David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Irresistible, Not Irritable!

July 5, 2018

For Father's Day, my wife gave me Adam Alter's Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.  Within a half dozen pages, I was thoroughly depressed and not sure I could read the whole thing.  It is fairly sobering to read in the book's prologue, drawing from the "never get high on your own supply" mantra of the drug dealer, that Steve Jobs "refused to let his kids use [an iPad];" that video game designers "avoided the notoriously addictive . . . World of Warcraft;" and that "an exercise addiction psychologist called fitness watches dangerous" (p.2).  I only engage with one of those three examples, and the inclusion of just it (the iPad, or more accurately now, my iPhone) made me seriously question if I, too, have a behavioral addiction--the ultimate focus of Alter's book.

Eventually I stuck with the book. I found solace in the fact that I used few, and was hooked to fewer (the aforementioned iPhone, Facebook, email), of the book's many examples. In most of the cases (Twitter, World of Warcraft, Instagram, Netflix, Farmville, CandyCrush, just to name a relatively small number of examples), I have never even been tempted.  And, perhaps in the greatest case of divine intervention in my life since this time last year, the Fitbit I reluctantly asked for as a Father's Day gift was never purchased.  I believe my wife was a bit shocked by how expensive it was; this book has merely reinforced for me a greater cost that may have been associated with it.

However, here's the interesting thing: as I got further into the book, I wondered why education, especially higher education, wasn't able to take advantage of the average person's susceptibility to behavioral addiction.  Having returned a week ago from a Higher Learning Commission Retention Workshop, I have to admit that the on-going challenge of retaining students who can't seem to be interested enough in their own education, or the rewards that would come from it, occupied much of my thoughts at the same time as reading of these addictions.

On the surface, the creators of World of Warcraft, Facebook, Netflix, etc., appear to have tapped into  "ingredients" (to use Alter's word) that higher education should offer college students:

  • "compelling goals that are just beyond reach."
  • "irresistible and unpredictable positive feedback." 
  • "a sense of incremental progress and improvement."
  • "tasks that become slowly more difficult over time."
  • "unresolved tensions that demand resolution."
  • "strong social connections" (p. 9).

In describing escalation (tasks that become slowly more difficult over time), Alter references Paco Underhill's (and is that a name for the ages!) research, via retail store camera footage, that the "butt-brush effect" subconsciously drives people out of a store without purchasing anything.  When aisles were packed too tightly together and people brushed against each other, they regularly left the store almost immediately without making their purchases.  Even when questioned later about why they left, most of these butt-brushed couldn't even articulate why they had left.  Underhill coined the term "stopping rule" to describe this effect.

With the echoes of the Higher Learning Commission workshop still in my head, I asked myself, "how do I find out SMC's butt-brush moments.  What are our stopping rules?"  (HLC had called them the much more mundane "landmines, mindsets, and myths" that caused students to feel disconnected from our institutions.)

For the record, SMC has a damn good wellness program, and with running trails and a beautiful work-out facility, we have done our best to reduce the sheer volume of individual butt that might brush against a student.  Surely we have other less interesting, but more pertinent, stopping points.

I will put on my to-do list "look for butt-brushing" examples. Let's hope I don't get FOIA'd. 

Until then, I go back and think about those 6 ingredients. 

  • I am not sure colleges provide a "compelling" goal just out of reach. The most compelling of goals, graduation and a credential, are hardly "just within reach."
  • Some of us, meaning some colleges, and then some faculty as a second group, offer plenty of feedback.  However, I am hard-pressed to say it is always positive; it's only unpredictability may simply be feedback timelines; and there is no way I will argue for "irresistible."
  • Assignments within courses and the courses themselves should provide the incremental progress and improvement. However, given the first two ingredients are lacking, this might be akin to saying I have the dark, unsweetened chocolate to make fudge, but without anything else, it really isn't palatable.
  • Our students' tasks through college are meant to become more difficult over time, but we probably lack in consistency for these.
  • Whatever unresolved tensions that demand resolution are almost always non-curricular.  A cliffhanger on a college campus is usually something we don't embrace. Trust me on that one.
  • We all spend lots of time trying to build the strong social connections.  However, for those of us who eschew Greek life and athletics, this is a real stumbling block.

Near the end of his book, after Alter has pretty much made me depressed for the human race, he does suggest that education (citing an example from both secondary education and from higher education) can embrace the positives of this addictive technology without sacrificing the greater good. These are achieved by the conscious scaffolding of "behavioral architecture"--"redesign[ing an] environment so temptations are as close to absent as possible" (p. 273).  Alter's example from Higher Ed is Rochester School of Technology's (of course) School of Interactive Games and Media (professors give their students a series of voluntary quests).

However, how do I build a perfect addictive college experience that transcends the gaming atmosphere of a games department?  For one thing, I challenge faculty all over the country to embrace positive cliffhangers: end that first class session with a cliffhanger that will only be resolved in the next class, and just keep repeating the end-of-class cliffhanger pattern. I would think this is easiest in history classes, where exciting moments of tension occur all the time (as we all wait to see the resolution of the Trump years), but could easily be done in economics, psychology, pharmacology, and stats classes, just to name a few.

I also believe we could embrace a philosophy of feedback that hinged more on the irresistible and unpredictable. Alter describes the value of "juice--the layer of surface feedback [that] isn't essential to the game, but . . . is essential to the game's success" (p.37). Think of the flashing lights and melodic tones of slot machines.  Hell, we could start by just loading a "like" button on the learning management system.

The most disturbing part of Alter's book is in the section on progress, where the fear of "ending" something "badly" over-rides any common sense we might have about our odds of winning.  He describes a "dollar auction game" where the "the auctioneer auctions off a dollar bill to the highest bidder, with the understanding that both the highest bidder and the second highest bidder will pay" (p.150).

You may have to stop to process that.

If I bid 95 cents and you bid 90 cents, you get nothing.  Why would any fool participate in such a game? And yet people would (or do), because after awhile you can't bear being the one who comes in second.  I wasn't sure I quite understood it until he described the way this phenomenon plays out in gaming, where "down-the-line charges" turn a free game into an investment for the player "hours deep into the game" and not wanting to "admit defeat." Sometimes we continue playing "to avoid feeling unhappy." (Private message to Steve and Tim: think back to Steve's use of a recent spirit cake.)

Man, we have unhappy students all over the place. How do we milk that?

This has turned into one of the weirdest blogs I have written. I started with every (usual) intention to ridicule, to poke fun, to lambaste, and yet throughout I step back and say "why can't this work?"  Ultimately, at a time in human history when we all seem so damn willing to succumb to behavioral addictions, why should higher education be the one industry most unwilling to take advantage of it?  Don't claim we should take an ethical or moral stance on this; we lost our higher moral ground 4000 Larry Nassars ago.

*Alter, Adam. Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Penguin: 2017.