Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter (Penguin Press, New York 2017)

Nobody in their right minds would now be anything but concerned about the rise of addictive behaviors, especially as they relate to digital electronic devices. These days it is common to see human beings engaged mostly with their smartphones, i-pads and computers, referring to them constantly as animals pace their cages. Distinguished from substance addictions, behavioral addictions were always thought to operate on different neurological principals and to be, therefore, less harmful and more easily conquered. New science, carefully documented in Alter’s new book, now confirms that behavioral addictions are real and exactly the same as substance addictions, operating on the same neurological bases and leading to the same obsessive environments.

As Alter writes: “There’s also a pattern that describes the brain of a drug addict when he injects heroin, and a second that describes the brain of a gaming addict as he fires up a new World of Warcraft quest. They turn out to be almost identical. Heroin acts more fire directly, generating a stronger response than gaming, but the patterns of neurons firing across the brain are almost identical. ‘Drugs and addictive behaviors activate the same reward center in the brain.’” This idea is new to science (confirmed by new entries in the DSM (Diagnostic Manual) and contradicts what psychologists and neuroscientists used to believe, which is that drug addiction is singular. But, in both drug addiction and behavioral addiction, the same chemical (dopamine) is released by a region deep inside the brain and which attaches itself to receptors that further produce a sharp increase in pleasure.

Casinos, grocery stores, game designers, fashion designers and many others utilize the new science of addiction to produce products that are inherently addictive. Zombie gamblers sit for hours in front of carefully constructed, devilishly designed and imaginatively formed, slot machines that drive gamblers with pre-disposed psychological lacks into a pattern of repetitive behaviors that are destructive to the person in the long run. How does all this work—how does one design a machine that can addict a person? Try—Goals, Feedback Progress, Escalation, Cliffhangers and Social Interaction, each principle carefully explained by Alter.  Alter’s book also makes a start at breaking the cycle of behavioral addiction. One of the keys is “Environmental architecture”. There is no such thing as a “born addict”. Instead, the society and its built environment produce addictions. It is with this architecture that one must begin to break the cycle.  Anyone concerned about the Zombies all around us should put down their device and read this important book.