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In the shocking interview to 60 Minutes, when Jeffrey Wigand uttered those famous words “we are in the nicotine delivery business”[1] exposing the Big Tobacco companies, little might the biochemist have known back then (in the 90s) that, even behaviours that did not involve ingestion of any psychoactive substance (like nicotine) could also result in alteration of the brain’s chemistry.[2] As the executives at Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp were secretly mixing chemicals to enhance nicotine absorption to foster ‘addiction’ in smokers to drive sales, little would they have fathomed that a few decades later along with ‘substance abuse’ The American Psychiatric Association shall also include ‘behavioural addiction’ as a diagnosable problem. Even the crew at 60 Minutes would not have imagined that, in just twenty years since the explosive Wigand interview that brought down the Big Tobacco industry, history would repeat itself for the show, but this time, it would be directed at the Big Tech. They didn’t imagine that in 2017, Tristan Harris, a former Google engineer, would hold up his smartphone, look into the camera, and go on to say “this thing (in my hand) is a slot machine”, indirectly saying that we all are vulnerable consumers in this business of digital addiction.

Around the same time as Wigand battled the threat from the Big Tobacco industry in the US, approx 5000 miles to the east, in Germany a neuroscientist named Wolfram Schultz began conducting neurological experiments in his lab on a monkey named Julio. He attached multiple electrodes to Julio to monitor his brain activity. Julio was made to sit on a chair in a dimly lit room and in front of a computer. Julio’s job was to press a lever as soon as a coloured shape appeared on the computer screen. If he successfully did so, a drop of blackberry juice would be released in a tube and onto the monkey’s lips. This acted as a reward for the monkey. At first, Julio seemed disinterested in the whole experiment, but during the random press of the lever, the juice accidentally fell onto his lips making him excited. Gradually, as the experiment progressed, Julio became more seasoned at the activity of pressing the lever the instant a coloured shape appeared on the screen, and he was rewarded with the juice that he loved. On the backend, as Schultz analysed Julio’s brain activity he began to see a pattern emerge. Julio’s brain activity would shoot up the instant the juice hit his lips. But with time, as Julio became a champ at doing this, Schultz observed that his brain began anticipating the reward, the brain activity would shoot up a fraction of the instant before the juice arrived.

Schultz extrapolated what he saw in Julio even to humans by simplistically explaining this in his paper that “there is nothing programmed into our brain that makes us see a box of doughnuts and automatically want a sugary treat. But once our brain learns that a doughnut box, kept in front of us, contains a yummy sugary treat inside it, the brain begins to anticipate the sugar high. Subsequently, our brains push us to reach out for that box of doughnuts.” This anticipation is what went on to be termed as a psychological craving.[3] On the same count, as soon as smokers see a pack of cigarettes, their brain anticipates or craves for the nicotine kick and make them reach out for cigarettes again and again. With time an innocuous craving like this becomes psychologically so deep-rooted that it turns into an addiction. Wigand understood the detrimental effects of engineering chemicals into the cigarettes that would intensify such cravings leading to harmful addiction in youngsters, and so did Tristan Harris.

They are programming people. and not programming just the apps, Harris said in the 60 Minutes interview. There is a strong narrative that technology is neutral and it is up to us to choose how to use it. This is so not true. Technology is not neutral as they want you to use it in particular (or specific) ways and for long periods of time. Because that’s how they make money. he further added.

These new technologies are particularly well suited to foster behavioural addictions. The addictive properties of these technologies are not accidents but carefully engineered design features. claimed Adam Alter, a noted business professor with a doctorate in social psychology from Princeton University.

The thought process that went into building these apps, Facebook being the first of them, was that “how do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” And that means we need to give a dopamine hit every once in a while because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. said Sean Parker, one of the founding members of Facebook, in a candid interview at an event in 2017.

Dopamine is the key neurotransmitter responsible for our sense of cravings. Just like Julio got a dopamine hit as soon as the blackberry juice hit his tongue, our brain patterns exactly replicate that of Julio’s when someone ‘likes’ or ‘shares’ or ‘retweets’ our posts. Just like Julio’s brain, our brain also develops a craving when we post something on a social media platform. ‘Will my post get the likes (or shares or retweets)? Will anyone comment on it? or will it go unnoticed?’ We grow anxious after posting and crave for the likes or to take a sneak peek on these platforms. As we cede autonomy to this craving we lose the sense of agency and this craving turns to addiction. The technology companies refer to this as a positive reinforcement loop and they are very much aware of the power it has on the users. With this in mind, they accordingly tweak their technologies to make the pull even stronger keeping users hooked onto their platforms. Leah Pearlman, who was one of the product managers on the team that invented the ‘Like’ button for Facebook, has herself become so wary of the detrimental effects of the service that she has hired a dedicated social media manager to handle her account so that she can at least stay away.


Around the same time as Wigand exposed Big Tobacco, in the mid-90s the first preteen generation, my generation, or the generation termed as ‘iGen’[4] all around the world, were getting exposed to smartphones. Jean Twenge, one of the foremost experts in studying generational differences, noted in an article in Atlantic in 2017, that ‘it’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen to be on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades” Twenge, who has been researching and studying on the subject for the last twenty-five years, agrees that these mental-health shifts correspond ‘exactly’ to the time when the usage of smartphones became ubiquitous. The distinctive difference between iGen and the previous millennials, she notes, is that iGen grew up in an age of smartphones and social media.

Over the years evidence has mounted suggesting that there are a lot of similarities between behavioural addiction and substance addiction. No longer is the definition of the word ‘addiction’ limited to substance abuse only, like alcohol or drugs. A seminal paper that appeared in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse had hinted that ‘pathological gambling’ and ‘internet addiction’ are two well-established examples of behavioural addictions. A 2015 study by Common Sense Media found that teenagers are consuming media on an average of nine hours per day on their smartphones.

The Big Tech companies of the twenty-first century are exactly like the Big Tobacco companies of the twentieth century, closely and fiercely guarding their secrets. Back then, the Wigand expose eventually resulted in forty-six states filing a Medicaid suit against the tobacco industry, which ultimately led to a $368 billion settlement in health-related damages by the tobacco companies.[5] Sometimes I wonder what it would cost the Big Tech should such a settlement arise as of today towards the psychological damages that their technologies directly or indirectly inflict on its users.[6] As users, however, we not only need to be mindful of the manipulative forces of these technology platforms that push us towards behavioural addictions but the real challenge is to figure out how to put them to use in a way that works for our best and not for the worst.


Notes & References: [1]Reference from the movie The Insider and from Wikipedia [2]The expression ‘little might he (or they) have known’, is only a satirical conclusion drawn by me, and in no way it is established that Jeffrey Wigand knows or does not know the effects that non-substance ingestion had on one’s brain chemistry. [3] Reference from The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Wolfram Schultz behavioural studies can be found in his published works in Annual Review of Psychology, Journal of Neurophysiology, Nature and Journal of Neuroscience [4] The term 'iGen' was coined by Jean Twenge, professor at San Diego State University

[5] Source: under the section ’60 Minutes’ [6] This statement is purely speculative, inferential and not accusatory. Opinions are strictly personal.

[7] References are also drawn from Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport




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