Why'd You Push That Button? is back. We took a break last week to feast on Thanksgiving side dishes, and now we've returned to break down why we snack on our own Instagram content. More specifically, we want to know why people rewatch their own Instagram stories and obsessively check who's viewed them.
We talk to our friend and true influencer Claire Carusillo about her foray into Instagram stories and how she's focused on the platform after ending her beauty newsletter. We also chat with The Verge's senior transportation reporter Andy Hawkins about how he uses Instagram stories to record his kids and create the 2017 version of home videos. Then, finally, we take all our questions to Nir Eyal, the author of the book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, who explains how Instagram trapped us into this viewing cycle.
Listen to the podcast above, and check out Nir's interview transcription below. As a reminder, you can always find us anywhere you listen to podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play Music, and our RSS feed. We also have an email — email@example.com — so email us your ideas, your critiques, your thoughts, and, if you're feeling bold, an audio recording of a button pushing that went wrong. We're going to record a holiday spectacular show in which we play back your audio files and read emails. Get ready.
Ashley: Before we really get into the Instagram stuff, can you explain to us how you got to writing this book, and what it's all about, and your background?
Nir Eyal: Sure, yeah. So, I spent many years in the gaming and advertising industries, and at the intersection of those two industries, I saw a lot of companies come and go, and a lot of different experiments run. I admit to you, these industries depend upon mind control. They depend upon changing your behaviors. Not getting you to do things you don't want to do, but they're particularly good at getting you to do things you do want to do. Advertisers don't spend all that money for their health, and gaming companies are masters of changing human behavior, so that you enjoy their games. But in the intersection of those two industries, I learned a lot. I learned a lot of these techniques that are used to influence behavior, particularly online. So after my company was acquired, I had some time on my hands and I wanted to figure out what to do next, and I was looking for a handbook for how do you use these techniques to build products for good. How do you build products that can help people build healthy habits in their lives? And, I didn't find that book. I didn't find any kind of how-to manual for the psychology of designing for engaging products. So that's why I wrote it myself.
Ashley: As we are talking about on this podcast, we are all sufficiently addicted to checking our Instagram stories, and everyone checks them for very different reasons, but I want you to answer for me the straight question: why the heck are we so addicted to Instagram stories and Instagram in general?
Okay. Let's chop it into whether you're actually addicted or not. We use this word addiction, but I just want to make sure that we use that word properly because a lot of times, it doesn't mean what people think it means. Addiction is not "I like it a lot," addiction is not, "I use it quite a bit." Addiction is not, "Sometimes I even regret using it too much." Addiction is a persistent, compulsive dependence on a behavior or substance that harms the user. What most people mean when they say they're addicted to their social media, is that they use it more than they'd like, and they use more than they'd like because, look, the fact is these products are built by people who really understand what makes you click and what makes you tick better than you understand yourself. They are designed to be good.
And they are built with a certain pattern in mind, and that pattern is called, "the hook." This is kind of what I describe in my book. It's this four-step model, this four-step user flow that involves a trigger, an action, a reward, and finally, an investment, and it's through successive cycles through those four steps that we form these long-term habits, that we change our patterns of behavior.
Ashley: Okay. So, if we look at Instagram stories specifically, do you think we could break down the four steps for stories?
Sure, yeah. So, let's say with Instagram. So, every hook starts with an external trigger. The external trigger is something that tells you what to do. It's some kind of notification, some kind of ping, some kind of ding, some kind of trigger that tells you do this now. So on Instagram, it might be a notification on your phone that says, "Hey, somebody you know just did something, check it out." That's the external trigger. Then the next phase of the hook is the action. Now, the action is defined as the simplest behavior done in anticipation of a reward. What do you do when you see that notification? You open the app, right? And, you start scrolling the feed on Instagram and you see all these interesting photos. Now, that takes you to the next step, which is the reward phase, and in particular, it's about variable rewards. So, one aspect of these products that we see across the board is that they incorporate an element of what's called an intermittent reinforcement.
So, this comes from the work of B.S. Skinner. You might remember Skinner from your psych class back in college. He took these pigeons, he put them in a little box, and he gave them a disc to peck at, and every time the pigeon pecked at the disc, they would receive a little reward, a little food pellet. And what Skinner found was that when he gave the food pellet on a predictable schedule, so meaning every time the pigeon would peck at the disc, they would receive a reward, they did so less often than when the pigeon received the reward on a variable schedule. So sometimes the pigeon would peck at the disc, and they'd get nothing. The next time they'd peck at the disc, they would receive a reward, and the rate of response, the number of times the pigeon pecked at the disc increased when the reward was given on a variable schedule of reinforcement. So how does that relate to the products that we use every day? Well, when you scroll your feed on Instagram, it's that uncertainty, right? It's some photos are interesting, some are boring, sometimes there's videos, sometimes there's interesting comments. How many likes does something get? What are the comments going to say?
So, all that is an element of variability, uncertainty. So variable rewards are the engine to much of human behavior, but really drive all of these products and services that we use. And, then finally, the last step of the hook is the investment phase. So the investment phase is really unique to interactive products, because for the first time, we are co-creating the products with the platform, and that's really special. So for example, on Instagram, who you follow, what you like, what your comments say, you are crafting the product in real-time to meet your needs. So if I were to log into your Instagram account or you were to log into mine, it would be completely boring to you because you've invested in it. You've put all this data and content and followers and reputation into the product, which makes it better and better with use.
So eventually, the goal of a habit -forming product like Instagram is to no longer require that external trigger at all. Eventually, if you notice, you start using these habit forming products not because you've been triggered, but because you have a feeling that you seek to scratch, some kind of itch you seek to scratch. So that's what an internal trigger is. So when we're feeling uncertain, we Google. When we're lonely, we check Facebook or maybe Tinder. We use these products because we feel a certain way and we look to some kind of solution to that discomfort. So that's how the hook is complete.
Kaitlyn: So Instagram stories, you don't get a notification saying, "Post to your Instagram story" and you certainly don't get one saying, "Come back and rewatch your own Instagram story five times and scroll through the list of people who watched it and see how many people finished it, and see if the person that you have a crush on watched it, and whatever,” so is that an example of an internal trigger, and if so, what do you think has trained us to do something like that, which is so odd and mostly unsatisfying?
I think it comes down to these internal triggers of emotions. So I think what we're doing is we're looking for some kind of relief from some kind of discomfort. So are we feeling lonely? Are we feeling bored? Are we stressed? What are we escaping from? What uncomfortable emotion are we using this product for?
Ashley: Okay. What emotional state would I be in if I just want to see if my ex watched my Instagram story?
Well, you tell me. What do you think?
Ashley: I don't know. Here's the thing, though: I don't care about my ex. Like, if I saw him on the street, it'd be totally fine, like, "Hey, what's up?" Literally zero feeling toward him at all, but yet, I want to see that he watched my story. Maybe that’s vindication? Like, I'm like, "Oh, he still cares."
Kaitlyn: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ashley: Oh, could that be it?
Kaitlyn: The driving motivator of my life is spite, and I've said that on this podcast before and I've said it on every first date I've ever been on, so I think that's part of it. It's like, I need to know that you saw that I'm doing well, but at the same time, I don't have to do anything to show you. I don't have to reach out to you and say, "Hello, I'm doing well.”
Yeah. There's a lot of evolutionary benefit to that. If you really want to go back 200,000 years to what made our species so successful, the reason we have this instinct to look good in front of others is because it's evolutionarily beneficial. Some evolutionary biologists think this is the whole reason we have hair on heads. So, we spend a lot of time, and it's perfectly natural to want to show people what's in our heads by the way we look. That's nothing new. That’s in our DNA.
Now the tools have changed. Now we don't do it just by the way we dress and the makeup we use, we also do it by how we portray our image online.
Ashley: On our podcast, typically we talk about design and how design specifically affects how we use products. So I'm just wondering if you can talk a little bit about the design of Instagram stories, which you have to tap through to watch stories, and then swipe up to view who has seen your stories. So can you talk at all about those design decisions, and if you think there's anything there about how that could encourage a habit forming product.
Sure. So, the engine here is the variability. A lot of the draw of using Instagram in general, or social media in general, is the uncertainty around what you might find or what you might see and I think these layers of okay, you've got to open the app, then there's a feed, then there's a layer deeper, there's the stories, and then within the stories, there's more when you swipe up. They're trying to motivate more action because they know the more actions you take, they're training you, they're habituating you to come back and do that behavior again and again and again. If you put too much information, like let's say they put everything on one screen, that tends to overwhelm the user. The rule tends to be one action per screen, so that's what I think Instagram has done really well, is that if this progressive disclosure of more and more interesting content, and they're teaching you more and more the intricacies of how to use the app so that you can do more with it, you've invested more in it. The more time you put into this, this is the psychological phenomena that's called the Ikea effect or the endowment effect. The more effort you put into something, the more you like it.
The deeper that they can get you to go into the app, the more you likely are to come back in the future.
Kaitlyn: So, this uncertainty then, as far as re-watching Instagram stories, this sounds to me as an explanation for why they would give you a list of names instead of just a raw number because I want to scroll through the list of names and be surprised by somebody watching it that I didn't expect or something like that, as opposed to a number, which doesn't have that much to ponder.
That's a fantastic insight. And, I know too, It's not to all your friends. On Facebook, people have many more friends than they have followers on Instagram. So that's probably a factor of if you saw that number and you compared it to what that number looks like on Facebook, it's not going to be as big. So they have to make it more interesting with a limited number of people. So having this friend saw it versus that friend saw it, you'd have to scroll through, and sometimes somebody unexpected saw it, that all increases the amount of variability.
Kaitlyn: Focusing specifically on the idea of re-watching your own story over and over, I'm curious about the impulse to go back and look at your own content, or not even looking at who's watched it, but just re-watching it.
Ashley: 'Cause, I've also noticed this in just photo albums too, on your digital photo gallery. Like, going back and watching your Instagram stories there that you saved. We had someone on the show who did this with his kids. He would save his stories and if he was in the mood to reminisce or remember when his babies were a little bit younger, he would go watch those stories.
Kaitlyn: Or, people will also just like stare at their own grid or whatever.
Uh-huh. Well, this can go pretty deep in terms of the psychological need it fulfills. It also can get a little bit dark.
Ashley: We love when it gets dark.
Kaitlyn: We love to get dark.
Ashley: So, yes, please.
Fundamentally, people that have been obsessed with their own image forever, since the story of Narcissus, the Greek mythological tale. People have always been fascinated by their own face and their own image. Up until recently, if you asked people, "Hey, your house on fire, god forbid. What's the first thing you run in and save and bring out of your house?" And, they're going to tell you their photo albums. Young people don't keep photo albums anymore, but my generation or younger, that was the most valuable thing you had was your photo albums, and there's a lot of interesting psychology around why that is. If you think about the Kodak camera, why did Kodak become this multi-billion dollar company. What was it about the photograph that was so important to people? It’s that you're really cheating death. By capturing a moment, by holding onto a memory, you are dealing with this discomfort of you're going to die and all of this is for not, because soon we're all going to pass. So in a way, we are holding on to a moment of immortality.
Now, I'm not saying that's driving why you like to look at past Instagram posts. It could very well be that you're bored, and you want something to do, and you're waiting for the bus, and you just want to pass the time, and you want a bit of nostalgia. But, fundamentally, I think part of the reason why we want to capture these moments and then go back and look at them at some point is because we're holding to life in a way.
Kaitlyn: Wowee, okay.
Ashley: We're going to sit with that one for a minute.