On Habits, Good Ones and Bad

At work I routinely saw patients who suffered from substance addiction.  Addiction is a powerful motivator – it is heart-breaking to see patients forgo buying life-sustaining food, water, and medications to “save up” for the next cocaine fix.  Traditionally science has pinned the mechanism of addiction to biological molecules.  However, over the past few decades, scientific studies began to show that behavioral neuropsychology – the intermingling of biological molecules, behaviors, and how the brain ties everything together into an experience – is a far more complete way to think about addiction.  This intermingling of different fields also shed light on addiction as a disease of a general, even beneficial, motivation pathway.

We already know that heroin, cocaine, and other illegal drugs happen to combine (powerful) biological dependence with psychological dependence.  We also know that humans can become addicted to more than just drugs – achievement, food, and even mother.  Yes, babies become attached their mothers in biologically similar ways drug addicts become attached to opiates (an interesting piece of evidence on why the mechanism for addiction exists in the first place).

Thus, the concept of addiction is not inherently bad – all three non-illicit-drug examples above are benign, even beneficial, in moderation.  We can all imagine the danger of the promising student who gives up on school, the young patient who stops eating, the baby that never cries for mommy.  In fact, attachment – a neutral word for biological and psychological “addiction” – can sometimes be artificially facilitated.

The same science that was used to understand and break harmful habits are now being used commercially to create immersive experiences (yet another neutral word for “addiction”).  After FarmVille stumbled upon success, Zynga and other social game platforms began to distill FarmVille into well-researched elements that can retain players even after the game itself ceased to be fun.  To prove that attachment people develop from social games is a concept distinct from entertainment, an independent programmer developed Cow Clicker by deliberately abusing the addictive mechanisms in social games.  In Cow Clicker, the “gameplay” consists exclusively of clicking on the icon of a cow.  No city-building, no crop-sowing, no army-defeating.  Initially created as a joke/parody, Cow Clicker quickly garnered over 50,000 users until the developer felt disturbed by how easily game addiction can be implemented with surgical precision.  He decided to shut down Cow Clicker (with an in-game event he called “Cowpocalypse.”)  What drives Cow Clicker users to continue “playing” the game is no longer entertainment – just as drug addicts need their fixes no longer for pleasure but mere sustenance.  In fact, a new branch of business theory called “gamification” became popular as corporate owners strived to garner loyalty through game-like elements hoping to produce similar effects of attachment to their products.

While traditional management theory believed in the rational thinker, motivation science is now shifting more towards the “predictably irrational” (also a book title by Dan Ariely of Duke University) behavioral psychology.  While satiating an addiction craving is an extreme form of motivation, perhaps similar biological pathways also govern less intense motivations for work, for hobbies, and for relationships.  I wrote a brief piece on developing [good] habits based on a combination of established science and personal experience.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, the overlaps between good and bad motivators turned out to be profound.  As the neurobehavioral science around attachment, addiction, and motivation matures, perhaps we can begin to identify the most salient ways to better manage our own lives as well.

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Howard Chen
Vice Chair for Artificial Intelligence at Cleveland Clinic Diagnostics Institute
Howard is passionate about making diagnostic tests more accurate, expedient, and affordable through disciplined implementation of advanced technology. He previously served as Chief Informatics Officer for Imaging, where he led teams deploying and unifying radiology applications and AI in a multi-state, multi-hospital environment. Blog opinions are his own and in no way reflect those of the employer.

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