The Twitterati are agog over a new study purportedly showing that human beings find the lure of scanning updates on Facebook or announcing through Twitter that they had Thai food for lunch is a more powerful compulsion than the addiction to tobacco or alcohol.
It’s an irresistible tale for headline writers and page-view desperados. But it’s not what the study found.
Here’s the truth: Researchers led by a professor at the University of Chicago handed out Blackberrys to a couple hundred people in Germany, and then checked in with them throughout the day, measuring assorted “desire episodes” to gauge what the participants were jonesing to do, whether those desires conflicted with other goals, and whether they ultimately engaged in the desired activity.
Some of the people wanted to check social media, even when they thought they probably shouldn’t – like when they when they were working. Some of the people also wanted to throw back a bottle of Jägermeister, even when they thought they probably shouldn’t – like when they were working.
Not terribly surprisingly, the study subjects were more likely to give in to the urge to check Twitter at the office than they were to get hammered. That translated into a higher “self-control failure rate” for social media use than for boozing – and an alluring headline was born.
What is lost in this Web-friendly story is that issues of addiction and self-control are about the balance between the urge to engage in an activity and the social, financial, medical or other cost of that activity. Comparing alcoholism to Twitter “addiction” is valid only if the costs are equal. They aren’t.
In a similar vein, the study also found that participants found it exceedingly hard to resist the “desire” to work, even in the face of urges to do other things. But that finding says less about an “addiction” to work – now that would be a story – than it does about an irresistible urge to maintain a paycheck and not live in a cardboard box in the park.
The authors of the still-unpublished study are not to blame here. In early coverage of the research, team leader Wilhelm Hofmann correctly reflected what was really going on.
“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,” he was quoted as saying. “With cigarettes and alcohol there are more costs – long-term as well as monetary – and the opportunity may not always be the right one.”
Well said – just not as enticing a tale.