By: Nir Eyal



Nir Eyal wrote the book Hooked to describe how we can use a deep understanding of psychology to get people using our products and services over and over again.

So let’s start with a moral dilemma - is it ok to make money by creating addictive behaviours in other people?

I’m on the fence about this one. Is it ethical to use tactics that have been proven to produce addiction to sell products and services?

The capitalist side of my brain tells me that if getting people addicted to my products and services means more profits, then it’s time to put the keys in the addiction engine and put the pedal to the metal.

The communist side of my brain tells me that if even China thinks that capitalism is the way go, then I should just stick to listening to the capitalist side of my brain.

After all, as John Kenneth Galbraith once said, “Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it’s just the opposite.”

So it’s settled - I’m ok with it.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about the book.

Let’s get hooked

Although we are only going to be focussing on one particular part of their model, it’s useful to put that idea into the context of the entire thing.

The model is simple but powerful, and goes like this:

Step #1: A behaviour is triggered.

At first the trigger is an external prompt to take the action, like the reminders your calendar will send you to make sure you show up to a meeting on time.

Eventually, if you go through this loop enough times, the trigger will become internal, so that no external prompt is required in order to perform the action.

Facebook is a master of this. When you first sign up, the only time you would login to the service was if you were sent a notification. You’d get a notification that you were tagged in a photo. If you were out late last night drinking with your friends, your initial reaction is probably sheer terror about what your friend posted for the world to see, prompting you to immediately login to your account to see the damage.

Eventually, though, you are constantly checking Facebook throughout the day without the need for notifications at all. You are hooked.

Step #2: An action is performed.

The next step after the trigger is that you perform an action. To carry on the example from Step #1, you login to your account and view the photo.

In the initial stages of creating the habit, you’ll want to make sure that the person performing the action has the necessary motivation and ability to do it. We could spend hours talking about this section alone, and in particular the work of BJ Fogg - a researcher from Stanford University (where the founders of Instagram took his class on human behaviour). In particular, you’ll want to make sure that the action is easy to do, because influencing motivation is hard.

In this case, the action of viewing a photo of yourself on Facebook is pretty easy for anybody who knows how to use a computer.

Step #3: A variable reward is given for the action.

Now that you’ve logged in to your account and viewed the photo (thank God your friend didn’t post the most incriminating pictures and please God I hope he erased them from his phone),it’s time for the “variable reward” section of the habit loop.

Anybody with a pet knows that rewarding behaviour typically gets you more of that behaviour. However, I have found that no amount of rewards will prevent our dog from using our main floor carpet as his personal toilet whenever we leave the house. But that’s not the point…the point is that how you give that reward matters a lot.

Psychologist B.F. Skinner performed some now famous experiments with “schedules of reinforcement”. What he found was that “variable schedule of reinforcement” was a much more powerful way of eliciting an action than a “fixed-ratio schedule of reinforcement”. In other words, not knowing exactly when the reward is coming, or how big the reward will be, creates more motivation to perform the action. The authors of the book call these “variable rewards”.

(A quick side note: he performed his experiments with rats, but proving that human beings are not much more intelligent than rodents, this works on us as well.)

In the Facebook example, the reward was seeing what was in the photo. The “variable reward” here was that you didn’t know what was in that photo until you logged in. You knew that you would receive a reward for logging in (viewing a photo), but you didn’t know what was in it (the variability). If Facebook let you see the photo without logging in, well, you probably wouldn’t have logged in.

So while it seems like they are performing a nice gesture by letting you know that there’s a picture of you on their service, what they are really doing is conditioning you to login to their service, over and over again.

Step 4: An investment is made to create commitment to the product.

So, up until this point, what we have is basically a rehashing of the Operant Conditioning Model that was made popular by B.F. Skinner.

But to this model the authors add something new - the “investment” phase. The theory is simple. The more users invest time and effort into a product or service, the more they value it.

This is called rationalisation, and there are three psychological theories which help us get to this state.

The first one is called the “Ikea Effect”. Dan Ariely and his behaviour psychologist friends performed a study in 2011 that measured the effect of labour on how people value things. Their conclusion was that people valued products more highly when they created it themselves.

For instance, test subjects valued their sloppy and amateur versions of folded origami as equal in value to expert paper folders. These people are called organists, and one of the worlds top experts is Peter Engel, who is listed in Wikipedia as an “influential origami artist and theorist”. You learn something new every day.

The second one is called “Commitment and Consistency”, which was made famous by Robert Cialdini in his book Influence. Many studies in this area have shown that we seek to be consistent with our past behaviours, and that by giving a small commitment to something today, you are more likely to give a larger commitment tomorrow.

The third one is the idea that we will avoid cognitive dissonance at all costs. For example, this might be hard to believe, but the first time you tried alcohol, you probably hated it.

Eyal suggests that we learned to like it because it was hard to reconcile the fact that we didn’t like it, and the fact that so many other people can’t seem to get enough of it. So, when there are situations where our experience and the outside world don’t line up to meet our expectations, we change our preferences.

When you add all three of these psychological factors together, you get rationalisation, a very powerful force indeed.

An example of rationalisation

Let’s go back to the Facebook example and change the scenario. My father-in-law, who shall remain nameless because I fear for my life, likes to play poker on Facebook. Of course, he “never goes on that thing”, which I know is a little white lie that hurts nobody. My mother-in-law can’t stand it, which is why I find it hilarious to greet him with “Are you winning or losing?” every time I see him.

Anyways, every once in awhile I’ll get a notification from Facebook with an invitation to join him in the game. Of course, he has no interest in playing with me, he just gets more virtual currency if he invites his Facebook friends.

Although I haven’t given in to the temptation yet, one day Facebook will win and I’ll find myself checking out that game.

Jesse Schell, an influential game designer and professor at Carnegie Mellon University, gave a talk at an industry conference in 2010, and he spoke about the idea of rationalisation and why it made game designers on Facebook millions of dollars. He walks through the thought process of this rationalisation, and I’m going to take some creative license here and insert myself and my father-in-law into his narrative.

So, when I do finally give in and check out the game, here’s what’s going to be going on in my head, according to Jesse Schell:

And now I’m playing the game, and that’s kind of cool, because it’s my real friends (and my father-in-law).

But then: Hey, hey, my father-in-law is better than me.

How can I remedy that? Well, I can play a long time, just like my father-in-law, or I can just put 20 bucks in. Ah-hah!

And it’s even better if that 20 bucks I put in validates something that I know is true, that I am greater than my father-in-law, and then I can verify that.

And then I combine that with the psychological idea of rationalisation:

Anything I spend time on, I start to believe this must be worthwhile. Why? Because I spent time on it.

Therefore, it must be worth me kicking in 20 bucks because look at the time I spent on it. And now that I kicked in 20 bucks, it must be valuable, because only an idiot would kick in 20 bucks if it wasn’t.

And that’s the psychology behind how social casino games became a $2.7 billion industry (and growing) in 2014, and is projected to become a $4.4 billion industry this year.

What’s next

Most of you won’t be using this information to create the next big social casino game or the next great social network. But if you use your imagination, you can come up with a number of ways this might help you market what you are already selling.

I’ll leave the details to you, but taking your customers/prospects through the gauntlet of triggers, actions, variable rewards and investment over and over again will easily lead you to better results.

Onwards and upwards.