Zoë Chance studies and teaches persuasion, focusing on tiny tweaks that help people lead richer, healthier, happier lives. Below is the full transcript of Zoë’s TEDx Talk titled ‘How to Make a Behavior Addictive’ at TEDxMillRiver conference.
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Zoë Chance – Professor, Yale School of Management
I haven’t started any mass movement, I don’t have a mass movement to start but I can speak from experience. I’ll be talking with you today about a framework for understanding things that create addictive behaviors. And it’s not my academic credentials that qualify me to share this with you, it’s my personal experience as an addict. And I’m coming clean today telling this story for the very first time and its raw ugly detail.
In March of 2012, winter was ending, or so I thought, and the winter of my discontent was beginning, when I purchased a device that would slowly begin to ruin my life. And my husband is right here and he is smiling because he lived through this with me. The device that I purchased was a pedometer. You think, “A pedometer!” but some of you are thinking, “I have that pedometer.” This wasn’t just any pedometer, this was the Striiv. They market it as personal trainer in your pocket. No. It is Satan in your pocket, tempting you and tempting you to walk, and tempting you to walk.
So you know how you’re supposed to reach 10,000 steps a day as an ideal goal for living a healthy life and being a healthy person? How many of you have tried and measured, try to reach 10,000 a day? It’s hard. Right? This is not trivial. 10,000 steps is 5 miles. When I was using the Striiv, I was going 24,000 steps a day. You do the math. I’m not a distance runner, and if you’re walking the only way that you can reach 10,000 steps a day is by not stopping. So that’s what I did. I would arrive at work, I would grab an article, anything that I didn’t need to be at the computer to do, and I would pace, down the corridor, outside my office. I would come home, and while I was eating, or while I was reading, or while I was eating and reading at the same time, or while my husband was trying to talk to me, I would be going in the circuit between the living room, the kitchen and the dining room, and the living room, the kitchen and the dining room.
My marriage was deteriorating. I spent a little more time with my daughter, she was three at the time, and I only spent time with her because she was willing to sit down with me on my lap and fool with the freaking pedometer with me. So the only people that I was getting closer to at this point in time, were my colleague Ernest, who also had a Striiv, so we could set challenges and we could compete with each other, and we could bond over it, and with the community of freaks on the internet, who were addicts like me.
I was creating spreadsheets to optimize and track — not my exercising, but my virtual transactions in a virtual world that exists in our Striiv device. You know the game Farmville, it’s that really boring game where nothing happens but it’s so addictive that it helped cause the US economic collapse. Right? Those developers developed a game inside Striiv, it’s called My Land, nothing happens except that plants grow and buildings get built and nothing happens. But this game is so addictive that you just can’t stop.
I guess I would say the last straw, was one night, it was midnight and I was brushing my teeth, I was getting ready for bed and on the Striiv this pop up challenge showed up. And these things surprise, you don’t know when they’re going to happen. This pop up challenge comes and it says we will you triple the points if you just climb twenty stairs. And that’s not a lot, two flights of stairs you can do it probably in a minute. So no problem, I go down to the basement, climbed twenty stairs. I don’t have two flights of stairs in my basement but you know up and down like a treadmill, but I finish it and then another challenge pops up, and it says, “Great, how about 40 steps and we’ll triple the points again.” and these are the points you can use in that crazy virtual world, so, “Yes, of course, it’s a good deal, it’s a good exchange rate.”
Four more flights of stairs — a behavioral economist apparently. So, four more flights of stairs, and there’re more challenges and even without the challenges I found that I can’t stop. And between midnight and two o’clock in the morning, two hours that I’d planned on sleeping I am going like a nutcase up and down the stairs in my basement, 2,000 stairs I climbed. I hurt my neck, and my neck is injured, because my head, my stupid head is bouncing up down like this. Right? And at this time I had become so neurotic that I was spending hours a day counting my steps, and I found that even when I wasn’t moving, I was still counting.
The blessing of the stairs episode was the neck injury. When the neck injury happened, I had to take a break from exercising, which allowed me to take a break from the Striiv, and I finally acknowledged what my husband had been saying for a while, that I had a problem. I would have gone for a twelve-step program but that would have seemed like another challenge.
So the only option was to go cold turkey. And at this point I thought it was my problem. So I gave this Striiv to my sister. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts and we talk on the phone, and we’re communicating with each other, she loves it, she’s so happy, it’s a wonderful present, and I do notice that many of the times that we talk to each other she’s walking around outside. It seems like a good thing until my mom calls me and she tells me that my sister Mika has been walking around outside in Cambridge Massachusetts, which many of you know is an urban area, in the middle of the night, and she’s walking for miles. She’s taking her life into her own hands when she does this. You guys there aren’t any streetwalkers in Cambridge, it’s mostly college kids, but it is urban, and the only women who were walking around at night for miles are crazy. And she’s crazy. She’s possessed by Satan in her pocket.