Mar 15

“Irresistible”: Adam Alter Says We’re Hooked On the Tech Stuff

The environment and circumstance of the digital age are far more conducive to addiction than anything humans have experienced in our history. Adam Alter, Irresistible

Although I usually save the book reviews for last, in this case I believe they can serve as apt descriptions of what psychology and marketing expert Adam Alter is trying to convey in Irresistible:The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked (2017).

In reviewing Irresistible author Daniel H. Pink notes that Alter is focusing here on behavioral addiction, “a hidden danger in our lives.” Examples of tech-related addictions include “tracking social media ‘likes’ to counting our steps,” he reports. Alter concludes “our actions are being guided less by our own volition than by the architecture of the technologies we use.”

David Epstein: “In Irresistible, Adam Alter illuminates the surprising, fascinating, and frightening biological and psychological connections between a toddler hitting every button in an elevator, a surgical patient asking for painkillers, and the millions of people hooked on Facebook. No one who has ever seen an advertisement, checked their email on a smartphone, or used the Internet will come away quite the same.”

What are the actual numbers? According to Alter’s research, use of cellphones is up to three hours a day for many, video games can be weeks on end for some adolescent boys, and Snapchat users often open up their apps over 18 times a day.

Furthermore, “In one survey, 60 percent of the adults said they keep their cellphones next to them when they sleep. In another survey, half the respondents claimed they check their emails during the night.”

And that’s not all. Regarding the general incidence of behavioral addictions? “A 2011 study suggested that 41 percent of us have at least one. That number is sure to have risen with the adoption of newer more addictive social networking platforms, tablets and smartphones.”

(Stats from the last three paragraphs are from Alter’s interview with Claudia Dreifus, New York Times).

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: “[Alter] also illustrates the stakes: that these technologies are preventing us from forming meaningful relationships, raising empathetic children, and separating work from sleep and play.”

An appropriate conclusion from another cultural authority, Malcolm Gladwell: “As if to prove his point, Adam Alter has written a truly addictive book about the rise of addiction. Irresistible is a fascinating and much needed exploration of one of the most troubling phenomena of modern times.”

How can these types of addiction be managed by overusers? Dreifus asked Alter to comment:

I’d suggest that they be more mindful about how they are allowing tech to invade their life. Next, they should cordon it off. I like the idea, for instance, of not answering email after six at night.

In general, I’d say find more time to be in natural environments, to sit face to face with someone in a long conversation without any technology in the room. There should be times of the day where it looks like the 1950s or where you are sitting in a room and you can’t tell what era you are in. You shouldn’t always be looking at screens.

Mar 13

All Kinds of Compulsions We “Can’t Just Stop”

Suffused with and overwhelmed by anxiety, we latch onto any behavior that offers relief by providing even an illusion of control…

While extreme compulsions often appear odd, irrational, pitiable and self-destructive, our emerging understanding of compulsions implies something quite different: Even the craziest-looking compulsions are adaptive, even pragmatic, and all too human. A compulsion is at once psychological balm and curse, surface madness (or at least eccentricity) and profound relief. Sharon Begley, Wall Street Journal

Behaviors such as OCD, hoarding, exercise, shopping, video-gaming, hyper-conscientiousness, and even hyper-do-gooding, all possibly responses to anxiety, are examined by science journalist Sharon Begley in Can’t Just Stop: An Investigation of Compulsions.

Compulsions, says Begley, “are repetitive behaviors that we engage in repeatedly to alleviate the angst brought on by the possibility of harmful consequences.” Examples of compulsions of varying levels of severity are offered (Wall Street Journal):

There’s the woman who hit the treadmill so compulsively that she could do little else—and all because, every moment that she wasn’t exercising, the thought of fat cells proliferating in her body drove her nearly mad with anxiety. There’s the actor who was so certain he suffered from a dire illness that he compulsively pressed his doctors to give him CT scans, over and over, to assuage his angst. And there are the millions of us who feel compelled to check our phones before we get out of bed in the morning and constantly throughout the day, because FOMO—the fear of missing out—fills us with so much anxiety that it feels like fire ants swarming every neuron in our brain.

Publishers Weekly notes that Begley’s research and writing “demystifies compulsive behavior, exploring its history and manifestations and the many difficulties its sufferers face in finding appropriate diagnoses and treatment.”

Selected Reviews

Joel Gold, MD: “At once fascinating and compassionate, funny and informative, this volume should be on the bookshelf of every psychiatrist, and on the nightstand of anyone who enjoys absorbing and incisive writing.”

Gary Greenberg, therapist and author: “Sharon Begley has done us all a service, writing about compulsion without writing about disease and offering a new perspective on a phenomenon that is common if not universal. People troubled by their own compulsive behavior will appreciate her nuanced and balanced approach and perhaps come away with a new understanding of themselves.”

Publishers Weekly: “Begley’s final chapter on brain function in the compulsive mind contains fresh insight that could fundamentally alter how we think of, and treat, mental illness going forward.”

Mar 10

James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison: Powerful Quotes

What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it. From I Am Not Your Negro

James Baldwin (1924-1987) and Ralph Ellison (1914-1994), both African American, are two of the most respected writers of their times. Whereas Baldwin was prolific in print, Ellison completed only one novel, Invisible Man (1952).

With the release of Raoul Peck‘s acclaimed I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary about Baldwin’s unfinished novel, Remember This House, it feels fitting to present some of his and Ellison’s best and still-relevant quotes.


I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.

To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.

Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity.

I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.

If I am not what you say I am, then you are not who you think you are.

The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.

Everybody’s journey is individual. If you fall in love with a boy, you fall in love with a boy. The fact that many Americans consider it a disease says more about them than it does about homosexuality.

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.


I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.

I remember that I’m invisible and walk softly so as not awake the sleeping ones. Sometimes it is best not to awaken them; there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers.

When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.

What and how much had I lost by trying to do only what was expected of me instead of what I myself had wished to do?

I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself.

Power doesn’t have to show off. Power is confident, self-assuring, self-starting and self-stopping, self-warming and self-justifying. When you have it, you know it.

They can laugh, but they can’t deny us. They can curse and kill us, but they can’t destroy us. This land is ours because we come out of it, we bled in it, our tears watered it, we fertilized it with our dead. So the more of us they destroy, the more it becomes filled with the spirit of our redemption.

Mar 08

Homophobic Therapist Dads, Gay Activist Sons in “When We Rise”

Last week’s miniseries When We Rise revealed, among many other things, two different unflattering portraits of real-life homophobic therapist dads reacting to their gay sons.

The first such pair we meet is Cleve Jones, the author of last year’s memoir When We Rise: My Life in the Movement, and his father (played by David Hyde Pierce), a psychologist who believes being gay is a sickness to be treated with electroshock or other brain-changing practices.

In the first episode Jones is an adolescent struggling with his budding identity. Now 62, he recently told Terry Gross, NPR, about his despair: “I was planning to kill myself when I was 15 because I thought I was the only queer in the world, and I didn’t want to live that way. And I didn’t want to be ashamed and beaten up, and then I read about gay liberation in Life magazine. And I decided not to kill myself, and I flushed the pills down the toilet.”

As Cleve had feared, his coming out to his parents several years later didn’t go so well. Having purposely waited until he was old enough, he then went off to San Francisco, where he eventually became a well-known activist.

Cleve says he had little contact with his father for at least a couple years after that. Tim Teeman, The Daily Beast: “His mother, a former dancer who taught dance well into her 70s, and he had a much closer relationship. His relationship with his father got close again after Jones was diagnosed HIV-positive and became sick. ‘Both of them were quite perfect in every way. They went to quilt displays and marches and became activists. There was a rapprochement’.”

Jones actually wants to write his next book about his father.

Another key but lesser figure in the mini-series is Richard Socarides, who was an adviser to President Bill Clinton. His father was psychiatrist Charles Socarides (1922-2005), founder of NARTH, the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality.

In When We Rise Richard (played by his actual younger brother Charles Socarides) is being tapped to aid Clinton on gay and lesbian issues when he has a significant exchange with Cleve Jones. “…Jones (played by Guy Pearce) confronts Richard and asks if he’s related to ‘that homophobe shrink who damned my entire generation.’ Richard turns around and politely says, ‘He’s my father; have a good day'” (Theater Mania).

Father Socarides, in fact, had pioneered conversion therapy, and Richard had yet to reveal to him his own sexual orientation. Influenced eventually by Cleve’s strong opinions, however, Richard decides to come out with it. Adam Nagourney, New York Times, recently got the real scoop from Richard about this scene shown in When We Rise:

‘In that interaction with my father, my father takes out a gun and puts it to his head and threatens to shoot himself,’ Mr. Socarides said. ‘Which actually happened. No one ever knew about it. It was really intense. I hadn’t told anybody that ever, because I was trying to protect him, or I guess in some way I was embarrassed or ashamed of myself. I felt enough time had passed.’

ABC News quotes additional info from Richard about this: “I knew that the gun probably was not loaded, I knew he wasn’t going to fire it. But it was very emotional and I probably did not react in real life as calmly as Charlie does in the film.”

But Charlie told Theater Mania: “Richard’s strength is his ability to remain composed and productive under pressure and not let these personal demons eat at him too much.”

Richard himself to The New Yorker in 2013: I don’t think my coming out to my dad was harder or easier than anyone else’s. I didn’t come out to the founder of conversion therapy. I came out to my father.”

Mar 06

“You’re the Worst”: The Meaning of Kakistocracy

TV series You’re the Worst, considered a youthful “anti-rom-com,” has now completed three seasons on FX. I know this despite never having seen it. What’s enough for me is the title’s catchphrase, so widely applicable in the political world these days.

But as a therapist I also appreciate that You’re the Worst has received great reviews for how it’s handled the clinical depression of one of its lead characters, Gretchen (Aya Cash), in season two and her subsequent attempts at seeing a shrink (Samira Wiley) in season three.

Unfortunately, though, people who are “the worst” often don’t get that much better, at least in the eyes of others around them. Vikram Murthi, AVClub, notes that a theme of the series “is that self-improvement doesn’t negate core character traits, that behavioral or attitudinal changes don’t suddenly alter our defining character makeup. Gretchen will likely always try to wiggle her way out of responsibilities because that’s who she is, yet her awareness of the situation could potentially help curb those tendencies.”

Which reminds me of another group of “you’re the worst”-ness, our current president and his cohorts. I’ve recently learned another term, kakistocracy, maybe not so catchy, denoting “a government by the least qualified or most unprincipled citizens” (Psychology Lexicon) or “government by the worst people” (Merriam-Webster).

Examples of recent Twitter comments regarding #kakistocracy, i.e., “the worst”:

Bernie Sanders: If you’re rich and powerful and commit illegal behavior you get promoted to the president’s cabinet. There’s something very wrong with that.

LGBTQ Nation: A cabinet full of deplorables…

The Onion (satire): Frustrated Russian Officials Struggling To Get Any Policies Through Dysfunctional Trump Administration

Despite others’ hopeful predictions to the contrary, these individuals and their policy ideas are never going to improve, at least not in any way that really matters. How many times, for example, did we hear about then-candidate Trump, he’ll change/well maybe he’ll change/couldn’t he change? Over and over again we saw the answer in his actions. In other words, really?/I doubt it/ no way.

And yet he was elected.

Has he ever even wanted to change? There’s no proof that he has. And if he did want to change, the prognosis for a 70-year-old is not so great unless he were to apply himself really really hard, perhaps in some intensive therapy, not on the golf course.

And for those fond of deciphering whether or not Trump might sometimes be “acting” presidential, stop it. Acting is just that: a performance. If in some eyes he may on occasion pull it off, so what? It, the acting, doesn’t negate core character traits, [and] behavioral or attitudinal changes don’t suddenly alter our defining character makeup. Remember that from the above-cited review of You’re the Worst?

Of course, many of the appointees he’s managed to round up are of a similar ilk who, like You’re the Worst‘s toxic personalities Gretchen and Jimmy, seem “made for each other, but not for other people” (TV critic Murthi again). Perhaps one more definition of kakistocracy that would hold.