Tuesday, June 14, 2011
The Drug Pusher in Your Family Room
Jun. 14 2011
Apple, Google, Electronic Arts, Zynga, Facebook, LinkedIn, Sony, Microsoft, Research In Motion (RIM), and Nintendo are all leveraging Darwin. And why not, when it makes for such good business?
For 150,000 generations — 2.5 million years — humankind has been evolving in physical space. In the process, evolution designed our brain chemistry to deal with the physical environment we find ourselves in. For example, when faced with a threat from a predator, our bodies were designed to release dopamine and cortisol into our systems. Elevated levels of dopamine can improve our ability to pay attention and focus. No wonder natural selection designed this response into our physical systems. Individuals whose bodies excelled at releasing dopamine were less likely to be eaten and could go on and produce more offspring with similar responses.
Well-designed video games and computer alerts appear capable of triggering these same chemical releases. When they do this, they are appropriating our brain chemistry designed for physical space and leveraging it for their purposes.
Dopamine appears to signal to us that we are going to enjoy what is about to happen. For this reason dopamine is believed to play a role in addictive behavior. We think it plays a similar role in compulsive behavior such as the need to check emails on Crackberries a popular nickname for RIM’s Blackberry phones.
Brain plasticity is a well-known phenomenon. When someone suffers a stroke, part of the brain may be impaired. During the recovery process, new neural circuits are completed and the brain rewires itself around the damaged area. Sometimes almost normal function can be restored. Learning new skills takes advantage of brain plasticity. Creating new neural circuits and strengthening old ones is part of the learning process. One reason kids are so good at multitasking is that they are wiring their brains to be good at task switching.
Brain plasticity is about training the brain but evolution is about designing it. The training of the brain and altering its pathways is a relatively rapid process. Evolutionary design of the brain takes place over thousands of generations. Or, put another way, while technology changes rapidly, we are stuck with our clunky, out-of-date brains. Our brains are designed for physical processes not virtual ones.
None of this would matter very much if we were not living in an Internet-driven, overconnected world. The reason is analytics. For example, the designers of social games such as Zynga monitor our behavior patterns while we’re playing their games. They then modify the games to make them more engaging. When they do this, they may not realize what they are doing but they are probably taking advantage of our dopamine response system. We don’t know for sure but we suspect this might be happening. So the providers of online services and entertainment who claim they collect all of this information to make their products more appealing and better service our needs may in fact be designing products and services that are addictive.
We know more about gambling addiction than Internet addiction, but the parallels are striking. Gamblers appear to get shots of dopamine in response to the random rewards involved in playing games of chance. There is every reason to believe that winning in the unpredictable environment social game providers design evokes the same type of response.
None of this should come as a surprise. These techniques have been used for decades. In 1957, Vance Packard wrote his classic book, The Hidden Persuaders. The book shocked readers, who discovered how consumer companies were, according to Packard, using advertising promises that were so compelling that they drove suggestible consumers to purchase products. If Packard had appreciated the role of dopamine, he probably would have accused consumer product companies of inducing addictive behavior. The difference between 1957 and today is that the Internet did not exist. It was expensive to collect detailed data that would effectively enable you to predict behavior and optimize the design of marketing campaigns.
Our Internet companies are discovering what drug dealers have known for a long time: addiction is good business. My guess is that when they throw around the words addictive behavior, it doesn’t dawn on them that they may be stimulating dopamine releases in their customers–the same releases that make cocaine so insidious.
I’d put my money on the probability that Crackberries, video games, virtual lives, texting and email can be the source of physical addiction — not for everyone but for a percentage of the population. For example, one study suggested that while virtually every regular cocaine user gets addicted only 4% of gamblers do.
The key thing to realize in our personal lives and the lives of our children that the minute we venture into virtual space, drug dealers may be lurking – not in a darkened alley, but right there in the family room.
Bill Davidow is the Founding Partner of Mohr, Davidow Ventures and the author of Overconnected: The Promise and Threat of the Internet. Forbes Magazine