Here’s What Makes an Addictive Product, According to Social Scientists

Here's What Makes an Addictive Product

We’re social creatures. Each of us is sustained by the attention and positive gestures of friends and acquaintances. Whenever we get a smile or a laugh from the member of the opposite sex, a surge of chemicals bursts through our brains and blood-streams, enlivening us. Whenever we tell a joke and have all our buddies laugh along, the same thing occurs. People always talk about how a human can only survive without food for about a month, and water for about a week. But this statement of necessities leaves out one thing: social support.

Studies on social isolation have shown us how powerful of a physical and mental toll it can take. John Cacioppo, a social psychologist from the University of Chicago, “…has found, for instance, loneliness is tied to hardening of the arteries (which leads to high blood pressure), inflammation in the body, and even problems with learning and memory. Even fruit flies that are isolated have worse health and die sooner than those that interact with others, showing that social engagement may be hard-wired…”.

From an evolutionary point of view, this all makes sense. Throughout our long history, tribes were our lifelines. Surviving in harsh European winters or brutal Savannah summers took a tribe–an isolated individual, and his family, was as good as dead. Evolution selects for aptitudes that help us produce offspring and ensure their survival. Top amongst these aptitudes for humans is social intelligence.

Robin Dunbar, the head of the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group at the University of Oxford, has shown that the size of the neocortex (a part of the brain) relative to the rest of the brain is directly related to the size of the social group that a primate operates within. Monkeys and apes have a much smaller neocortex to brain size ratio, and their effective social groups are much much smaller than those of humans. Our large brains allow us to maintain and take advantage of much larger webs of people, giving us the ability to build larger communities and teams. This is an immense evolutionary advantage, and has allows us to conquer every conceivable corner of the world. Operating elegantly and effectively in this web is one of the most important things we can do.

If you understand this about human psychology, most of the large tech product successes begin to make sense. What do MySpace, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter have in common? They’re all social. They help us understand the social web we sit within, and they also give us the social reinforcement and support that we crave. In the consumer product world, the “most engaging” (AKA time consuming) apps are all social. Uber, Amazon, and Google are all world-changing, but they don’t command the time and attention of Facebook and Snapchat. After all, they’re utilities that a person comes to, uses to solve a problem, and moves on. Social products, like Facebook, are never-ending sources of information about our social standing and possibilities. This is a never-ending game that requires an immense amount of investment. With Amazon and grocery delivery services, you can get your survival equipment in an hour or so each week. But social information gathering can’t be as easily compressed. Alliances and connections are constantly shifting, and understanding what people are up to and how they’re feeling is a delicate and time-consuming process. It’s no wonder that 1.7 billion people spend an average of 50 minutes on Facebook each day.

So, the next time someone asks you what makes a product addictive, you can stare them in the eyes and confidently say: any hub of social information will be as addictive as food or water. Our genes make sure this is so.

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