Just months after the first iPhone was released in 2007, Nir Eyal and some of his Stanford classmates were part of a project creating apps that would be advertised and sold via Facebook.
This was before the app store existed and at a time when Facebook was open to third-party app developers.
The goal of the project was to learn about the psychology of Facebook and what drew people to it — or away from it.
Eyal served as the CEO of the business and within months the apps created by the class had 16 million users and they’d generated more than $1 million US in ad revenue. They understood how to design to create dependence.
While people may talk about being addicted to their phones or to social media, the reality is that they are dependent on those products because they’re designed that way.
Those products are designed to get you hooked.
Creating the habit
The group at Stanford, informally known as “The Facebook Class,” went on to work at Silicon Valley giants like Facebook and Google.
Eyal teaches, consults and writes about the intersection of psychology, business and technology. He’s the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.
“Of course these devices and apps are hacking our attention. That’s what they’re designed to do,” Eyal told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.
He says that five years ago, even he was hooked.
“I would check my phone when I meant to be with my daughter. I would check my phone when I meant to do a project at work. I would check my phone just for any old reason,” said Eyal. “And that actually caused me to reconsider my relationship with distraction.”
Eyal uses an example from the behavioural work of psychologist B. F. Skinner to explain how devices and apps are designed to become habit-forming.
Skinner taught pigeons to tap a disc in order to get a pellet of food. The food was their reward.
Eventually, Skinner changed the pattern so that the pigeons would get their rewards inconsistently. The birds might tap the disc but would not always get a food pellet.
“What Skinner observed was that the rate of response the number of times the pigeons pecked at the disc increased when the reward was given on a variable schedule of reinforcement,” explained Eyal.
“We see the same, what we call intermittent rewards, in all sorts of things. It’s what makes gambling so engaging. It’s what makes the news interesting,” he said. “It’s what you don’t already know.”
The same desire for intermittent reward apply to books, movies and sports – the outcome is unpredictable.
“And of course, it’s at the core of many habit forming products online like social media, email, Google searches. All of these things utilize an intermittent reinforcement.”
That unpredictability is why users keep checking Facebook and Twitter and Instagram – will there be any likes? Will there be any retweets? What’s trending?
Sounding the alarm
Chamath Palihapitiya was a Facebook executive in the company’s earlier years. Today he’s a venture capitalist and a critic of social media.
In a talk at Stanford University in late 2017, Palihapitiya acknowledged that while it wasn’t intentional by Facebook executives, “I think in the back of the deep, deep recesses of our minds we kind of knew that something bad could happen.”