Can’t stop eating those potato chips? Blame it on the bliss point.
On a graph, the bliss point looks like an upside-down U. Think of it as a crave curve. At the top of the curve, the food you’re eating provides maximum bliss and minimum warning. You crave it and simply want more. If you move past the top of the curve, however, the food starts to alert your brain that you’ve eaten enough. You stop eating.
Being good marketers, food engineers want you to eat more. They aim to hit the top of the crave curve. As it happens, “…big, distinct flavors [tend] to overwhelm the brain, which responds by depressing your desire to have more.” So food engineers blend flavors to get just the right bliss balance that will keep you consuming.
As with food, so with slot machines. As the anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll points out, slot machine designers aim for a mechanical version of the bliss point called the “machine zone”.
Once players enter the machine zone, their “…worries, social demands, and even bodily awareness fade away. … gambling addicts play not to win but simply to keep playing as long as possible….” Like food engineering, game engineering aims to keep you going … just one more nibble or one more pull on the slot machine’s arm.
I wonder if social media doesn’t work the same way. It’s simple, it’s repetitive, and it’s enjoyable. Just one more peek … it’s an innocent pastime, isn’t it? It can’t really hurt anything, can it?
I took a short break just a moment ago and checked my social media. What did I learn? Well, I found out what a former colleague had for lunch today in Minneapolis. Did I really want to know that? No … but think of what I might have learned. I might have found that several people “liked” my latest article. I might have learned that a professional association wants to hire me for a keynote speech. I might have discovered that Tilda Swinton wants to invite me to lunch. Oh, the possibilities.
There’s an old joke that second marriages are the triumph of hope over knowledge. The same is true for social media. The reality is that most of what we discover on social media is rather boring. But maybe … just maybe … something interesting has happened. We have to check. It’s like being in the machine zone. Our worries and social obligations just fade away.
And when something interesting does happen, we get a little reward, just like a slot machine. In reality, the reward never equals the investment. But, as we bask in the glow of the reward, we forget that. We’re in the zone. We can’t break away. In fact, we don’t even want to break away.
My Mom used to say that it’s easier to avoid temptation than to resist it. I’ve learned not to stock potato chips in the house. I’ve learned not to frequent gaming dens. Maybe it’s time to put the social media away, too.