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PSY 355 Psychology & Media in the Digital Age

This page was last modified on March 17, 2021

Class 12: Some Psychological Aspects of Alter's (2017) Irresistible

Chap. 7 “Escalation”


·      Experiments show students are willing to receive electrical shocks rather than be bored. We want to be doing something!

·      Sense of hardship/difficulty is compelling in both gaming and behavioral addictions (BA). Starting off at a comfortable level and, then, gradually increasing how hard the task may be.

·      TETRIS: offers a sense of mastery

·      BA: often come wrapped in a cloak of creation by media user


Lev Vygotsky & the ZPD (“Zone of Proximal Development”) & Mihalyi Csizkszentmihalyi: Flow (1990)


·      Ludic loop” = a behavior you keep performing because each time you do so you get a small reward (“ludus” in Latin means “play”)\

·      The power of “near wins” which suggest that you are close to victory (even if you aren’t)

·      Paco Underhill’s research in 1990s about “Stopping Rules” – that often unconscious prompt which gets you to end doing something.

o   In many BA apps, there are no stopping rules. We continue to want to perform a behavior even in the absence of any clear reward.

o   Credit cards as examples of so little feedback (e.g., you don’t know the balance of what you owe) that individuals keep using them even when they are in deep debt.

Chap. 8: "Cliffhangers"

                  puzzleBluma Zeigarnik (1900-1998). Psychologist in the Soviet Union

  • The Zeigarnik Effect = incomplete experiences (things we do not end) or objects tend to occupy our minds and attention far more than those which are completed.


  • NPR 2014 October 12 part podcast: “Serial” keeps listeners guessing
  • HBO 2015 serial documentaries: The Jinx (on murderer Robert Durst) and Making a Murderer (Steven Avery)
  • The last (86th) episode of The Sopranos on HBO offers no clear ending to what happened to Tony Soprano. The screen simply goes dark.

Unpredictable rewards (= cliffhangers) are powerfully motivating.

  • Research with dopamine argues that it is the unpredictability that is most likely to evoke the release of dopamine. Anythiing that is surprising or novel will lead to the release of dopamine while experiences that are repetitive and offer nothing new tend not to cause the release of dopamine.

  • Compulsive Shopping online and flash sales, e.g., GILT website (chimes announcing new sale) = unpredictability

  • Binge TV episode viewing on Netflix or another streaming media service
    • 2012 (August) with “Post Play” in which viewer has to positively decide NOT to watch the next episode which loads automatically
    • 2013: 61% American adults engaged in 2-6 episode/sitting TV bingeing.
  • Opt out” strategies are less likely to be used rather than “opt in” – e.g., organ donation

Chap. 9: "Social Interaction"

Hipstermatic (2010; an app that failed) vs. Instagram (2011; an app that was widely successful)

  • Instagram is free to download rather than pay
  • Instagram: Posting to a dedicated social network of other viewers which generates likes, etc.

Personal self worth is key issue for human beings and receiving social feedback is wired into us

  • We are very sensitive to negative feedback from others. It stings.
  • Pressure to present ourselves as “perfect” and receive social approval
  • How many social media apps solicit either "likes" and "dislikes" or comments from those who view our postings?

Group membership is an evolutionarily conserved force in human life where we depend upon the social confirmation of others.

  • MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons)

  • MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) gaming such as World of Warfare (WoW)

  • Such games promote online “friendships” with those with whom you play

Andrew Doan (2015) Hooked on Games: The Lure and Cost of Video Game and Internet Addiction.

What do all successful video games share in common?

  • Immersive Experience
  • Gamer feels sense of achievement: meets obstacles, advances to new levels, etc.
  • Social connection with other gamers

What does Doan claim?

  • OL (online) friendships are different than friendships IRL (in real life)
  • The capacity for friendship develops over time during childhood and shapes the brain in so doing
  • When deprived of the chance of FTF (face-to-face) interactions during the critical period of development, children develop “emotional amblyopia” – i.e., major difficulty in functioning as a friend IRL compared to OL.

Discussion of Alter's irresistible

Six Principles for Engineering Behavioral Addictions (BAs) in Digital Devices and Apps

1. Set goals that can create a sense of “flow” so that users of the app or device expend greater effort and motivation.

2. Provide constant feedback that makes the users want more of the stimuli (lights, sounds, “likes” are all examples of feedback people enjoy.

3. Make sure that users can progress in the game or app (rather than losing) so that they remain engaged in what they are playing or doing.

4. By balancing the difficulty level with the chance of the user to succeed, apps and games are engineered to allow achievement (a personal sense of “mastery”) while the app or game steadily raises the stakes to keep the user actively engaged.

5. Use “cliffhangers” -- that is, unexpected reward or some turn of events that the user wasn’t expecting.

6. Make the app or device or site social: people generally crave interaction with others and by sharing in a level of interaction (in a game, among posters to a social media site, etc.) users are rewarded.

Look over these six principles for engineering BAs in the digital world.
  • Which of these have you experienced personally?
  • What personal examples can you give for any of these principles in your own interaction with digital media?

This page was first posted on 3/17/2021