at Stanford Business School in 2007 when I co-founded a gaming advertising business with two friends,” he explains. “By the time the company was acquired, I’d developed this hypothesis about how habits were going to really matter to the future of business – and I wanted to understand how to build habit-forming products. But I couldn’t find any books on the subject. So I started doing my own research and publishing it on my blog.”
One of Eyal’s old Stanford professors saw his blog and decided it would make an interesting graduate course. Stanford was, after all, the university where Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page had studied, the very same university from which Elon Musk had dropped out after only two days. By the time Eyal began teaching it had become the beating heart of Silicon Valley, pumping out fresh grads to keep companies like Google and Facebook thriving. And a course on “behavioural engineering” – basically, how to design habit-forming apps – made perfect sense.
In 2013 he released Hooked: How To Build Habit Forming Products, a tome based on his teachings. It quickly gathered a cult following among app and website designers who wanted to harness Eyal’s pseudo-witchy power over the human mind. MIT Technology Review even called him “Silicon Valley’s most visible advocate of habit-forming technology.”
In years gone by many conversations about technology were couched in the language of addiction, and many still are – we use social media “compulsively” and “binge” Netflix. But the onus was always on us all-too-easily-distracted simpletons who used the apps, rather than on the creators who make them so damn useable. Then, last year the World Health Organisation included “gaming disorder” in the International Classification of Diseases. It is “characterised by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence…” Accompanying this news were countless articles about young people whose lives had been destroyed by their uncontrollable desire to game.
In this context, Eyal’s expertise began to look a little, well, sinister. After all, he was the tech-guru academic who’d written the manual on how companies could game that very gaming disorder. But with his new tome, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, he claims to be putting the power back in our hands. Here he explains why most of us aren’t actually addicted to tech and what tech companies should be doing to help those of us who are.
What were you like as a child?
Fat. That might be my most memorable and defining trait. I think that’s really what started me down this path. I remember feeling out of control and powerless about it. I understand now that I wasn’t eating because I was hungry. I was eating my feelings, as many people do. I was overeating so that I could feel something different. I learned more about nutrition and calories and started to be more mindful of what I ate. And I came through that experience feeling like: “Oh, as delicious as the food manufacturers make their food, if I take certain steps, I can get some semblance of control over it.” I think that was a very helpful life experience.
So that links to what you say in your new book, that tech is easy to reach for instead of feeling certain things?
Yeah. I mean, I wouldn’t say that tech isn’t addictive. I would say it’s not addictive to everyone – and that’s true for all things that are potentially addictive. Many of us have wine with dinner but we’re not all alcoholics. Not everyone who has sex is a sex addict. Not everyone who plays poker is a problem gambler.
But it does seem like a lot of us have a problem controlling our use of social media or games.
Certainly there are some people who become addicted to social media, just like there are some who get addicted to food. Those folks tend to be a special category. I don’t think I was ever an addict, but I was an over-user. That’s what we see today… people who have the pathology of addiction. This is where we get a lot of confusion and where addiction unfortunately becomes politicised when it shouldn’t be.
It’s a pathology. It shouldn’t be something that we can throw around lightly. I think that when we call everything “addictive”, the term loses its meaning, so two bad things happen. One, we don’t give proper respect to people who are struggling with the pathology and need special assistance. And two, it disempowers everyone else. The fact is that 95 to 99 percent of the population is not addicted to social media or food or very much else. What we are is distracted by it perhaps. But when we change the terminology words really matter. To call something “addictive” – now there’s a pusher, there’s a dealer, there’s someone doing it to us. Whereas if we call it what it is – a “distraction” or “overuse” – now that means it’s something we can take personal control over and should do something about.
But where’s the line between making sure the consumer feels empowered to make their own choices and pushing responsibility onto them? Isn’t that just saying it’s our own fault for being manipulated and getting hooked?
I hear you. I think it’s important to realise that there are two protected classes of people and I think the number one is children. Children are a class of people that we have all kinds of special protections around. I wouldn’t let my daughter order a gin and tonic – she’s only 11 years old. I wouldn’t let her gamble in a casino. There’s certain media I wouldn’t let her access – there are films and books that she’s not ready for. Children deserve special protection both by their parents and by the law.
And the second class which is not currently legally protected, but I think should be, are people who are pathologically addicted. I believe that if a company knows someone is struggling with addiction, they have a responsibility to help.
How might they do that?
Tech companies know. They have personal, identifiable information, and they could, if they so choose, reach out to people who use a product excessively.
What I have proposed for over four years now is what I call a “use and abuse policy”. But first we need to work out what the limits should be. Like, how many hours on Facebook or Instagram or TikTok would you have to spend before they reach out and say: “We see that you’ve been using this product in a way that may be consistent with an addiction. How can we assist?” The average Facebook user uses one hour a day across Facebook, Whatsapp or Instagram. The average American watches five hours of television a day. So where’s the real problem?
We need to get real about how we’re spending our time, not just beat up the new technologies because they’re new. Is watching a football match somehow morally superior to spending time on Instagram? I don’t think so. Neither is bad, neither is good. If it’s something that you do with intent there’s nothing [necessarily] wrong with it. If it’s something that you’re doing to escape your life problems or you do it compulsively and you can’t stop, and this harms you, then it may be a problem.
Once we’ve decided where the boundaries are, companies, I think, should take responsibility and reach out to consumers who use in a problematic way.
Your first book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-forming Products, came out in 2013. Six years later, there’s something a bit sinister about a tech book with that title. How do you feel about that?
The title was always meant to be a little bit provocative. That being said, my intention was never to help the social media companies or the gaming companies do what they do. Those are the people who I learned from. I took their examples, and used them to build my hypothesis. I didn’t teach them how to do it, they taught me. The reason I wrote the book was to democratise these techniques so that all sorts of companies can use them to build healthy habits. You can’t judge a book by its cover. Despite the fact that it was a provocative title, what’s actually in the book isn’t what people think.
How would you define “behavioural engineering”?
Behavioural design is using the principles of consumer psychology… to help build products which improve people’s lives or to help people redesign their own behaviours.
Do you think they made tech too compulsive?
You say “they” made it or “we” made it. But we want that. Consumers want products to be engaging. A lot of people don’t remember this but up until a few years ago, we complained about how technology wasn’t user-friendly. And now we got what we wanted. We wanted technology that was easy to use, that was engaging. It’s ridiculous to ask otherwise. Do we want to tell Netflix: “Please stop making your shows so interesting?” That’s not a problem, it’s progress. But the price of that progress is that we have to learn some techniques to put it in its place.
I don’t want to live in a world without Facebook and I don’t want to live in a world without alcohol. Both of these things can be addictive to some people but I don’t want to go back to prohibition. It’s silly. I want choice, options and well-made products. In a few years this is going to seem commonplace. We’re going to learn these techniques very quickly – we already have.
Basically, I don’t think tech is nearly as addictive as it’s convenient to think.