Thursday, November 03, 2016

The scientists who make apps addictive

A long article, interesting & informative.


Fogg called for a new field, sitting at the intersection of computer science and psychology, and proposed a name for it: “captology” (Computers as Persuasive Technologies). Captology later became behaviour design, which is now embedded into the invisible operating system of our everyday lives. The emails that induce you to buy right away, the apps and games that rivet your attention, the online forms that nudge you towards one decision over another: all are designed to hack the human brain and capitalise on its instincts, quirks and flaws. The techniques they use are often crude and blatantly manipulative, but they are getting steadily more refined, and, as they do so, less noticeable.

Fogg’s Atlanta talk provoked strong responses from his audience, falling into two groups: either “This is dangerous. It’s like giving people the tools to construct an atomic bomb”; or “This is amazing. It could be worth billions of dollars.”

The second group has certainly been proved right. Fogg has been called “the millionaire maker”. Numerous Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and engineers have passed through his laboratory at Stanford, and some have made themselves wealthy.

Fogg himself has not made millions of dollars from his insights. He stayed at Stanford, and now does little commercial work. He is increasingly troubled by the thought that those who told him his ideas were dangerous may have been on to something.


Fogg introduced me to one of his former students, Noelle Moseley, who now consults for technology companies. She told me that she had recently interviewed heavy users of Instagram: young women who cultivated different personas on different social networks. Their aim was to get as many followers as possible – that was their definition of success. Every new follow and every comment delivered an emotional hit. But a life spent chasing hits didn’t feel good. Moseley’s respondents spent all their hours thinking about how to organise their lives in order to take pictures they could post to each persona, which meant they weren’t able to enjoy whatever they were doing, which made them stressed and unhappy. “It was like a sickness,” said Moseley.

B.J. Fogg comes from a Mormon family, which has endowed him with his bulletproof geniality and also with a strong need to believe that his work is making the world a better place. The only times during our conversations when his tone darkened were when he considered the misuse of his ideas in the commercial sphere. He worries that companies like Instagram and Facebook are using behaviour design merely to keep consumers in thrall to them. One of his alumni, Nir Eyal, went on to write a successful book, aimed at tech entrepreneurs, called “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products”.

“I look at some of my former students and I wonder if they’re really trying to make the world better, or just make money,” said Fogg. “What I always wanted to do was un-enslave people from technology.”

When B.F. Skinner performed further experiments with his box, he discovered that if the rat got the same reward each time, it pulled the lever only when it was hungry. The way to maximise the number of times the rat pulled the lever was to vary the rewards it received. If it didn’t know whether it was going to get one pellet, or none, or several when it pulled the lever, then it pulled the lever over and over again. It became psychologically hooked. This became known as the principle of variable rewards.

In “Hooked”, Eyal argues that successful digital products incorporate Skinner’s insight. Facebook, Pinterest and others tap into basic human needs for connection, approval and affirmation, and dispense their rewards on a variable schedule. Every time we open Instagram or Snapchat or Tinder, we never know if someone will have liked our photo, or left a comment, or written a funny status update, or dropped us a message. So we keep tapping the red dot, swiping left and scrolling down.


The casinos aim to maximise what they call “time-on-device”. The environment in which the machines sit is designed to keep people playing. Gamblers can order drinks and food from the screen. Lighting, decor, noise levels, even the way the machines smell – everything is meticulously calibrated. Not just the brightness, but also the angle of the lighting is deliberate: research has found that light drains gamblers’ energy fastest when it hits their foreheads.

But it is the variation in rewards that is the key to time-on-device. The machines are programmed to create near misses: winning symbols appear just above or below the “payline” far more often than chance alone would dictate. The player’s losses are thus reframed as potential wins, motivating her to try again. Mathematicians design payout schedules to ensure that people keep playing while they steadily lose money. Alternative schedules are matched to different types of players, with differing appetites for risk: some gamblers are drawn towards the possibility of big wins and big losses, others prefer a drip-feed of little payouts (as a game designer told Schüll, “Some people want to be bled slowly”). The mathematicians are constantly refining their models and experimenting with new ones, wrapping their formulae around the contours of the cerebral cortex.


Things that aren’t important to a person are bound up with things that are very important: the machine on which you play games and read celebrity gossip is the one on which you’ll find out if your daughter has fallen ill. So you can’t turn it off or leave it behind.


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