Addiction is a pretty good business model. Seduce your consumer by speaking to their unconscious needs and cognitive biases, flood the reward circuits of the brain as frequently as possible, and hook them hard into your product or platform. Creating an addictive product creates a perpetual consumption machine.
Whether we’re unable to stop eating the perfectly engineered blend of sweet, salty, crunchy and creamy, or we’re giving away our privacy and peace of mind for a few more likes, the result is the same. Today’s economy is fuelled by trapping people into compulsive behaviours which aren’t in their own best interests over time.
Addiction is even appearing on our business school course list, under terms such as behavioural economics, nudging, and gamification. The Stanford Pervasive Technology Lab has given it a sciency new name, captology, and a fair amount of controversy to go with it.
Whatever our intentions, to hijack people’s habit-forming circuitry for their own good or for our profit, the products we create often generate unanticipated harm – both for consumers and businesses. As leaders we must ask, “what does it mean for our organisation to have an addiction problem?”
It’s helpful to start by reframing our understanding of the topic at hand. What have we assumed to be so true about addiction that we have never questioned it?
We assume, “once an addict, always an addict.” Or not. Addictive behaviours generally start for very rational and functional reasons, whether it’s self-medicating a mental illness, coping with an overwhelming situation, or simply needing some human love and affection. Sometimes we fall in love with the behaviour past the point of it serving our needs.
But then most people recover from their addictive behaviours. Recovery is the norm rather than the exception, and only sometimes through abstinence and 12-step programs.
This isn’t to understate the harm that results from addiction. Death from overdose or lung cancer, chronic disease like diabetes, broken relationships, empty bank accounts and feelings of guilt and low self-worth are just a few of the negative consequences.
The human psyche needs these behaviours at times. That psyche also needs a sense of control. Whenever a product or a business wrests control away and amplifies our own feelings of anxiety, shame or lack of confidence, there will be a deep and resounding counter-reaction. People will quit you. Maybe not tomorrow, but eventually.
Whether it comes swiftly, like Facebook’s $120 billion loss in market value in one day, or more slowly, as regulation and changing cultural norms erode your business over decades, the reckoning will come. People have needs, but they will meet those needs elsewhere. Addiction might yield returns in the short-term to mid-term, but it’s not a great business model for long-term sustainable growth.
Even seemingly innocuous products like soap and deodorant get caught in the cycle. As Matt Haig, author of the best seller Notes on a Nervous Planet recently tweeted: “When adverts sell us confidence they are really selling us anxiety. They have been doing this for decades. It’s the consumer model, fuel anxiety then give us a solution, and look like they are doing us a favour.”
When we treat people as problems, we end up in an unsolvable loop. If you solve their problem, if you actually cure their disease, there is no business model. People sense that contradiction in everything from big pharma, to the fitness industry, to social media, and this feeds the general sense of distrust, conspiracy, and misinformation that is driving public opinion today.
Is that just the way it is? Our flawed human and corporate condition? The best of a bad bunch of choices where we all need to survive?
Certainly, companies did not invent addiction. These needs and behaviours predate the market economy, industrialisation, machine learning and the AI revolution.
Addiction is not a flaw that can be eliminated from the human condition, and like pain, we shouldn’t try. It exists for a reason. However, it also is not a feature we should focus on manipulating or triggering. Businesses that rely on addiction will almost always suffer in the future as people wean themselves off the empty highs of their product offering.
Business leaders must be unafraid to ask themselves the following questions: Where in your business do you talk about fixing, solving, curing, or even empowering your customers? How in that situation do you assume that people, human beings, are the problem to be solved, the flaw in the plan, the faulty loop in the circuit? What is the unintended harm that creates for you and your customers?
Business that stop seeing faceless consumers to be tricked and start seeing people with power and control far beyond your own, can start to see beyond a short-lived spiral of addiction. Addiction is a hard business model to shake. But what’s beyond might be even better.
Julie Jenson Bennett is CEO of Precipice, a strategic consultancy based in London. She and her team are experts in how people’s bodies, emotions and relationships are changing, and how to use this strategic foresight to transform emerging science and technology into product pipelines for the future.