How Businesses Get People Addicted (David Courtwright Interview)

How Businesses Get People Addicted (David Courtwright Interview)

It’s great to welcome to the program today,
David Courtright, who is a university of North Florida historian and addiction expert. Also author of the the age of addiction, how
bad habits became big business. So great to have you on today. I appreciate your time. Well David, it’s great to be here. So let’s start with maybe just defining some
of the terms we’re using when we talk about a addiction. Are we talking about it in a, in a sort of
way that more approximates what the medical community sees as addiction? Or are we talking about something else that
may be is, uh, more related to cultural norms or expectations or social norms? What do we mean by addiction in this sense? Actually, we’re talking about both. We’re talking about addiction in a medical
sense and we’re also talking about the social fact of addiction. That more and more people are describing more
and more things as being addictive, you know, and in many ways the big question is whether
that’s hype or whether there really is something, a medical and in a public health way, very
important about these novel forms of addiction. The one area that probably immediately comes
to people’s minds when we talk about the business of addiction is social media and smartphones
and these variable reward systems that function very much like, like slot machines. But you actually are looking beyond that,
right? I mean you’re, you’re uh, looking at other
industries as well, right? I was, um, actually it was as much a matter
of personal curiosity as anything. I started working in this field 40 years ago
and when I started out, if you put played a word association game, what do you think
of when you think of addiction? People would say heroin or some other drug. And that was pretty much yet. Now you could get any answer or any one of
several answers. You could get porn, you could get social media,
you could get food addiction. Uh, there are lots and lots of addictions
out there. And so the basic question is what led to such
a proliferation of addictions and what does it do or have to do with our, our economic
and social systems. So let’s start thinking about that. The, there’s this term limbic capitalism that
you use. Can we first talk a little bit about what
you mean by that? Cause it’s so key to understanding your perspective. Right. And so I was looking for a common denominator
and what I found is that there are in fact many different kinds of businesses that have
a common strategy. And that strategy is to provide products and
services that produce a quick hit of brain reward. And that’s really the key because all ultimately
most of their profits come from only a handful of their customers and they really depend
on those, um, heavy regular users. And at the limit, uh, at the extreme, uh,
I think it’s fair to call those users addicts. And can we apply that to, so I mean, I recently
had a conversation with a caller about the concept of the American dream and there was
this idea that you could even go, I mean, on the one hand you might have something as
nitty gritty as the Facebook algorithm, but then on the other hand you could make the
case that the idea of the American dream of a home ownership sometimes even if it’s beyond
one’s means of having the latest car and technology and whatever, that that can also generate
a form of what some might call addiction or addiction to consumption culture or something
like that. [inaudible] does that fall under what you’re
describing or is that maybe outside of it? It’s actually outside of it. This is a question I get a lot, uh, is, is
there something, um, addictive about capitalism or consumerism itself? And I don’t really go there because I think
that that’s, that’s just pushing it too hard. If someone’s in the hardware business and
they’re competing to sell you the latest lawn mower or you know, new gutters for your house
or whatever, they may resort to advertising. You may be keeping up with the Joneses. But that’s not the same thing as an addiction. An addiction is something that involves, um,
loss of control. It involves craving preoccupation, and it
involves fairly serious harms to both yourself, your family and to society. And so I, I, to me that’s not garden variety
consumerism, but there is a species of consumerism which is involved with these very, uh, fast
acting brain rewarding products that is in a category by itself. Can you, well, I want to talk about what’s
happening in the brain when, when the social media dopamine hits are happening. But before we do that, can you give us a couple
of other examples that maybe are less obvious ones? So you said, you know, maybe the lawn mower
sales is not, but the social media is, what are some other examples that do fall under
the purview of what you’re describing? Well there’s surprising some of them anyway,
or they were surprising to me. So there’s in fact a large body of medical
literature on tanning salons as a kind of behavioral addiction. There are people who actually find the ultraviolet
radiation and the ritual brain rewarding to the point that they just can’t break it off
and they end up doing themselves fairly serious harm, most obvious harm being increased. Reese risk of skin cancer. So yeah, there are other, other kinds of,
um, addictive behaviors out there. So let’s talk a little bit now about, uh,
the, the, the, the dopamine release that exists with a lot of these variable rewards systems. So as I understand it, you have a Facebook
account, email falls under this, um, uh, notifications on Instagram, whatever the case may be. You don’t know at any particular point in
time when you access your account, whether you will have notifications or likes or comments
or interesting posts from someone. And it’s the fact that the reward is unpredictable
that makes you seek it out often because the reward is sometimes maybe more exciting than
other times. And that is what generates a lot of that repeated
action. Is that more or less the way we should understand
it and what’s happening in the brain when that takes place? Well, technically what’s happening in the
brain is a burst release of dopamine. You get a little dopamine hit when you get
alike in the same way that if you hit a small jackpot on a digital gambling machine in Las
Vegas, that’s rewarding too. In fact, the simple way to think about this
is we’re all walking around and we’re walking around with one of these, we’re all walking
around a with a little slot machine in our hands. And um, you’re right, you don’t know what’s
gonna come across the screen. And a lot of it is rewarding. And the fact that it’s variable reinforcement
also is a big part of it. How do we consider the types of, or I guess
before we even get to that, I mean, so, so you’ve identified, uh, the, this issue and
others have as well. And depending on one’s either worldview or
sensibilities or other factors, they might say this is something that needs to be quote
solved or fixed in some way. Others might say, no, this is going to sort
of naturally work itself out. It’s not not really the problem that some
are describing it to be. Question one is, is this a problem that requires
fixing in your mind and if so, what are the types of solutions that we should be looking
at? Well, certainly there are harms that STEM
from addictive behavior and so even something as as seemingly innocuous as spending too
much time on your smart phone becomes a different matter if you’re doing it while you’re driving. So people really do lose their lives because
of distracted driving. That’s a problem and that requires I think,
some kind of a policy response, but what you have is a whole array of possible responses. Everything from education all the way to at
the other extreme prohibition. You know, nobody’s arguing, or at least I’m
not arguing for the prohibition of smart phones or social media, but I think there are real
questions of regulation that do arise from these kinds of practices. What would be a form of regulation that would
not be an immediate sort of political go nowhere suggestion because you would have just extraordinary
disagreement from, you know, the anti nanny state side, the libertarian side, the skeptical
of corporations that there’s all these competing political interests. It’s hard for me as someone who’s in this
stuff all the time to think about what sort of regulation might even have a, have a, have
a prayer of passing and becoming a reality. Well, if you’re looking at smartphones and
social media, um, privacy regulations would be a good example. I mean this, this would discourage certain
kinds of apps that are basically designed to get information about you so that the providers
can then sell that in for invitation. I’m sorry, that information to advertisers
and you and they can make a lot of money. Um, for other kinds of addictive products. You have policy proposals that are relatively
non-controversial, like age restrictions. Okay. So the whole jewel scandal and, and what’s
happening with vaping is another really good example of this. Even the manufacturers have jumped on board
the let’s raise it to age 21 bandwagon. Um, generally speaking, anything that poses
a threat or a perceived threat to youth is most likely to prompt a strong policy response. That that’s kind of the ultimate hot button
here is that it endangers the health and wellbeing of young people. Then you tend to get stronger reactions that
have a broader base of political support. There’s quite a bit of scholarship, um, about
the perils of vice taxes and the idea that they can, um, and, and even going further
than taxing vices, actually banning vices can make the, uh, make it even more appealing
to try to access or avail oneself or, or of whatever it is that a law or rule or tax is
trying to disincentivize. Do you think that that is relevant when we
think about the issue of, uh, of limbic capitalism and addicting technology? Or are we really dealing with kind of a different
animal with a different, uh, sort of framework that we should put around it? Yeah, I think that there’s a sweet spot when
it comes to taxation. I don’t know if the fact of taxation necessarily
is an inducement to using these products, but sometimes governments will tax a product
for the sake of revenue, which by the way, is one of the, the main barriers to antivirus
policies is that governments have a stake in the revenue streams as, as well as private
corporations. Sure. Um, I mean lottery tickets are great example
of that, although you can, you can think of many others, but you can, you can tax it at
a level that provides revenue or you can tax it really high so that it’s a [inaudible]
prohibition. And in many States in the United States, cigarettes,
for example, our tax at such a high rate that it’s virtually a prohibition. Or for many people it’s a kind of prohibition
because they’re so expensive. Um, I think there’s a sweet spot in between
or you can tax things in a way that you are discouraging the use of a product but you’re
not taxing them at such a rate that once you do is simply create another black market in
the products which for example has happened with cannabis in many States. There’s still a huge black market in cannabis
largely because the state taxes are so high. Can you talk a little bit about um, so there
will be, there will be people who watch this interview or listen to this interview and
they’ll say, okay, there are new ways in which companies are taking advantage of a have this
understanding of how the brain works that are very notable to us like social media,
but this is not new in the sense that companies really have had an understanding of this and
have been taking advantage of it for a long time. Question one is do you agree that this has
been going on in some form for a long time, but then part two of the question is, is there
something has aligned, been crossed in some way that it is now materially different than
what it was before? Yes. Uh, the, the book is a history of, and we’ve
had addictions as part of the human condition for a long, long time and we’ve been developing
new pleasures and blending pleasures and all of that, but it’s only in the last 400 years
or so that the thing really took off with transatlantic commerce, with the development
of plantation agriculture, industrialization, mass marketing, the rise of cities. And then to that, I would add that it’s been
an only in the last 30 years or so that we’ve reached the point where people have become
so sophisticated about these products that they’re actually designing products in a way
to maximize their addictive potential. So, so in other words, there was commerce
in addictive products. There was mass production of addictive products,
there were lots of hooks out there in the consumer waters. The, now we figured out how to sharpen those
hooks to some degree. I know that you, you know, you made clear
that you’re not an anticapitalist and neither am I, but to some degree it does seem as though
a lot of the substance of the addictive nature of some of these platforms is connected to
consumer culture in a way that we can’t really divorce from the economic system that we have. And I’m trying to find the right way to sort
of frame the question. On the one hand, you don’t have to be anticapitalist
to offer a strong critique and solutions to the problem you identify. At the same time, there seems to be something
about the current flavor of capitalism that’s predominant that can’t really be divorced
from the problem you identify. Yeah. Well one way to think about that is we do
live in a culture of consumption, but there’s consumption and there’s excessive consumption. And then at the far extreme there’s addiction. I mean, I really like to think of addiction
as the end point, the harmful end point of one of several spectra of consumption. And if you think of it in those terms, you
don’t have to diet the whole system of consumer capitalism to realize that there are some
products and practices that are particularly harmful. And I think particularly call out for regulation. Vaping, again coming to mind as an example. Yeah, I mean, I don’t know. We don’t have to go completely off into vaping,
but here in Massachusetts there’s been this four month a sort of moratorium a while the
causes, some of the vaping related injuries are being investigated. And that seems to be a particularly complex
one because on the one hand you have the vaping products themselves and the harm that they’re
causing. But then you also have what some are pointing
out as a bit of an incongruency behind between vaping law, cannabis law and cigarette and
alcohol law. And sometimes it seems as though the, I mean,
I’m curious whether you have a particular take on what you think should be done as far
as the vaping products are concerned. Well, they being products, uh, fall into,
uh, a special category of, of toxic products that are enormously beneficial when used properly. Another classic example would be prescription
opioids, which is also a huge issue in Massachusetts. These are life saving drugs when used properly. When you’re treating people after surgery
or people who’ve been traumatized or people who are at the end of life, you know these
are valuable and legitimate commodities. A, on the other hand, you can look at what’s
happened over the last 25 or 30 years and realized that there were industries that overpromoted
and oversupplied these same products in a way that was not good for the public health. So it’s really a two edge sword in the problem
of regulation for these products in particular are these kinds of products is how do you
get the maximum medical benefit out of them? In the case of vaping, obviously to harm reduction
for confirmed smokers, well all at the same time preventing the harms, which would be
a nicotine addiction for young smokers. We’ve been speaking with David Courtright,
who is a university of North Florida historian and addiction expert. Much of what we’ve been discussing is outlined
in more detail in the book, the age of it, diction, how bad habits became big business. David does such a pleasure having you on and
I really appreciate your time today. Oh, David again, it’s been great to be with

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About the Author: Oren Garnes


  1. Hold the phone! Porn, food, social media and drugs are bad?
    Unrelated; Do you think David has ever tripped balls? like all giggles and crying?

  2. He should have commented on America's addiction to credit cards. It's a sickness and addiction just like any other and can ruin people's lives. A tip my wise old father once gave me about purchasing things was simple, "Is it a need or a want?"…try asking yourself that next time you're going to buy something. That little "tip" changed my way of thinking and buying. Good video David.

  3. Hi could you please do a show, on why L.A, Sanfrancisco, And Now Spreading To Denver Colorado, Are Knee deep in "POOP"… Everywhere You See Tents..??? And Outside Shop Owner Doors..???? Then The Owners Get Fined If They Don't Clean Up Tent City "POOPERS POOP"..???? One Lady Interviewed Had Warm Runny "POOP" Poured On Her Head, As She Was Passing By The Homless Tent ".."POOPERS"…My Question Is Who Is Running "POOP" Districts..??? And Don't They Care About The People's Living In Those Districts..??? Why Haven't They Done What They Promised…???? "NOTHING"..??????

  4. Stop calling it an addiction. It’s simply the all American way of excess. algorithms are put in the site to maintain your interest (due to heavy and increasing competition )and enhance your experience. The problem is (mostly) Americans have no discipline or knowledge of limit, so they find a scapegoat. They did the same shit with TV.

  5. No healthcare is a fucking problem
    Healthcare and dental all free no matter what conditions is
    Or don't tell me it it's about saving lives

  6. Of course this guy has to label it as some sort of issue that exists due to Capitalism, despite it being an issue regardless of any economic system.

  7. I developed an addiction to socializing at pubs and taverns, but that addiction proved itself much more expensive than socializing on YouTube.

  8. When products are designed by businesses to make people keep buying them… Some people are still starving at the corners you never knew…

    Humans are wasting resources for excessive self indulgence…

    Where would this take us?

  9. Health definitely is a key, but more important is the fact that markets are more and more dominated by companies that are able to provide the right stimuli – independent from the quality of the products they sell. These companies will outrace all of the smaller companies and will change the rules of decision making of what is expected to be a free market.

  10. This was an interesting topic. In my opinion, the fact that we have so many addictions these days and maladaptive behaviors makes me wonder what, if anything, our particular economic system/society is depriving us of and if the same problems would exist under alternative systems.

  11. "What's going on with 'vaping…" is that the corporate media is conflating illness derived from illegal black market THC cartridges with professionally-made and marketed nicotine products. Products which are made for adults as a vastly safer alternative to burning tobacco tar.

    The entire secondary argument (which is one that benefits tobacco companies, by the way) is that "adults don't like flavors". Thus, any vapor product consisting of any non-tobacco flavor is somehow "targeted toward teens". An argument which is patently absurd. I am 40 years old, and I quit a 21-year, 2 pack-per-day cigarette addiction with Juicy Fruit Gum-flavored vapor. It's the only flavor that kept me going back, and OFF the smokes. It's been 8 years, and still no cigarettes. Flavor was the key to that transition. Vapor saves lives. Period.

  12. I know people like to go on about "how people are addicted to smartphones" but that's like saying people who are addicted to fast food are addicted to making calls, to order food, or driving, to get to the drive-thru.
    a smartphone is a mobile person computer that is capable of making and receiving calls, it's not the phone that people get addicted to, it's the software that can be run on the phone, and the connectivity it provides.
    you could argue that people are "addicted to their cars" as people are always getting in and out of them to go to work, go out to eat, go out to shop……

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