Every day, we are flooded with tech products that are designed to be engaging. To stand out, creators need to make their products more compelling. While that’s a win for creativity and innovation, there’s actually a dark side to it. Adam Alter, New York Times best-selling author and marketing professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, investigates this dark side and shares his discovery on the impact of technology on our health, level of curiosity, and perception of reality. Catch his tips on how you can take control of your screen time before it becomes an addiction so you can spend your time with the things that truly make you happy.
We have Adam Alter here. He is not only a marketing professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, but he also has some amazing New York Times bestselling books. He’s author of Irresistible and Drunk Tank Pink. Those are two fascinating looks at two completely different areas. Drunk Tank Pink is all of the things that affect us in culture. There’s so much to that it’s hard to even explain in a short amount of time and I’m going to get into that with him, but we’re going to start with his book, Irresistible, about how much were addicted to technology and internet. He is everywhere, New York Times, New Yorker, Washington Post Atlantic and Wired. You name it, he’s been there.
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Combatting Technology Addiction: Taking Control Of Your Screen Time with Adam Alter
I’m here with Adam Alter, who is a marketing professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business with an affiliated appointment in the New York University psychology department. You’ve probably seen his New York Times’ bestselling books. He’s the author of Irresistible, Drunk Tank Pink and he also has a TED Talk that I thought was amazing, so I want to talk to you about that. Welcome, Adam.
Thanks very much for having me, Diane.
You’re welcome. This is so fun because I like to study behaviors. That’s part of what I do and everything that you write about and talk about ties perfectly. I get a free mastermind now talking to you. This is interesting stuff because you talk about the things that impact us. You talked about technology which I want to get into, but I want to get your background because you have a very impressive background. A lot of people like to know how you became this level of success.
I started my undergraduate career as a student in Australia, the University of New South Wales. I wasn’t sure what to study so I spent a couple of months jumping around from lecture to lecture and I ended up studying law and psychology, which a lot of people do in Australia. You can do the two concurrently, so I did those as undergrad degrees. When I finished, I was trying to decide which of the two to pursue and psychology winning the race. I did my PhD in the end in the US. I decided to come to the US. I did my PhD in Social Psychology at Princeton. I became very interested in trying to understand how people think and behave, how they make decisions and all of the little things around us that seem to push us one way or another as we make those decisions, trying to understand the recipe that drive us at how we get to where we’re going mentally and psychologically and why we sometimes seem to make decisions that make no sense and why spend our time the way we do. A lot of really big questions.
I started writing books years ago and those books were both focused these forces that shape how we think, feel and behave. The first one, Drunk Tank Pink, is about a whole compendium of different forces, things like the pink color in a room, the weather conditions, the names we have from birth, things like that. The book was trying to understand what I saw as the single biggest force which shapes how we spend our time and our wellbeing which is screens and technology. We spend on average four, five, some of us six or more hours a day in front of screens. Given how much of our free time, our waking hours spent in front of screens is important to understand why that is and what effects it might be having on us.
Your TED Talk was awesome and I see that you have over three million views, it was quite impressive how many people have watched this thing. I found it fascinating because you took a look at how much technology impacts our free time. I didn’t realize so much about technology-based people who work in it all day long don’t expose their children so much to it. What is the reasoning for that? I know you had a short time to talk about it on the TED Talk so I thought I’d let you elaborate a little bit on that. Why is that?
That was striking to me as well. I started to discover that a lot of the tech titans that produce a lot of the products that we use very careful about how much they expose their kids to those same products, these are privileged kids. They tend to be wealthy, very well educated and yet their parents are concerned about something in those screens and in how those screens might affect their wellbeing, development and maturation. If you are in the world of producing these products, you have a pretty good sense of all the little hooks that are built into them that are designed to engage. The positive side of this is if people are scattered in their attention, if they’re drawn to lots of different things, you have to make your product compelling. The dark side of that is if you’re good at making a product compelling, it ends up sucking a huge amount of your time and these tech titans know this. They’ve experienced it themselves, if you use some of these tools and they worry about their kids being able to resist them.Email is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to workplace unhappiness and feeling overworked. Click To Tweet
Whenever you see this discrepancy between how people speak publicly about something and how they behave privately, you always have to ask why that is and I think they were not very big. People in that world are saying, “You should use these products,” and then privately, being very careful about how they use themselves. It made me wonder what exactly was going on and I wanted to try to unpack what it was exactly that they were worried about. That’s what a lot of the central chunk of the book is about is trying to work out what those hooks that are embedded in these programs that make them so hard for us to resist.
I think of that Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where Wesley gets the eye thing on his eyes, kind of virtual reality device and they become so overwhelmed by it. I don’t know if you’ve seen that episode but there’s that sense that it’s addictive. Do you consider this an addictive thing?
It’s a reloaded term, addiction, and I spent a lot of time debating whether that was the right term to use. Ultimately, I did use the term and I think that’s because the definition of addiction that I like describes our behavior with respect to screens pretty aptly. The basic idea is an addiction is something that you do compulsively over and over again that you strongly want to do in a short–term but then in the long run, undermines your wellbeing. I can undermine your wellbeing socially, psychologically, financially, physically. The amount of time we spend on screens and how compelled we are to keep spending time even in the face of negative consequences means that for a lot of us, this does reach the level of what approaches an addiction. A lot of people push back on that because the term is so loaded. Even if you describe the phenomenon and you don’t use the label addiction, it’s still alarming how much of hobbies these apps, email, texting and all of these things have on us. I do use the term but I’m also happy to abandon. The phenomenon itself is still pretty concerning.
You’ve shown that we’re spending more time doing these screen-based activities, whether we’re looking at social media or using it for mindfulness or whatever it is that we’re using it for. I found it interesting, the difference between the ones that make us happy and the ones that maybe don’t. Can you talk a little bit about that?
This was fascinating to me. In the last few years, a number of people have created products that track our usage. They work out how long we spend on our screens and also the ones that are little bit more fine grained can also say this is how long you’re doing each of these different things. Just as you might do with a financial budget, you get a report at the end and it says, “You spent this much of your time on this thing, this much of your time on this app.” When you put it altogether, the thing you find is that we spend a lot more time on the things that turns out make us feel happy. One of these tracking apps is known as Moment. The creator of Moment embedded a little feature where every now and again, when you’re using Moment, it would ask you how happy are you using the app you’re currently using.
What the creator, Kevin Holesh, found is that people said they were less happy using things like social media, reading the news, spending time on email. Those are the things that made them less happy, but they spend three times longer on average on those apps than on the apps that made them happy, things like educational games, language learning software. A lot of the utilities that we use that make our lives easier and better, things like weather apps, Google Maps, those seem trivial and we don’t talk as much about them but those are the best uses of technology, things that make our lives better or easier in some sense to free us up to spend our time doing things that are much more enriching.
I get a lot of people on the show that do what I do. They write books, speak, consult, have to spend a certain amount of time tweeting on social media. Is there an alternative for some people? It’s challenging.
It’s very challenging. People in my position range across all spectrums. I get puritanical about it and I say, “You should never use a screen. You should use it as little as possible. You shouldn’t have a Twitter account. You shouldn’t have a Facebook account,” and so on. I’m not one of those people. I like to think of myself as a little bit more realistic because it’s incredibly difficult to do lots of different things if you are involved in tech and in front of a screen. I spend hours and hours every day in front of screens working, writing. If you travel, you need access to email and to screens. If you are trying to maintain a social life, it’s increasingly difficult to do that without access to screens of some form. The issue is working out how to develop a sustainable relationship with tech and with screens. It’s interesting, your kids are taught a whole lot of things. Routinely, they’re taught reading, writing, arithmetic, all that basic old school parts of the curriculum.
To some extent, they are taught basic etiquette, manners and things like. Their parents teach them some of that. They get a little bit more of it at school but there isn’t a curriculum for tech hygiene, how to live your life with technology and in this new world where tech surrounds us. If you haven’t been formally taught how to manage tech, there are times when you need it. People who write and who have a public aspect to what they do certainly need Twitter, Facebook and whatever else, but you also need to carve out time when you’re not on those platforms, time that’s away from the screen for exercising, connecting with people socially and face-to-face interaction and all the things that make us unique and different. I don’t know how many hundreds of millions of users are on these platforms. You’re not going to find your individuality very usually but there are things you do in your own time away from screens that enrich us and make us who we are. We need to make sure we keep those moments sacred and separate from screens.
I know I tend to multitask and add exercise while I’m doing a screen at the same time which is probably not a good idea. When you’re talking about how we binge now that it’s bottomless, I was thinking of Twitter. It’s like a parade that never ends. It just goes on and on. If you try to keep up with it, it would stress you out because you can’t possibly keep up with it because we don’t have these stopping rules. Can you talk a little bit about stopping rules? Can you share those?
That’s one of the biggest changes between how we engage with tech and the world in general in the 20th century and how we engage with it now. I think about the 20th century, pretty much everything you experience have a natural endpoint for a stopping rule or a stopping cue. There are lots of different terms. If you read a newspaper, the newspaper would arrive in the morning and you’d read it and eventually, either you get to the end of the article and put it away or you’d get to the end of the whole paper and put it away. If you watch the TV show, week to week, you get one episode. It would be an hour–long and you’d get to the end of the episode. Then you have to wait a week until the next one arrived. Everything had a natural endpoint or a series of suggested endpoints like reading a book and having chapters. When you get to the end of a chapter, that’s a subtle suggestion that you might want to move on. The way tech companies create content for us today and manage content production and presentation, they systematically remove as many of those cues as possible.
When you play video games now, they don’t have this grand game over screen. A lot of them naturally segue into the next round even after you’ve lost a life in the game. When you use Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, those platforms began having buttons at the bottom. You’d read some content, you tick on a button and more content would load. Now, they are designed to be bottomless. It’s an endless scroll, which means that you have this bottomless font of entertainment. You’ll never be bored. There are all these stories of kids in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s saying, “I’m bored,” and their parents are saying, “Go and find something to do, find a way to entertain yourself.” There is no need to have that conversation anymore if you don’t want to have it because you can sit in front of a screen and it will entertain you for the rest of your life. That’s now become a problem, that bottomlessness is where the issue is.
They give you, “You might also like,” then you go that way.
Exactly.The best general rule is to create as much physical space between you and the things you would like to use less or experience less. Click To Tweet
In my research, I study the things that keep people from being curious. When I was trying to do my factor analysis, fear, assumptions, technology and environment were the four things I found. Technology, you could either under or over rely on it. What have you found of the impact technology on curiosity?
It’s more complicated than just saying tech is bad. Tech can be an incredible tool for stimulating curiosity. I think a lot of those links you mention you might be interested in open you up to things that you never thought of before. Our web of knowledge, breadth of knowledge now is much greater than perhaps it would’ve been in the past where people spent a lot of time thinking about narrow ideas and getting very deeply embedded in those ideas. Now, we’ve all become to some extent a generalist. The internet makes that very easy. You spend five minutes on the internet and suddenly you’ve touched on seventeen different topics that are all incredibly diverse. There’s something miraculous about that and the serendipity that comes from that. If you know someone who’s curious about ideas, on any given day, you will learn ten new things in five minutes if you know where to look and you wouldn’t even need to try that hard.
Historically, that was incredibly difficult. It took a lot of will power, effort and energy. In that sense, tech is wonderful but it also gets in the way of deeper engagement. That’s where it’s problematic, where you say to yourself, “I’m just going to watch one more video in YouTube and then I’m going to get to work,” whether that means writing or whatever it is that you do. Suddenly you’ve watched 27 videos and the sun is starting to set. That’s an almost universal experience. Everyone’s had that at some point where time passes and melts away. The thing is to work out where the best parts of tech come in for you and to try to maximize and magnify those and try to put as many of those aside or minimize them as you can. If tech does stimulate your curiosity and teaches you and you feel that you hadn’t even thought about, then pursue that actively and be mindful about it. If you often find that time melts away and you spend way more time on tech doing mindless things than you like, then that’s probably something that you need to deal with.
It reminds me of casinos, how they don’t have clocks, no sunlight. You can’t tell what you’re doing and you get into that kind of a funk. You gave two examples on your TED Talk of stopping rules of what they did with the desks and with the out of office email, can you just share those? I thought those were great.
These are some of the good ideas that companies are starting to have now. The one is a design firm in the Netherlands and they have tethered the desks to the ceiling with these cables, these wire cables. At 6:00 PM every single day, no matter what you’re doing, you could be on the phone to your most important client. You could be typing your most important memo of the day, at 6PM every day, the desks automatically winch up to the ceilings so you hear this sound, then suddenly the desks rise and they sit up the ceiling until 9:00 AM the next day when the next workday begins. That’s an example of a stopping rule that is imposed from above where the management of the company says, “We think the best work will come from workers who are happiest, who know how to say now is work time versus not work time and we’re going to impose that on you. We’re going to tell you that at 6:00 PM, that’s when it’s no longer work time.”
The people who work there seem incredibly happy and grateful and to thrive on that particular situation. There are some other examples, I think email is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to workplace unhappiness and feeling overworked. There are certain companies now that go beyond the standard vacation message. The standard message is you’re travelling, you put on the vacation message, someone emails you and they get a response that says, “I’m traveling. I’ll get back to your message as soon as I can.” But from your perspective as the person travelling, your inbox still piles up and when you get back, that hellish first day or two or three where you have to read through those emails.
There are couple of companies, one of them is Daimler, the car company in Germany where when you travel, Daimler has this policy where if you’re traveling and you have a vacation message, it says something like, “This person is traveling. They will be back on this date. You have a couple of options. You can either email back after that date or you can email this other person who will handle your request in the meantime, but you should know that your email has been deleted.” This person who’s traveling will never see the email you just sent. It is vanished, evaporated. From your perspective as the worker, when you go on vacation, it’s a true vacation. You’re untethered from the office. You can check your email a million times, you’re not going to have any new emails. That is truly liberating.
Yes, it would be. I’m thinking of a friend of mine who would probably be afraid to put out that she’s on vacation for missing it though. You have control over that or they put it out there for you. You don’t have any control, I imagine, in that setting.
I don’t know what the current policy is. I first read about it a few years ago. You could imagine some pushback. It’s very paternalistic to say to people, “I don’t think you can handle your email while you’re away. I want you to have a good break, so I’m going to prevent you from getting it.” There is some pushback on that front. People feel that it’s a little bit kind of Big Brother-ish to tell me that I can’t check my email. Almost universally, people in that position at first, when they first go away feels weird not to have access to email. Once they do that for a few days, they say, “This is a level of disengagement and being able to remove myself from the workplace that I don’t think many people have today and I feel really good for it.” Even if it is paternalistic, it does seem to make people a lot happier and better off.
I could understand that completely. I’ve been teaching online education courses since 2006 and when you teach in that realm, it starts over as soon as the semester’s over. You don’t have summer off. You don’t have the traditional situation so you’re always in a class. If you don’t take a course, you’d risk being at the bottom of the barrel, never ever getting another class at the end of the line kind of thing. No one takes vacation. When they take these jobs and you’re always on that tether to call in, to look at your desk. When you talk about stress, you can’t get into your classrooms. It’s stressful so I could see that break would be something I definitely could use sometimes. There’s a lot of people who over utilize technology and I’m probably one of them. I was looking at some of your suggestions about how you don’t take your phone to the dinner table. Do you have other suggestions for what we can do at home?
The best general rule is that the things that are closest to you in physical space tend to be the things that have the biggest effect on your psychological experience of the world. When you interview American adults in particular, 75% of them will say that 24 hours a day, they can reach their phones without moving their feet. When they’re sleeping, their phones are by their beds or under their pillows. When they’re awake, their phones are in their pockets or on the desk next to them. Some of us joke about that but a lot us think about what it’s going to be like when all of these things are wearable or even beyond wearable that they’re implanted in us.
We’ve given the phones their power by having them within physical reach at all times. You don’t even need to take a step to reach your phone most of the time. The best general rule is to create as much physical space between you and the things you would like to use less or experience less. One of the things that I do, and I know a lot people have started doing, is to carve out parts of the day where your phone is in a different room, sometimes in the drawer that you keep it as far away from you as possible from 5:00 to 7:00 PM or during dinner time or for certain hours of the day or certain points during the week. You do not have your phone nearby, so you’re not tempted to pick it up. That’s liberating in the same way that having this vacation message deletes your email is liberating because you physically cannot access your phone.
The golden rule is we would like to exert will power and to say, “I’m only going to look at Instagram for three minutes,” but once you get into that position, it’s very hard to exert that will power because we have a limited supply of it and we often use it up during the day. We’re exhausted by the point when we’re trying to exert it again, when we’re scrolling through a whole lot of different posts and things. The best thing to do is not to have to use it all. Any structure you can put in place that means you don’t have to exert will power because the structure is making it impossible for you to do the thing you don’t want to do. That’s always a good thing, it’s keeping space between you and the thing you don’t want to use. You don’t even have to say to yourself, “It’s in my pocket but I’m just not going to use it.” It’s not there in the first place so you don’t even have to worry about it. That is, generally speaking key for anything you want to do less of.
It reminds me of something you wrote about in your book, Drunk Tank Pink, because you talk about the literal chill of socialization. Do we feel that socially isolated if we don’t have our phone? You talk about Harry Harlow’s study. Can you just talk about what that means to be in the state of social isolation and what would this tie into that?Disconnecting from screens and social media, if you make it a part of your life, feels rewarding. Click To Tweet
There’s a very big difference between being alone and being lonely. Social isolation is a very negative experience. The sense that you’d like to have social comfort or the warmth of other people around you or social support and not to have that, it’s incredibly damaging. It’s one of the key causes of mortality and early death. It’s a very powerful social force and psychological force. Being alone, having time where you are alone and embracing that and pursuing a hobby or having time to sit and think and to zoom back on your life and maybe to be briefly philosophical about the direction that you’re aiming yourself at any point in time, that is incredibly healthy. A lot of it is in the mindset that you adopt in those moments.
You could be in a room alone and it could feel like punishment or you could be in that room alone and you could embrace it and find that there’s huge benefit to it. Disconnecting from screens, disconnecting from social media, if you make it a part of your life that you cultivate and you recognize the benefits that come from it, it feels something that’s rewarding. I’ve watched people do this and have seen them go through the process. It begins with that fear of missing out on the social world that you’ve decided to disengage from. For a lot of people, they struggle with that initially. It’s the same way they might struggle if they have been drinking or taking a drug and then they try to withdraw from it. They get those withdrawal symptoms.
Over time, what happens is you start to feel that you get past that and you enjoy real benefits. The people who say, “I’m not going to have my phone with me for a couple of hours in the evening or during dinner time,” in the beginning, it’s something difficult and they have to push against it. Over time, what end up happening is that that period where they’re alone, they’re truly alone with themselves or they’re with other people face–to–face, those moments become things that they look forward to throughout the day and throughout the week. The fact that we can get past that initial ping and ultimately feel that is hugely beneficial as a sign that it’s the right move for almost everyone. I’ve very rarely seen people who say, “I regret having taken time out of my day to put my phone aside.” They almost always say, “This is great. I need to do more of this and I feel rejuvenated from it.”
Simon Sinek had a talk going around where he was talking about leaving your phone outside of meetings once in a while because everybody either has it on vibrate or some way they can access it. I like the idea of having low tech days to explore different things. That helps pull your natural sense of curiosity and makes people more in the moment. It’s good and bad like you said. Did you happen to find any studies on health? I know it’s not your focus but are we getting cancer from having these things on our bodies? My husband’s a plastic surgeon. I thought he said something about they see more breast cancer from women putting their phones in their bras. is that an issue that you’ve ran into?
My understanding of the literature is that is incomplete and very patchy. I don’t think there is a strong study that suggests major health consequences that come from using phones. There have been scares at times associated with radiation and the frequencies that which phones put out certain emissions. I haven’t seen a strong evidence of that. I’m not saying it’s not true or there isn’t a link, but I haven’t seen anything that’s compelling. Certainly, health consequences that don’t come at that level, there are other health consequences. We drive much more poorly. We walk into poles when we’re walking on the street with our phones. We tend to be more sedentary and we exercise less when we’re in the presence of screens. There are the different health consequences, I’m not sure they’re quite at the level of having effect on ourselves but certainly there are good reasons health-wise not to use phone as much as we do or screens in general.
That’ll be interesting to see things like the Peleton Bikes, I think it’s what they’re called. Those bikes that have the screens where you’re riding your bike in Ireland or wherever you want to be. My daughter has one of those. They’re a cool idea but you still got the screen thing. I wonder when they’ll start having ads and things while hopping on that. I worry about where these things go. All these that you talked about is fascinating me. I wrote my dissertation on emotional intelligence. I’m very fascinated in the psychological aspects in business even though my degrees aren’t in business. I’ve had Albert Bandura and cool people on the show like you and Daniel Goleman, and all the great names in psychology. We did a lot of focus on your book, Irresistible. I wanted to touch a little bit on Drunk Tank Pink because that gets into perception, which is such a huge area in cultural quotients that people are starting to study more about. Can you explain what it means, Drunk Tank Pink, because some people may not get the reference?
It’s a very odd title. Drunk Tank Pink is a bubblegum shade of pink. In the 1970s and into the early ‘80s, there were a number of psychologists particularly in Canada who painted the inside of some classrooms a whole lot of different colors to see what effects that might have on the students. They found that painting the classrooms pink had a pacifying effect on the more agitated or aggressive students. Since psychologists in the US heard about this and they started to paint the inside of various prison cells, there’s a naval prison in Seattle where they painted the inside of the cells pink. They reported that when you put very aggressive prisoners inside these cells for fifteen minutes, they came out pacified. This idea got a lot of interest. There was a 60-minute episode in the early ‘80s about the featured the color.
There were a number of studies that were done that were a little bit more rigorous showing that if you ask someone to stare at this pink color for a little while, they are a little bit less strong when they use a hand grip device that measures how strong we even grip the device. People were fascinated by this idea, it served as the emblem for the book, this idea that you could change some feature of the world around us and it could have often very unexpected effect on interesting psychological and physical aspects about our experiences. The idea that looking at a particular color could make you weaker or stronger, whether or not that’s true, there are some questions about the power of that effect, the robustness of the effect but that seemed like such an interesting idea to me. The whole book, Drunk Tank Pink, is a book about how these features of the world around us have these unexpected and often magnified effects on how we experience the world.
It’s interesting that they would paint the opposing sports teams’ locker, anything for the competitive advantage.
That was one of my favorite examples because the coach of the University of Iowa painted the inside of their visiting locker room the same pink shade. They commissioned special pink porcelain urinals and the lockers out of pink steel. The whole locker room is pink, from the carpets up to the ceiling. He argued that at half time, the two teams would go into their locker rooms and the visiting team would come out after half time zapped off of energy so he argued that the University of Iowa’s football team always had a strong second half because they’ve been in front of these pink aspect to their locker room. There are a lot of creative users and semi amusing anecdotes that come from them. I find that whole idea that we’re constantly surrounded by things are subtly shifting us one way or the other without realizing it. I find it fascinating and wanted to try to unpack what some of those things might have been.
As you were doing that, what other research did you find that would be helpful for people who are dealing with trying to develop their cultural quotient at work, to be able to work with other areas of the world, to look at perception of how we look at the world differently? Are there any studies that stand out in your mind?
With respect to culture, the most important thing is always to be less egocentric and don’t assume that something that you take to be an axiom to be true is universal. We often believe that and he default position for humans in general is if you believe something or you have always thought something or you’ve always felt something, that every other person will feel the same way or pretty bad as a species at introspecting and to understanding how other people feel about things. We massively assume that people think the same way we do about things where they very often don’t.
The best thing you can do is to ask the questions either implicitly or even too often explicitly saying, “Is this how you feel about this thing as well or am I the only one?” Some of that comes from doing research ahead of time. When you’re interacting with another culture across the world, you want to understand what the differences are. I was working in retail, an electronics store in Sydney, Australia where I lived in 2000 during the Sydney Olympics and I remember there was this document that was being passed around to a whole lot of people who might have been in contact with the tourists who are visiting during the Olympics. The document was the compendium of all the things that people from different cultures might find either offensive or feel differently from the way you see it.
I remember it totally expanding my mind. There were hundreds of these things, the little things that I took for granted and most Australians did. If you meet someone from this country, this is a gesture you don’t know. This means this, this word you think means this, it means this. Without paying attention to the specifics, just the huge variation and how naturally those variations express themselves in different cultures, I found interesting. A huge part of it is being sensitive to it and recognizing that the way you see the world isn’t necessarily a universal.Be less egocentric and don’t assume that something that you take to be true is universal. Click To Tweet
Even if you do and you have a good sense of self-awareness, what if they don’t, the people you’re interacting?
Honestly, that’s one of the dimensions. It varies across cultures. There are some groups that are very sensitive to the question of difference and whether you deviate from perhaps other people around you. There are other cultures that do things their own way and they recognize that that rigidity is the ways it’s done. That’s part of being culturally sensitive for others are recognizing that even on that metadimension, there are differences. Society now, there’s huge variation even within the US population but as a population, we are sensitive to the issue of difference and how people don’t always see eye to eye, don’t always see the same way. Politically, there are huge differences that are on display at all times in the US at the moment. It’s a very polarizing time, so we’re especially sensitive to this question of difference. I don’t think that’s true in the same way everywhere and within every culture. Sometimes, if you recognize difference and other cultures don’t, you may need to be the one that thinks about being more flexible on that front.
You mentioned the polarization that we have in the United States. What do you think is the difference now? Do you think we’re more polarized than ever and what do you think the solution is for that?
That’s such a tough and huge question, I wish I had some answers to that. I feel like the person who has the answer to that is the single most important person in the United States or in the world right now. My friends have lived on three continents and I’ve experienced different political structures and situations. My sense is at least in the US, certain issues are very strongly associated with one side of the political isle or the other and if you feel strongly about any of those issues, you’re immediately placed into a camp. You have to coalesce around all other issues that are associated with it. There’s a strong set of issues, very strong Democratic issues and whole other sets of a strong set of Republican issues.
To some extent, that’s true with all political movements and with all left right continues but I feel that perhaps in Australia, the issues themselves, you can have different views or the same view on a particular issue, a hot button issue, and still fall into different political camps. Whereas in the US, it seems to me that once you feel strongly about one of those hot button issues, whether it’s about religion or guns or abortion, one of those issues you will immediately be placed into the camp. It’s very difficult not to hold all the same beliefs that that camp holds. That’s part of what polarizes us as well.
How are news different here than in other countries? Do you think news has a big impact on our perception? Is it more like news in other countries or you know what you want to hear so you go this station or that station?
I think news in this country, it’s 90% entertainment and 10% truth. That’s not true with every distribution source. My friend says that the news ends up dominating, that ends up being watched by most people, the thing that makes it attractive is that in some sense, it’s entertaining. Either it’s reflecting people’s existing biases and views or in some other sense, it’s taking the topics of the day and injecting either sensationalism or somehow taking what is at day’s truth and then embellishing it in ways that makes it more attractive and compelling. Anytime that happens, anytime objective isn’t in truth is not the key ideal and you have news that is designed to push a particular view. That’s the news that most people are watching. You’re always going to have greater infringement and greater polarization. That’s certainly how the news works here in a way, but I haven’t seen them to some extent elsewhere.
We’re treating news as news and as fact if it is entertainment and how do we get people to recognize that is we’re working on technology, backing off a little bit, learning what’s good and not so good. How can we get people to maybe be less polarized by how we perceive what we’re watching? I meet people all the time who’ll word for word, you could hear which camp they’re in because they’ve listened to this station versus that station, almost like a parrot repeating what they hear. Do you find that that’s impacting our perception or ability to work in the world together?
Absolutely. If you watch certain channels, you’re only going to get one viewpoint. You’re going to get certain talking points repeated over and over again. It’s impossible to be informed than to see the world the way it is if you only ever hear from that one source. Exposure to different viewpoints, to alternatives is important but then I have my own biases. I feel that certain points of the world are the accurate one, the true one, that people who don’t have that view are wrong in some sense and everyone has had that view to some extent. The way they perceive the world is the objective true view, that that’s the way things should be.
Perception is reality?
Yeah, I think we all feel that. There are not that many people with the humility now to say, “The way I’m seeing this, it’s possible that I’m wrong.” We all feel strongly about our views and in the right way. Part of it is being exposed to other viewpoints. A huge part of it is the same question that we began with this technology question, tech keeps us glued to screens and part of what we’re doing on those screens for half much of the time is consuming use. That’s true even when we don’t intend to. Twitter is a new source. You’re constantly being exposed to your echo chamber on Twitter, on Facebook, a little bit lesser on Instagram, but all social media in some sense conveys news and viewpoints. The less time you do that, the more time you experience the world through your own eyes and not through the eyes of the lens of the screen. You are much less likely to be polarized in that way. It’s tough to find ways to disengage and not many of us are capable of doing it. We spend so much time on those screens until we’re being further polarized
I use Twitter as part of marketing course I teach. I remember when Gillette had its ad that upset so many people about them and how they behave towards women. It was fascinating to watch the group think. One person would post something and you could see it spark the next and you wonder if anybody would’ve thought about what they’ve posted. Had they not read the thing before them? It’s like the game of telephone where you tell somebody next to you then by the time it comes out the other end, it turns into something completely different than what the original message was. Do you think that we’re changing the messages because of what we originally thought because we get into this groove think mentality?
No one has an independent view. There is no such thing as forming an independent view on any topic now because the minute something happens, you’re going to start seeing it through the lens of other people. Sometimes they have an agenda, sometimes they don’t. It’s never the case that something is presented to you as whatever basic fact are. Let’s assume there is a fact of the matter, whatever the matter is, it’s presented to you and then you are told, “Now form an opinion of that.” I don’t even think we know how to form an opinion on our own anymore because we never do it. We never get occasion to do it. The minute you start reading about a news item, no matter what it is, it’s already being conveyed through a particular lens that you adopt implicitly without even realizing it.
You’re absolutely right and those people who are piling on when they read comments and they echo those comments. I don’t think they would say, “I’m totally swayed by the things I read earlier,” because that’s not how human psychology works. It’s 100% true. If the views you read before are different, you’ll probably end up with a slightly different perspective. Those echo chambers that’s part of the algorithm that drives you to read the things that are coming up on your screen, it reinforces your views. One of the things we know is that one of the most mobilizing emotions is anger. If you want to get people to stay glued to the screen, have them all coalesce around the same issue that makes them angry in the same way and they will parrot the same anger. That’s a way to keep them engaged, unfortunately.The less time you spend on screen, the more time you experience the world through your own eyes and not through the lens of the screen. Click To Tweet
It brings up what we do in teaching undergrad and grad courses. We try to develop critical thinking skill. Since you deal with this and you teach, do you touch on this type of thing, how to be a critical thinker and how do you help people do that?
I try, I’m a scientist at heart and my training is in psychology. I have a PhD in behavioral and experimental psychology and the experiment is the bread and butter that I deal with every day. We do teach the experimental method. We teach them how to try and work through different forms of evidence. It’s not a huge part of the courses I teach but it’s implicit in everything that I share. If I’m skeptical about something, if I question something, I’ll always raise that. We were talking earlier about Drunk Tank Pink and its effects on how humans behave. I mentioned without even thinking about it that the effect is not that robust.
There are times people look for the effect and they don’t find it. It’s important to share those doubts. all those little pieces that muddy the waters and say, “This thing that you think is true and that you say is gospel, maybe there’s some wrinkles here that we need to recognize and maybe grapple with.” By doing that constantly as I present materials to students, I hope they get the sense that I’m trying to find what’s true and not just what sounds good, what’s smooth, interesting and what rolls off the tongue. That’s a big part of it. It’s recognizing where the complexity makes the story less neat, tidy, cute and fun. You still have to grapple with that complexity and that’s not something that we naturally do. We like that direct path and we need to be open to that complexity.
You write about very complex issues. Drunk Tank Pink was fascinating and so is Irresistible. It’s been a couple of years since Irresistible and Drunk Tank Pink came out. They’re not exactly the same kind of thing but still behaviorally based. What’s your next area that you want to tackle because you went from a big jump from one area to another? Would you have another book in mind for the future?
Yes, I did jump from one to another. Drunk Tank Pink is very different from Irresistible. The timing of that book was interesting because when I first tried to sell the rights to the book, some of the publishers were not 100% convinced. They thought that this question of whether we spend too much time on screens wasn’t something people were focusing on. This was in 2014 and it’s hard to believe that that was true because things have changed so much now. As soon as the book came out, the issue seem to get a steam and so I assumed that within a year or so, I’d be starting to focus on new things. I’ve had a lot of opportunity to engage with tech companies, with the government, with policy makers. I work with a ton of schools and school district from the issue. The idea had legs or the book has had legs and so I haven’t been able to turn my mind to a new thing yet. I’ve been thinking about it for a while. I haven’t yet crystalized it to the point where I have a strong sense of what the next book’s going to be about, but it will be quite different. I enjoyed working on this but as you can tell from the first two, I have a lot of different interests. I’m probably going to jump into something different.
I like how curious you are because that definitely comes through in your work. It’s fascinating to see how people gravitate to different topics and your work has been very inspiring and I know a lot of people loved your TED Talk. The amount of views it got is incredible. A lot of people want to know how they could reach you and find out more. Do you have a website or link that you like to share?
Yeah, I do, if you search for my name Adam Alter, one of the first things you’ll come up with is my website and that has a lot of the articles I’ve read in the popular press, some videos and things like that. That’s probably the best place to begin and there are some links that as much as we’ve talked about the downside of Twitter, that’s the one place that I get a huge amount of inspiration and access to new ideas. You could see there are pluses and minuses. My Twitter handle is @AdamLeeAlter.
For a marketing professor, I could see why you would want to follow Twitter. It does help a lot in the marketing to see what the people are doing and the types of things that trend. I imagine that that would be great for that course. Is that your main course you’re teaching still?
Yeah, I teach marketing at the moment. All of the MBAs who come through Stern get my marketing course.
I appreciate having you on the show, Adam. Thank you so much.
Thanks for having me, Diane. I appreciate it.
I want to thank Adam for being my guest. If you’ve missed any past episodes, you can go to DrDianeHamiltonRadio.com. You can also connect to the Curiosity Code Index at CuriosityCode.com or through the main site. I found Adam’s talks and work fascinating. I hope you take some time to check out his TED Talk, I think he did a great job. He gave some great examples. His books are interesting in the area of cultural quotients too, especially Drunk Tank Pink. If you’re looking at some of the things that impact our perception, he gives so many case examples and he researches a lot of literature that is important for how we perceive others. As he says, you have to have self-awareness and that’s a huge part of it. You’re dealing with other people who maybe don’t have self-awareness so it’s good to take a look at things from different ways of viewing things and he definitely does that.
I enjoyed his book. A lot of his work ties into what I’m interested in, his work on the technology aspect of what we found with curiosity. We found that curiosity can be impacted by technology. If you rely too much on it, you may not dive down into the foundational elements that can help build your awareness in so many different areas. If you ever crashed your computer and you fixed, you learned a lot more than you didn’t try to fix it at all. It’s something that a lot of people take for granted of how things work. It’s almost like never learning math then just doing everything with a calculator. It’s important to have high tech and low tech days where people can explore the value of technology, but also explore the value of removing technology for a day to see what that will do to spark some discussions and to get away from this group-think mentality where you read about something and you’re so involved with what other people have said. Sometimes coming at things with fresh eyes can help improve our level of curiosity.
What we’re doing with the Curiosity Code Index is we’re certifying people to be able to give the Curiosity Code Index. Once you’re a certified provider, you get discounted assessments, five hours of recertification credit. You get all kinds of information. We have PowerPoints and that type of thing. It’s so important right now to learn about the value of curiosity because no matter who’s been on the show, whether they’re talking about technology or creativity or innovation or curiosity even, all of them when I ask people, “What comes first? Is it curiosity or creativity? Curiosity or engagement? Curiosity or innovation?” whatever it is, curiosity is the spark. If we’re not starting with the spark, we’re not getting the results of productivity that we’re trying to achieve. We’re not getting the engagement that we want to have. I think it’s a huge aspect of what we need to talk about in the working world. What I think a lot of people do is they give these assessments.
A lot of HR professionals or consultants are used to giving emotional assessment tests and engagement surveys and all that type of thing. They’re all important but if you’re not assessing the level of curiosity and the things that keep people from being curious, which is what’s unique about the Curiosity Code Index is it looks at what’s keeping people from being curious. That’s what we need to work on. If we can get people more curious, we can get them to explore different areas, feel more comfortable about offering insight, getting them away from status quo thinking so that our organizations can be more engaged, more innovative and in the end more productive. Everybody makes more money. That’s the goal. If you’re interested in that information, you can get it through the Curiosity Code information at DrDianeHamilton.com or go straight to CuriosityCode.com. I hope you enjoyed this show and I hope you join us for the next show of Take the Lead Radio
- Adam Alter
- Drunk Tank Pink
- TED Talk
- Albert Bandura – previous episode
- Daniel Goleman – previous episode
- @AdamLeeAlter – Twitter
About Adam Alter
Adam Alter is a marketing professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, with an affiliated appointment in the New York University Psychology Department. Adam’s academic research focuses on behavioral economics and human judgment and decision-making, with a particular interest in the surprising effects of environmental cues on human cognition and behavior.
He is also the New York Times bestselling author of two books: IRRESISTIBLE (2017), which considers why so many people today are addicted to so many behaviors, from incessant smartphone and internet use to video game playing and online shopping, and DRUNK TANK PINK (2013), which investigates how hidden forces in the world around us shape our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
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