Is Twitter Really More Addictive than Alcohol? The Vagaries of Will and Desire

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Twitter and Facebook are harder to resist than alcohol and cigarettes, but so is the urge to work, according to new research on people’s daily struggles with self-control and desire. The counterintuitive findings may reveal more about the complexities of defining addiction and self-discipline than anything else.

Researchers gave BlackBerrys to 205 adults and signaled them seven times a day at randomly selected daytime hours for one week. When they were contacted, participants reported whether they were experiencing desire for something, what it was that they wanted, how strong the urge was, whether they wished to resist this desire and if they did in fact yield to the temptation.

The most strongly felt desires were for sleep and sex. Unexpectedly, cravings for cigarettes and alcohol were reported as weakest. In terms of actual behavior, participants had the hardest time stopping themselves from checking social media when they preferred not to, and from working when that was not what they truly wanted to do, suggesting that these urges actually drove people’s actions more than drugs or sex did.

While people joke about “workaholism” (can I have some workahol, please?), this research suggests that many people do, indeed, find themselves working when they have a choice not to and actually want to be doing something else. It also implies that, if measured by the intensity of reported desire, sleep and sex are the most addictive of all.

But does that really that mean that work is more addictive than alcohol, or that sleep is as addictive as sex? Here is where the complexity of addiction comes in. We tend to think of addiction as being located in a substance or perhaps an activity — one that is so inherently attractive that it displaces everything else. In the classic case, an addictive drug is viewed as changing the brain to make it unable to resist.

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In reality, however, addiction is a matter of imbalance — between your own personal desire to engage in the addictive behavior and your conflicting desire to avoid the negative consequences of said behavior and/or do something else. Addiction is not absolute, and these particular desires as well as your ability to resist them wax and wane over time and in relation to specific cues, stresses and situations.

For example, research by Columbia neuroscientist Carl Hart (full disclosure: Hart and I are working on a book project together) shows that people who are addicted to crack cocaine will typically choose money rather than a guaranteed dose, if they know that the dose is smaller than what they prefer. This occurs even after they’ve already sampled the various doses offered — a moment when the traditional picture of addiction would have them begging for any dose at all, not turning little ones down for a mere $5. (And no, they can’t just go use the $5 to buy better crack elsewhere; they were living in a monitored hospital ward during the study.)

“Addictive” substances don’t operate in a vacuum — whether or not someone yields to an urge depends not only on the attractiveness of the substance or desired activity, but also on the person’s other alternatives and their ability to consider the particular consequences that may result.

So, for the participants in the BlackBerry research — most were college students and employed people, ages 18-55 — the consequences of yielding to an urge to drink during the day were likely to be much worse than the consequences of having a peek at Twitter. Similarly, the negative consequences of working a bit more are probably far smaller than those of smoking in a nonsmoking office, and indeed the long-term consequences of working are far more positive.

As study co-author Wilhelm Hofmann of Chicago University told the Guardian:

Desires for media may be comparatively harder to resist because of their high availability and also because it feels like it does not ‘cost much’ to engage in these activities, even though one wants to resist. With cigarettes and alcohol there are more costs — long-term as well as monetary — and the opportunity may not always be the right one. So, even though giving in to media desires is certainly less consequential, the frequent use may still ‘steal’ a lot of people’s time.

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Work itself is an especially interesting case because it is socially acceptable — not doing it is grounds for social rejection and isolation — and typically leads to positive rather negative consequences. This would make it, as the behaviorists say, “reinforcing,” but not necessarily addictive. The same is clearly true for sleep: obviously, everyone is dependent on it and experiences strong desires to do it, but calling this an addiction seems absurd.

Indeed, addiction requires compulsive persistence in a behavior or activity despite negative consequences. If the consequences of the activity are positive, it’s not “addictive” — it’s simply desirable. Work can only become “workahol” when people continue doing it in ways that are destructive to their family life and other relationships.

It’s important to note, too, that although the study included smokers, it did not include people with alcoholism — among whom, it’s easy to imagine, the desire to drink would be far stronger.

But what this research does show is that it’s pointless to discuss how “addictive” a particular substance is in isolation. After all, even the most addictive drugs like heroin and cocaine only tend to hook about 15% of those who try them.

What matters is context: an individual’s own relationship with these substances, the consequences that especially concern them (for example, feeling better now as opposed to being unhealthy in the distant future), their particular psychology, unique biology and especially importantly, the other options they have.

Also crucial is yet one more part of the equation: the ability to resist desires and exercise self-control. The study’s authors noted two important findings here. First, the more times someone had resisted desire on a particular day, the more likely they were to yield to it eventually.

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This supports prior work suggesting that willpower is a resource that can be depleted — the more worn down one gets, the harder it is to say no. (Interestingly, however, providing energy to the brain in the form of sugar can often replenish willpower — unless sugar was what you were trying to resist!)

The researchers also found a possible “training” effect. Like a muscle, your will seems to get stronger the more often you exercise it appropriately (too much exercise too fast, after all, can cause injury). The people who had a greater number of desires were better, on average, at resisting them, compared with those who fought with temptation less frequently.

The research will be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science.

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Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

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