On Wednesday, February 19, the CDR welcomed nearly 300 people to the Gleacher Center as the Think Better Speaker Series returned with Adam Alter, an assistant professor of marketing at NYU’s Stern School of Business and the best-selling author of Drunk Tank Pink (2013) and Irresistible (2017), whose work explores the hidden forces that drive behavior.

For many of us, screens are rarely out of arm’s reach. Unlocking our devices and launching a favorite app has become a default activity, filling the smallest moments of down time. Alter’s talk, “Irresistible: The Rise of Screens and the War for Attention,” delved into the behavioral science behind our obsession. The amount of free time dedicated to screens, he noted, skyrocketed in the decade after the iPhone’s debut. By A/B testing faster and more effectively than ever, tech developers are able to create products optimized to be irresistible (or perhaps more charitably, to satisfy our preferences).

Alter categorizes our screen obsession as a behavioral addiction: “the drive to engage in an immediately rewarding behavior despite negative long-term consequences for physical, mental, social or financial well-being.” Examples include gambling, binge-watching, and compulsive social networking. Crucially, behavioral addictions are driven by experiences rather than substances. 

The audience watches Adam Alter's Think Better talk

The Science Behind Screen Obsession

Alter outlined three drivers of “irresistible screen addiction”:

  1. Removing Stopping Cues
  2. Feedback
  3. Goals

Stopping cues tell users that it’s time to take a break—the TV episode ends, you feel bored, you finish the article you were reading—but companies are increasingly working to remove friction to continued use. Netflix, for example, plays the next episode in a series by default.

Adam Alter with Abby Sussman

Alter also noted that many digital experiences are addicting because they provide feedback, micro rewards including social media likes, in-game bonuses, and the promise of fresh content. These carrots keep us engaged bit by bit.

Developers are also harnessing the power of goals to drive engagement—for example, getting to 10,000 daily steps on your wearable fitness tracker or continuing a streak of days using an app.

What Can We Do?

Alter emphasized balance and intentionality in order to achieve a healthier relationship with screens. He counseled giving ourselves “time and space” away from our devices.

“Physical barriers from your phone are often the best thing you can do,” he said.

In that vein, Alter discourages cell phone use in the bedroom or in classrooms (unless the course requires screens). Finally, Alter suggested “the single best antidote for time in front of screens” is time spent engaging the natural world.