Book Review: Adam Alter’s Irresistible

I came across an interview with Adam Alter talking about smartphones and video game addiction not too long ago. I wrote down his name and the book he was talking about. Irresistible: Why We Can’t Stop Checking, Scrolling, Clicking, and Watching was a breeze to read and maybe a bit addicting. His writing was especially intriguing to me because I have so often been grabbed by light-technology-addictions over the years. I hope I can one day write a book like this. I don’t see his work as particularly ground breaking or innovative but it spoke to me in the moment I needed it. Isn’t that what truth normally does? It speaks to us when we need redirection. Media addiction is a real problem with consequences, some of which we are not entirely sure on, and we don’t really know how to address it yet.

As a direct result of this book I’ve reclaimed my old wristwatch, I no longer keep my phone or my tablet by my bed, and I sit purposefully without a device from time to time. Alter is not writing about a typically understood image of an addict. But, in a way he is. We typically envision addicts who are disheveled, broke, obsessive, and almost manic. They have terrible relationships and they are fueled by one driving pursuit. Contentment. These addicts are all around us and they look different now because part of their addiction is hidden in the normalcy of their activity – engagement in devices. Snapping selfies, engaging in deep philosophical debate via twitter, browsing and reading countless hashtags, texting friends compulsively, connecting with complete strangers in community games, counting every metric of our health, and just not being able to be without our phones. Alter candidly argues that our use of devices is at an addictive level and he draws out components from the high tech innovations we use and shows how they indicate the presence of a behavioral addiction.

Alter guides his reader through the connections between drug addictions and behavioral addictions. He cites numerous psychological studies that have helped researchers understand the functions of the brain more deeply. He presents us with the common circumstances in many addictions and goes to great lengths to show how the devices and apps we use can lead us down a similar path. He takes the time to explain how some of the more addicting components of our beloved devices are the most surprising. The focus on getting “likes” and “retweets” was one example as well as the addictive nature of what’s called a “near win.” These near wins are really just losses but they keep us coming back, looking for that little rush of dopamine that arrives in the presence of a win. But, what do we do about it?

Irresistible is not a self-help book. It’s a bit more of a wake-up call. Alter wants us to understand that the apps and devices we use are designed that way for a reason. We might curtail these addictions if we pay close attention to our environment, or how close and far away we are from our own temptations. If you’re tempted to browse your phone in bed, then don’t charge it next to your bed. Ironically there are some apps that are designed to help you with these things but they come with critics too. An app may replace your current addiction with a new one.

I think the biggest theme that’s woven through Irresistible is that these addictions form when the behavior calms a psychological problem. These problems put our brain on the lookout for anything that can calm us and bring comfort. The devices we become addicted to don’t actually fix the problem but it feels like it does for a moment so we come back again and again and again.

Philip Mott

I've been working with families for two decades now. I write about topics pertaining to parents of children ages 4-12.

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  • This is an excellent review on Adam Alter’s ‘Irresistible’, particularly so as Philip Mott can see patterns of his own behaviour, albeit “lightly”, pertaining to the gadget addiction in question.
    The idea that an addiction can emerge because it has the payoff of being calming or comforting is, I think, insightful and conjures up the image of “relief” (momentarily and/or longer term) from the anxiousness and fear of failure of trying to fulfill the needs of belonging, self worth, freedom and fun with other people in a social setting. The obsession/compulsion/addiction of a gadget such as a mobile phone is that it provides a sense of fulfilling these needs (without immediate risk of rejection by other people in a social setting) and so can have a calming and comforting payoff.
    The downside, of course, is that it undoubtably inhibits the free and spontaneous, real life interactions (the ups and the downs and the joys and disappointments from which we can grow and mature) that can only be truly experienced in the grubbiness of everyday life.