Nir Eyal: Fighting for Agency, Free Speech & Regulating TikTok and Hope for Our Children - E227

· Purpose,Thought Leaders,Start-up,USA,Podcast Episodes English

"Having a belief in your own power to change things is incredibly important. In the psychology literature, we call this an internal versus an external locus of control. We know that this simple differentiation, this dichotomy of people who believe that their lives are controlled by circumstances outside themselves versus people who believe that their circumstances are controlled by things inside themselves, exists. So it's personal agency versus doing whatever the world has given you. Fate versus agency. People who believe in agency are better off in almost every conceivable metric. They live longer, healthier, more connected, and more productive lives by believing in their agency even when it's not there." - Nir Eyal

Nir Eyal writes, consults, and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. Nir previously taught as a Lecturer in Marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford. Nir co-founded and sold two tech companies since 2003 and was dubbed by The M.I.T. Technology Review as, “The Prophet of Habit-Forming Technology.” Bloomberg Businessweek wrote, “Nir Eyal is the habits guy. Want to understand how to get app users to come back again and again? Then Eyal is your man.” He is the author of two bestselling books, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Indistractable received critical acclaim, winning the Outstanding Works of Literature Award as well as being named one of the Best Business and Leadership Books of the Year by Amazon and one of the Best Personal Development Books of the Year by Audible. The Globe and Mail called Indistractable, “the best business book of 2019.” In addition to blogging at, Nir’s writing has been featured in The New York Times, The Harvard Business Review, Time Magazine, and Psychology Today. Nir invests in habit-forming products that improve users’ lives. Some of his past investments include Eventbrite (NYSE:EB), (acquired by Spotify), Kahoot! (KAHOOT-ME.OL), Canva, Homelight, Product Hunt, Marco Polo, Byte Foods, FocusMate, Dynamicare, Wise App, and Sunnyside. Nir attended The Stanford Graduate School of Business and Emory University.

Jeremy Au: (00:29)
Hi, Nir, really excited to have you on the show. You're a great thought leader on habits and also how to control your attention as an author, researcher, and also a founder yourself. So I'd love for you to introduce yourself.
Nir Eyal: (00:43)
Sure. So thanks for having me. My name is Nir Eyal and I am a behavioral designer. So I help companies build the habits and services that improve people's lives through healthy habits. I'm the author of two books. The first is called “Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products”. And that discusses the secrets of the Silicon Valley giants like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Slack, TikTok, and makes the psychology of how these products get us hooked accessible to founders, product leaders in all industry, to frivolity, to not just gaming and social media, but to how we can get people hooked to healthy habits in their lives. So I work with a lot of companies in Fintech and educational products and health services, anywhere where the business model depends upon repeat customer engagement, and the customer will benefit from these healthy habits. So that's my first book. My second book is called Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. And it's all about how do we build good habits in our lives, Indistractable is about how do we break the bad habits and we can have our cake and eat it too. I believe that we can use a way that serves us as opposed to hurts us, by making sure that we can get the best out of technology by using it to build healthy habits, along with breaking the bad habit that can so often lead us towards distraction.
Jeremy Au: (01:59)
You started your career as a consultant and later went on to own business. And your experience extended to the books. So could you share a little bit more about how those experiences shaped you in the beginning of your career?
Nir Eyal: (02:15)
I always enjoyed writing, but I never did it because many reasons. But when I graduated from college, I decided to go into consulting, I worked in the Boston Consulting Group for few years and hated it. It was a very difficult experience. And well, I loved it for a while and my boss changed. And then I started hating it. And I actually talked about that in the book Indistractible about how Boston Consulting Group used to be when I was there. I remember it was a very difficult culture. You were expected to be available 24/7, constantly distracted, constantly pulled in all directions. And I talked about that transformation in my book about how they become an indistractable workplace, they went from being a company that people consistently rated as a very difficult place to work out with a terrible work culture, to now really a place that's consistently rated as one of America's best places to work. And they made this much so. So that experience at BCG taught me a lot. It taught me that I didn't want to work at a big company and whatever. And it gave me some of the skills that I used to start my first business, which was the solar energy business, I started a company that was later acquired by a private equity firm. Then I went to business school at Stanford. And while I was there, I started another company. And that company was made from Kleiner Perkins. And it's okay, it was an aquahire. But that company was in the gaming and advertising space. And it gave me this vantage point of seeing many of these companies in the right place at the right time, in Silicon Valley from 2006 to 2016. Companies that we think of today, as these world changing companies, I had this front row seat to see how they were so good at changing consumer behavior. And if these people who started these companies were my friends, my clients, some of them, my classmates, and I could ask them questions around how they did it. What is it that makes these products so darn sticky? And when I was thinking about what my neck company would do, I knew that I had to build that. And the reason I knew that it was even back in 2012, when my second company was acquired, I could tell that we were changing. As we went from desktop, to laptop, to mobile devices, to wearables, and now to auditory devices. As the interface shrank and eventually disappeared, habits would become increasingly important. Because there just isn't the real estate to trigger with what we call these external triggers, these visual notifications to tell them what to do. It's easy to do when you have a big desktop screen. But what if you have a little mobile phone on the home screen. If the consumer doesn't remember to use your product, your product might as well not even exist. So you have to build a consumer habit. If it shrinks your product becomes less relevant. And so when I looked out there for where's the book on how to build habit forming products? I didn't find such a book. So I started researching and writing and talking to my friends at these companies as well as my former professors at Stanford and spent a lot of time at the Stanford library, researching academic literature on building habit forming products. And that I started blogging about this. And after a few years, Shiv reached out, he says, I've been reading your blog, I really liked it. I love this hooked model you've developed, let's teach a class together. So he invited me to teach at Stanford of the GSB. And then later, I moved over to the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, and then through that curriculum that became my first book Hooked, and I started speaking, and consulting and investing actually, that's been the most lucrative part of writing the book, was that I get a lot of interest, folks call me up and say, we're using your model. What do you think? And, I talked to hundreds of companies every year, office hours every week. And so I talked to four companies every week. So that's over 200 companies a year. And then every once in a while, right, I find a company that I think this is an amazing use of the Hooked model, can I invest? And so professionally, that's really what I do is I look for companies Hook model. And if they will have me, if they think I can be helpful, then I'll invest. And so far, that's been great. I've invested in 35 companies, so far, six unicorns. So pretty good hit rate. And so I'm going to continue to do that. And so that's my professional story to date. I hope that answered your question.
Jeremy Au: (06:13)
So how did you go about, putting together the decision to be an author? Because it's one thing to be thinking about these problems, it's another thing to be a user or designer, but to sit down and do the research and put it together as a thesis. How does that happen?
Nir Eyal: (06:28)
So, my guiding motivation has always been to follow my curiosity to scratch my own stuff. Write books that I need, when I have a problem in my life, I'll talk to my wife about it. I'll talk to my good friends about it. If I didn’t get satisfactory answer, I'll read books about it. And nine times out of 10, the answer will already be somewhere. Somebody will have researched the pattern because they've had the problem before. But every once in a while, about once every five years, there's a problem that I read all the books on the topic, that it doesn't solve my problem. And so that's what happened with hooked my first book, I couldn't find any book that specifically addressed how do you build habit forming? It's out there about how to build personal habits. But that's not what I was looking for. I wanted to find a resource for how do I design products, you build a product that people use, because they want to not because they have to, I didn't find such a book before hooked. So I decided to write it myself. The same I read tons of books about focus and distraction and attention. And they all said surface level analysis of, it's all technology's fault. You're the victim. Well, stop using email, stop checking social media. Well, thanks. That's the advice that only a professor who has tenure can give because, most people lose their jobs. If we stopped using technology, that's stupid. And I don't want to be a victim, I want to use these tools, I want to use these technologies, they're wonderful. But a way to use these tools in a way that served me as opposed to feeling like I was serving them. And so when none of these techniques worked, which by the way I tried many of the techniques in the book, I did the digital detox, I tried the digital minimalism. And guess what, it doesn't work. It doesn't work because it's like a fad diet. If you don't understand the deeper psychology, it doesn't last for long. So I really want to dive into the deeper psychology of why we get distracted in the first place. And so that's always been my central motivator to why I write, frankly, I'm thrilled that I've sold over a million copies of my books, the real joy of writing these things is to solve my own problems. And I've got lots of problems. So it's, fun to be able to study something enough to build for yourself. And by the way, that's the advice I give entrepreneurs all the time too that it's a huge competitive advantage. As opposed to building for some amorphous, it's much better, your rates of success are going to be much higher. If you build something that you yourself want, at least then you can't fail because you've a market size of one, once you're the market. So you might not be financially successful with the product. But who cares? At the end of the day, you build the product because you believe it needs to exist in the world. And that's why I write my books as well because I need the solutions I'm writing about.
Jeremy Au: (09:09)
When I read your books, what it reminded me off was another book called Salt, Sugar, & Fat. And he talks about the food industry and how there's billions of dollars of R&D and work to make, potato chips and Pringles and all these delicious things. But frankly, irresistible in many ways. And I think that framing was quite eye opening from I think framework perspective, but also how it could play out. And I definitely notice a lot more of these habit loops that happen as a result. What was interesting at the end of it is, I think there's a lot of pessimism? And I think this one, your second book is Indistractable. But I think people feel like you're surrendering. Like I'm on Tik Tok, I'm doomscrolling, that's it. I tried to be better. And if they tried to be better, my joke is that they end up, going to somewhere else. They're complaining about it on Reddit, or on Facebook, they get stuck on TikTok, which is somewhat healthier version, perhaps, arguably. So how do you see that happening? Do you feel like as the world continues to be in this arms race of increasingly habit forming requirements? And it does feel like there's a little bit of a power law, even dynamic right to innovation there. What do you think is the end state of that for human focus and wisdom?
Nir Eyal: (10:20)
Well, I think that there's a bifurcation happening in the world today that there are people who let their time and attention and their diet, as you say, be controlled by others. And there are people who stand up and say, “No, I will decide for myself. And so we have to gain this skill, that the price of progress is that things get better”. Would we want it any other way? I read Michael Mosses book, and I appreciate his writing. He's a wonderful writer. But it's very much this victim mentality, without addressing the central issue, which is way alternative. Do we want to go back to a world where food was scarce and not delicious? No, I want Cheetos. Delicious. Yes. Do I want to eat them all the time? Yes, but that doesn't mean I have to eat them all the time. And I used to be clinically obese, I ate a lot of Cheetos in my day, a lot of donuts and a lot of unhealthy food. And as easy as it is. And I used to do this all the time, to blame the things outside of us. It's all foods fault. It's social media's fault. It's the televisions fault. It's all these forces outside of us to be what's called a blamer. That is not very productive. Because there has always been distraction. Distraction is nothing new. It's nothing that was suddenly created. We know that. We talked about this problem 2500 years ago. 2500 years before Cheetos, before the internet, people were complaining about doing things that they later regret. So this is not a new problem. So being a blamer is not the right solution. The other path that many people take is to be what's called a shamer, a shamer doesn't blame things outside themselves. They shame themselves they say, I must be broken. I have an addictive personality. I have a short attention span. I have undiagnosed ADHD, I'm a sad, serious, you name it, and they somehow think that they are broken. But that doesn't work either. Because believing that somehow you are broken, leads to these uncomfortable sensations, which we then try to escape with. Guess what, more distraction. So when I was clinical? I wasn't clinically obese because food was delicious. I would have loved to blame fast food and these companies, like Michael Moss does. It's these food companies that are making us eat these things. They're literally shoving the food down our throats. No, that's not why I was obese. You know why I was obese because I was eating my feelings. When I was bored, I would eat, when I was lonely. I would eat when I felt ashamed about how much I had just eaten. So shaming yourself is not the right answer. Blaming others is not the right answer. The right answer is not to be a blamer or shamer. You are supposed to be a claimer. What does a claimer do? A claimer claims responsibility, not for how they feel. Spawn to those feelings. This is a very important point. Most people don't realize that you do not control your urges. You don't control your urges, eat junk food, the urge to check social media, the urge to get distracted, you do not control those urges. Any more than you control the urge to sneeze. If you feel the urge to sneeze, it's too late. You've already felt that urge. You can't do anything about that urge. What you can do something about is, how you respond to that urge. When you feel the urge to sneeze. Do you sneeze all over everyone and get them sick? No, that's not the right thing to do. That's not this. You don't sneeze over others. You take out a handkerchief and you cover your face. And that's the responsible thing to do. The term responsibility comes spawned to a situation. So a claimer claims responsibility for what they will do in response sensations. Most distractable people, when they feel discomfortable, when they feel boredom, loneliness, uncertain anxiety, they want to escape it. And we're somehow told in society that feeling bad is bad. We're constantly told this message. If you feel the slightest ache or discomfort, quick, take a pill quick. Find some kind of solution, do anything to escape discomfort, bullshit. Discomfort is a condition and high performers learn how to deal with discomfort. This is a huge point in my book and a revelation for me, it's helped every conceivable facet of my life, that I learned that human motivation is not about the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Human motivation is about one thing and that one thing is the desire to escape discomfort. All human motivation, if you look inside the human brain, everything we do from a nerve is to remove discomfort, even the desire to feel good. Even the pursuit of pleasure, doing craving, lusting, and all these things are psychologically destabilizing. So what does this mean? If all human motivation is driven by a desire to escape discomfort that must therefore mean that time management is pain management. Let me say that again. Time management is pain management, I would go further. Management is pain management. Money management is pain management, because all human behavior is driven by a desire to escape discomfort. So we need to be comfortable with discomfort. We need to realize that feeling bad is not bad. It's about how we will respond to that discomfort. But we don't have any other choice. Are we going to sit here and say, food companies, please make your food less delicious because I don’t want to eat it all the time. Netflix make your shows less interesting. I find myself wanting to watch them. Apple, can you make your phones less user friendly? Come on, this is ridiculous. We keep blaming and shaming we're not going to get anywhere, we have to start claiming responsibility for how we will respond. This is the only way to become indistractible, occasion that I mentioned earlier between people who will allow their time and attention and their lives to be controlled by others and people who say no, I will not try to control my attention, I am going to control my life because I am going to become indistractable.
Jeremy Au: (16:14)
Thanks for sharing, love what you discuss about, the human condition and calling bullshit on the industry practices, and how pain management is what we have to do. And i also used to be clinically obese a few years ago. And I feel like my solution was talking about Greek philosophy, was like Pantheon, I ran in the other direction, and I prayed at the God of fitness. And I voted with my feet, by subscribing on Instagram to fitness and health, leaving bread crumbs to newsletters on health and fitness and nutrition. So I ran out of direction to looking for noom, which is another habit forming product, Fitbit Apple Watch, etc to do that. So it does feel like Indistractable. I was reading it, is that actually that neutral space where you master yourself, but it almost feels like the most polarizing? It's either you're with the fast food industry in a sense, or you're worshipping at the exercise and fitness and personal health industry.
Nir Eyal: (17:16)
Not necessary the apologist, there's lots of bad stuff that the food industry does, that tech industry does that they need to be held to account for. And I'm not saying we should use these things, nor quite the opposite. You should, definitely be mindful about how you use these things. What I'm rallying against is saying it's the government that needs to fix this problem for me, why doesn't the government just pass laws to regulate this stuff? Let's regulate fast food. Let's regulate social media. Let's regulate this stuff. Look, what happens when the geniuses in government get their hands on industry, they screw it up. That's what happens. Go to Europe, and try and use the internet. Push these goddamn buttons a million times to frickin, let you use a web page to this GDPR regulations that are supposed to protect people do nothing but annoy the hell out of us. So not every time they mess it up. Now there is room for good regulation when it comes to protecting children. Absolutely. We definitely need to protect children. When people are pathologically addicted. Absolutely, we need to protect those people too, because they are people who are not operating in the sound body or mind. But for the rest of us. It's a personal responsibility issue. We got to do something about this ourselves. What are we going to sit here and say, I'm going to wait for fast food to make their food less delicious? I'm waiting yet to make their products less interesting. It's not going to happen. What choice do we have? So as opposed to blaming and shaming, we need to claim, we need to start doing claiming, now and that might mean not using many of these products. There are many foods I won't eat, because I know they're really right. But that doesn't mean I want them banned. I think I should have the option to eat Twinkies and Cheetos if I want. I want to live in that world, just like where, if I wanted to smoke a cigarette, I could but I choose not to, because I know it's very unhealthy. And, frankly, who doesn't know that cigarettes aren't? Like, it boggles my mind why anybody would smoke today? Does anybody or almost anybody on planet Earth really don't know that it's not good for you. But it's not up to me to tell you you can't smoke. It's a personal choice. I'm not going to be the person who says we should ban all cigarettes forever, I think it will be a little bit extreme. But I do think obviously, there is room for regulation for people who can't make sound decisions.
Jeremy Au: (19:22)
That's great. Because, we almost see those two trends. We see the banning of cigarettes in New Zealand for future generations. And then we also see the legalization of cannabis. Across the border.
Nir Eyal: (19:34)
Which is ridiculous, because we know that cannabis, 10% of people who smoke cannabis have what's called a cannabis use disorder. They literally get addicted to cannabis and cannabis is way worse than smoking because it doesn't have a filter. That's joints don't have filters the way cigarettes do. So there's controversy there about well, you don't smoke too much cannabis as you do cigarettes, but per joint. A joint has way more carcinogens than a cigarette. So it's ironic that we want to regulate cannabis at the same time that we want to regulate social media seems a little silly.
Jeremy Au: (20:08)
If only social media came in a joint.
Nir Eyal: (20:12)
And by the way, just to be clear, I do think there is room for some regulation. For example, I don't think if a foreign government were to come in and want to control the New York Times, Let's just say somebody well named country, some billionaire, some country was going to come in and say I'm going to buy the New York Times, the American government would not allow that it's just too much of an influential platform. Somehow Tik Tok which we know the laws in China allow a real undue amount of influence onto that platform. Now we don't have much evidence of that. So let's make sure the record is clear. But the fact that they could, is scary, not because the product is necessarily engaged. It's a product with a huge potential audience. So there is room for regulation but I think what will not be regulated away is the engaging, we want products to be engaging, we want products to be designed in a way that makes us want to use them, that's the point. That's not a problem, so I think in that respect, it's up to us, there's lots of other things we should regulate when it comes to you undue influence and in elections things like that, and certainly protection of children but when it comes to the basic question of, is a product addictive. It's not that simple. Because anything is potentially addictive. We know that any analgesic, literally anything that solves pain is potentially addictive to someone. There's cases of people getting addicted to eating paint, there's people who get addicted to sniffing glue. There's people who get addicted to literally drinking water, there are reported cases of people getting addicted unhealthily addicted to drinking water that's not waters fault. It’s the confluence of factors, people who have addiction, it's a pathology. It's a disease. Unfortunately, we've medicalized up here and moralized other otherwise normal behavior to make it not our problem. I checked Tik Tok too much. I look at Instagram too much. That's the technology is doing it to me. You see, they're addicting me, it's not my problem. It's not my fault. I can't do anything about it. And that is actively harmful, so that they're quote unquote addicted when they're not, addiction is a pathology, it's a disease. When you believe that there's nothing you can do that your attention or your focus is being stolen, or your brain is being hijacked if you believe that rubbish guess what happens? Well nothing. Because how can I stop, I guess no agency here. So that's what I'm fighting against. I'm trying to tell people that you do have agency, you do have control as 2 formerly obese people that can be on this episode, that when you start taking some small steps and first and foremost believe you have the power to do something about it, you can change your behavior, you can change your life. The worst thing you can do is to believe, there's nothing I can do. I'm powerless.
Jeremy Au: (22:58)
So much to cover. Frankly, I agree with you about Tik Tok. Zoomed in that there were like three pillars I really enjoyed. Like being a dad with daughter, there was a content they showed me. They showed me bilingual jokes. And then thirdly, they showed me a whole bunch of like Singapore crime and history clips. And I was consuming so much content that's there. And one thing I realized was that, at some point, I realized that, I was in an app full of ghosts. These are all people, they look like human. But it's an algorithm, its a robot talking to me, puppeteering ghosts, these people could all be dead, for example. And that TikTok algorithm will continue to serve me all this great content. So, like you're saying is, you're not against them. Being thoughtful about their habit forming product design, what you're most concerned about is regulation in terms of foreign/country control. And then secondly, protecting children, is that how you would go about regulating TikTok?
Nir Eyal: (23:54)
So number one, children need special protection. There's lots of things that I wouldn't let my 14 year old daughter do, I wouldn't let her go into a casino and start gambling, I wouldn't let her walk into a bar and order a gin and tonic, she's not ready for it. And so we have special laws to protect children from certain behaviors that are potentially harmful because they're not of sound, body and mind. So that's number one. Number two, are pathologically addicted. So I've been advocating for years now, that companies that know the people who are actually addicted, now I like who use it a lot. I'm talking about people who are pathologically addicted, now, what does that look like? What I want companies to do is to have an abuse policy, they should have some kind of number that says, if you use our product, ‘X’ number of hours, let's say 30 hours of matter, make up the number. If you use the product this many hours per week, you set off an alarm, you get a message that says, we see that you were using it in a way that may indicate you're struggling with an addiction. Can we help? Not necessarily kicking you off, and by the way, this is not about all population, the really extreme users, this isn't, I like to go on tick tock for 30 minutes a day or something. This is people who are really addicted, using this to the point where it's harming them. And so that's a place where I think companies do have a special responsibility, because they know how much you're using. The alcohol manufacturers. They don't know, how do they know who the alcoholics are? How could they reach out and say, you're drinking too much. They can’t. But these tech companies, the gaming companies, the social media companies, they know, they have personally identifiable information to know exactly how many hours a day you're spending on their platforms. So I believe they should reach out for that real, 3-5% top percent, and say, you may be struggling with addiction, how can we help? Can you use these tool? limit your use, here's how to use and by the way, our phones today, I have this on my devices, these time limits, so for example, on my phone for the reasons we previously discussed, but for example, Instagram is very sticky product, I really enjoy using Instagram, but I have this time limit, certain time of day, and my phone tells me, you're approaching 30 minutes a day, that's enough. It's wonderful, it works great. But if you're the person who's spending hours and hours, I think the company have a responsibility to reach out to you and see how they can help and perhaps suggest some of these resources or counseling, etc. This third category, I think, has to do with undue influence. So in many ways, I trust the CCP a lot less than I would trust Google or these tech companies in the States because I know what their incentives are. I know what Google's incentives are. I know what Amazon's incentives are. I know what Meta incentives are, just want to make money. I really truly believe that all this political garbage, they wish they could ignore, they just want to make money. And so I think that's what scares me about a company where we don't know their motives. We don't know what's behind the scenes. There is the opportunity to undue influence, all TikTok has to do is this to show you just a few more things in your feed, this algorithm at least fed feed of pro-China content, and suppress some of the protests. And we know that they've definitely done this inside China. And if you need any more evidence, American made technology is banned in China. You can't use Facebook in China, you can't use Google, you can't use YouTube, and these all are already banned. And somehow, their technology is not banned here. So that's weird. That are some red flags. And we already see this in America. We already know that on the state level, many municipalities are banning Tiktok, on government issued phones. And I think and I hope and I advocate for more regulation, if not outright ban, I'm not sure an outright ban, or at least regulation around what can and can't be done. Because this can all happen in the shadows, it could already be happening. And we would not know, because there's zero transparency to know, are they putting their fingers on the algorithm a little bit to influence content one way or the other, we would have no clue.
Jeremy Au: (27:48)
So I think definitely you see a government role in terms of regulating undue influence. For the use and abuse policy. Do you believe the industry can reach that self regulation dynamic? Or, would that also require government intervention or incentivization to make that happen?
Nir Eyal: (28:03)
Yes, I've been advocating it for about eight years now, I wrote an article exactly saying that this is what companies should do. Stating very clearly that we protect children, we have to protect people who are pathologically addicted, for the rest of us, and it’s a personal responsibility issue. So that's 95 to 97% of it's on us, for that small portion, it's something that these companies should do. And to date, they haven't done anything. And I've given up frankly, I think government needs to step into use and abuse policy to protect people who are over using your product. Now, of course, the industry is going to say that's not fair. The companies, the television, the newspaper. Who's going to tell you from the New York Times, stop reading the paper so much, go have a life. And Fox News is going to tell you, you've watched too much TV, go do something with your life. They're not going to tell you that either. And, they have a point. The point is you know. The cable companies, the New York Times, at least not in their paper format. They don't know who the news junkies are, they can't really take a break. But these tech companies do know. And if you do know, I think you have a responsibility. So, in that respect, I do think that the tech companies done this themselves deserve to be regulated in this way.
Jeremy Au: (29:12)
And what's interesting is that you have this really global outlook. You have obviously worked across America, you work across the world, and also across Southeast Asia. So what would you say are the differences globally, in terms of the understanding, for example, one level of habit forming products, and also the next layer in terms of controlling attention and even government regulation, what are the global and regional differences you're seeing?
Nir Eyal: (29:32)
So it's interesting, US companies just by their very nature, are very US focused, the amount of resources that companies devote to moderation of content in some places is much greater than others. We've seen examples of that in the past, I think it's been corrected, but I don't know, I don't have an inside perspective, of really, negligence by some of these social media companies, not having moderation in place to cut off violence. We saw this happen in Myanmar. We've seen this happen in a few places now. Understand, they've really beefed up that effort to make sure that doesn't happen again. So, maybe this is part of the growing pains of a company that quickly. I think there's also different standards. So what you can say in America is very different from what you can say in Singapore. And so in Singapore, there's certain things you can't say about people's racial or ethnic origin or religious affiliation. You can absolutely say in America, but because of Singaporean law, you can't say here, and I'll tell you, I'm still struggling with this because I came to Singapore. And when I first came here, I was a free speech absolutist and thought, I was like we need to talk about this stuff. We need social debate with each other, that's how we get better. That's the public square. And I have to tell you now, I'm not so sure. I wonder if there's the United States even though it's considered the First Amendment, is the most important part of the Bill of Rights around freedom of speech. But even that is limited, there's certain speech that is not legal. You can't shout fire in a crowded theater that is illegal that is not protected speech. But in Singapore, there is speech that is also regulated that, now I think, there's some good reasons for that. Do we really need to criticize each other's race and religion? Like maybe the things that people can't change at that speech. So I'm still struggling with this. I wish I had a better answer. But it seems like from what I understand, the social media is like doing a pretty decent job of abiding by local regulation. At least I haven't seen any big mess up since Singapore, it was October of 2021, that they passed this new legislation requiring even more moderation by the social media companies. And it seems they've kept up. And so I wonder if maybe there's a lot of wisdom in encouraging debate. We want freedom of expression, we want people to talk about issues, but maybe there are certain issues that are just not worth it. Like maybe things that people can't change. Don't try and change yours. Maybe that's okay.
Jeremy Au: (32:01)
Yes, definitely see the precedents for that all across the world. Even in Germany, for example, there are limits on free speech that, I think it's a function of the country's history, and fears, and ideals?
Nir Eyal: (32:14)
That I actually disagree with. So I'm Jewish, and my grandparents were Holocaust survivors. They defend the right to deny the Holocaust. It's obviously ridiculous. It's not true. The Holocaust absolutely did happen. My grandmother will tell you, she's passed. But she can tell you all the stories about exactly what she experienced at the camps. But I do think we should allow that type of speech. Because that's the thing we can debate that. And that's going to exist in the shadows no matter what. But I wonder if you go to extreme, of course, I think what China does, in terms of banning everything that people talk about today, you can't criticize any type of government intervention. That's also ridiculous, to the point where people have to protest with white pieces of paper. And so what do they do? They banned paper. That's, obviously, ridiculous. But maybe there's a middle ground, maybe if the United States is way on one end, and China's way on the other, then maybe there's somewhere in the middle that makes sense. That is okay to not talk about in the public's right. By the way. Another area that I think the US is lacks on is our libel laws, our libel and slander laws, like you can literally say anything about a pope. If you tweet something, they can say anything about you, if you're a politician. If it was in the newspaper in America that Joe Biden got abducted by aliens, and you can put that in print. And that's totally fine, doesn't have to be a shape or form, just because you're a public figure. That's something you can't do in Singapore, which also maybe there's some logic too. Maybe if you have a claim, it about should be some basis of fact, behind it. Again, I'm not arguing exactly the particulars of how the law is implemented, I think it can be abused as well. Since I've been here, my mind has been open to perhaps there are some forms of speech that shouldn't quite be so mobility.
Jeremy Au: (34:02)
I think accountability is a big word they use over and over again. Personal accountability versus accountability in terms of the public square versus accountability in the face of government. So why is this accountability and personal ownership important to you?
Nir Eyal: (34:18)
Because I think it's the point of greatest leverage. So when you assign responsibility, who should act? Whose responsibility is something? To always ask yourself who is the party that has the most leverage in changing the situation? I'll give you an analogue here. Let's say you're driving and there's a car in front of you. And that car in front of you quickly slams on the brakes for whatever reason. It quickly slam on the brakes. Whose fault is it? If the car slammed in front of you, the fault is the driver in front because they quickly slammed on the brakes. They did something they should not do on highway, you don't slam on your brakes, but whose responsibility is it? The driver behind. The driver behind has to maintain distance by the car in front and if they hit the car in front of them. Guess who's going to get the ticket? It doesn't matter if the driver in front slammed on the brakes, the driver on back is responsible, and their insurance will have to pay the fine. And so this is exactly back to your question. Harp on personal accountability is because who has the easier time of fixing the situation? You do. Pick up your phone. Read Indistractable, learn how to use these products and services in a way that serves you as opposed to us serving them. It's a bit of leverage than sitting here and waiting for the government or these companies to fix the problem. And so that's why I keep harping on it. So the takeaway here is just because something is not your fault, doesn't mean it's not your responsibility. You didn't invent these things. You didn't invent Cheetos, you didn't invent donuts. You didn't invent social media, but it is your responsibility.
Jeremy Au: (35:57)
It's tricky, because personal responsibility seems to be increasingly coded, right for politics, and partisanship. And at a deep level, on a personal level, everybody gets it. And I think every parent and every family and every personal conversations are pretty straightforward. Like we are accountable for how we drive, and we are accountable for how we respond to anything. It just feels like once it get out there in a one zone, two zone, three zones, out then this becomes, us versus them, if you believe in this. So why do you think that's happening from your perspective? How do we navigate that?
Nir Eyal: (36:37)
Well, the brain is a cognitive miser, who jumped to quick answers and easy conclusions, because that feels good. We always want easy answers. There's all ridiculous things that people believe. Because they seem right. For most of human history, people thought the world is flat, you had to really convince them even today, and you have to convince people that the world is not flat, because that requires some cognitive effort. Look, it looks flat, everything is isolated, it's flat. But you have to do an experiment, you have to take a laser and go very far away and shoot it through a little hole. And then you'll see that the laser won't go through the hole, that's very far away because of the curvature of the earth. So you have to think a little bit, you have to devise and experiment, you have to test your assumptions. And the fact is, assumptions, we're very comfortable thinking in ways that that make us look good. Nobody wants to think that wait a minute. Can I think about this? Can't I just complain? That's no fun. I don't want to think that I can do something to lose weight. I don't want to think that I could do something to change the way I interact with products and services. That can't be my fault. That's a lot of fun. That's one. The second thing I think that's unique about technology specifically and social media in particular, is that these mediums telling you that it's not your fault, have a financial incentive to do so. Like where are people getting the information that technology is melting their brain? Where are they hearing that it's hijacked in the social dilemma film that was on Netflix, where we have people in the movie saying technology is hijacking your brains? Hijacking is what they did to us on 911. To use the word hijacking, to describe I play Candy Crush too much is offensive, is not hijacking your brain, it's a distraction. You like it. So you use it a lot. And by the way, who brought you to this social dilemma? Netflix brought you the movie. Reed Hastings, the CEO says the better to Netflix is sleep. The New York Times tells you how horrible social media is because guess what? They’re losing market share to social media. Fox News and CNN hate new media. They hate social media, they hate getting your news from sub stacks, that all they want to do is tell you how terrible technology is. Because their business model is the same business model. They're made by selling your attention to advertisers. Does anybody not know that that's how the media makes money? They sell your attention to advertisers, the same way that social media does. The second thing we need to consider is that the people bringing you this information are in the same damn business. So of course they have an incentive. Not that it's like a big plan. They're not like sitting there and plotting how can we do something to get people to stop using social media. But it's part of their DNA. I work in journalism. I was a journalism co major. I worked at CBS. I worked at the New York Times, I know how these companies operate, the first rule of of news media leads, they want to show you that sensational. They want to show you the stuff that spreads the viral content. They don't care if it's high quality. They don't care if it's not good, they want you to click same business model. So of course, I'm not surprised that many people have a warped perception because that's what we're told again and again, repeat a message. Technology is addictive, technology is hijacking your brain, it's stealing your focus. Well, the more people believe it, unfortunately, and they don't question these assumptions.
Jeremy Au: (40:08)
The tricky part, of course, is it's happening. It's already happening. It keeps happening. So how should people react to this? It feels like you got to keep snowballing. It's like, I don't think the media is going to stop, leading with those articles, just going to escalate it further.
Nir Eyal: (40:25)
And technology is going to become more pervasive and more persuasive. Technology is only going to get better, it's only going to become more potentially.
Jeremy Au: (40:34)
At the core of it, it feels like technologies, and this arms race racing head on. And humans are holding a stone club.
Nir Eyal: (40:43)
We oftentimes hear this argument of like, the primal brain is not equipped for modern distraction. Once again, bullshit. The thing that the human brain is better than any other species on the face of the earth at doing is adaptability. Murder is the most natural thing ever. We murder each other, left and right, all the time. But then you know, what we realized that wasn't good for us to keep murdering each other. And we started organizing societies and laws, and we gave power away from us as individuals to government to become the Leviathan, that then regulates how we behave to each other. So we don't kill each other. Rape is historically throughout the canon. We know that this would happen all the time, all kinds of other terrible things into each other, that we don't do anymore, we learn new behavior. So what the human species does, when it comes to new technology, adapt, and we adopt, we adapt our behaviors to these new changes, we change the way we look at it, which is what indistractable is all about. It's this new skill set. So you want to be able to communicate with people all over the world, you want the world's information on fingertips, you want constant entertainment for free? Well, the cost of all that is learning some new skills. If you want to drive a car, you have to learn how to drive the car. And so you need some basic skills. And so the same goes when it comes to our technology, we got to learn some new skills. That's what indistractable does. So the first thing we do is we adapt our behaviors, we adapt these new norms around how we use these products and services. The second thing is adopt new technologies to fix the last generation of bad technology. So Paul Virilio, the philosopher said, “When you invent the ship, you invent the shipwreck’”. When you invent the ship, you invent the shipwreck. So of course, any disruptive technology that has this massive impact on the world is going to have shipwrecks, there's going to be bad sides to it as well. Every technology that has this impact. It's going to have good and bad when it comes to shipping. When was the last time you heard of a shipwreck? Pretty rare. You don't really hear about shipwrecks anymore. Why is that? They stopped sailing ships. Did we ban shipping? No, we made shipping better? We adopted new technology. We don't sail ships that Columbus used. No, we have better technology today. That makes shipwrecks less common. So that's exactly what we need to do with all the problems that we see already. I don't know anybody under 30 that still uses Facebook blue. Now they all use WhatsApp. I know WhatsApp is owned by Meta. But I would argue that Instagram fix lots of the problems of Facebook, it's a better version. And now we see this continuely, their new versions, that it gets better and better, it continues to evolve. And that's what human beings have always done. We adapt our behaviors, our norms, and we adopt new technology to fix the last generation of technology.
Jeremy Au: (43:34)
You speak about this generation and the next generation. And, Generation Z is upon us. And my children who have been recently born over the past few years, I guess, there'll be generation alpha. I guess, I don't know what are going to call them. That's my guess. So when you peep into your crystal ball or that about the technology improving, all these products changing. How do you envision a next generation growing up? What their world will be and what their relationship with technology is going to be?
Nir Eyal: (43:59)
Yes, so this is a really important point. So I’ve a 14 years old, and she's very much digital native. I think some of her first words were iPad time. So it's incredibly to think about our children. Starting with, how do we raise Indistractable children? So there's a whole chapter in the book about how to raise indistractible kids. And start with first asking ourselves, what kind of example are we setting, that many of us, myself included? I used to be a hypocrite, I would tell my daughter not to use her phone. And meanwhile, I was checking email. You can't do that. If you want to raise indestractible kids, you have to be indistractible yourself. Children are born with hypocrisy detection devices, they have these little invisible antennas that you can't see. But they're there, that are constantly looking at you. And they love to call you out on it. And so they're looking, they're constantly watching you. By the way, this is the same if you're a manager at your place of work, you can’t tell your employees to focus and not be distracted. If you're constantly checking your device, and you're the big boss who constantly is on their phones, you're setting an example. That's the first thing you have to do, we have to learn how to become indistractable ourselves, and to be vulnerable with our kids. And to tell them look, I'm struggling with this as well, that these products are designed to be very enticing. That's hooked. And so I can tell you, I wrote the book, I know all their tricks, and I can tell you, they're good. They're not that good. It's not mind trapping or hijacking your brain, this is clearly something we can do something about. And so we need to evolve our kids in learning the same exact process. Because as you said, the world's only going to become a more distracting place. And so this is the most important skill, it's more important than teaching them swimming, and ballet and Mandarin and all the skills with them. If they don't have the skill to focus their attention, it's all for not. Look, in a few years, many of the skills that they are going to have are going to be pointless, we're going to have blabble fishes in our ears that are going to translate a language, there's really no point to learning any other language, but code. In few years, our kids will talk, go to some other country, and they'll be able to converse, just like we are now in different languages, but the skills that they really will need is the skill to acquire new skills. And that skill is a skill of becoming indistractable. This is the skill of the century, because if you can't pay attention, long enough to learn a new skill, you don't truly control your life. So this is the skill of the century, our kids have to learn how to do this.
Jeremy Au: (46:14)
And you shared about sharing being a good example, for kids and so forth. On that personal note, could you share with us a time that you personally have been brave?
Nir Eyal: (46:24)
The time when I've been brave, It's a tough one. It's tough for me to share when I mess up, but I am not necessary. So in my book, I talk about how the impetus to write this book in the first place, was I was with my daughter one afternoon, and we had just some daddy daughter time planned. And I remember we had this activity book of different activities to do together, build a paper airplane and and fly it across the room and do Sudoku puzzle. And one of the activities in the book was to ask each other this if you could have any superpower, what superpower would you have? And I remember the question verbatim, but I can't tell you what my daughter said. Because that moment for whatever reason, I thought it was a good time. Let me just check this one quick thing on my phone. And by the time I looked up, she was gone. And I put a message that whatever was on my phone was more important than she was and she went to play with some toy outside. And that's when realized the relationship with distraction. And that was the impetus to write this book, was to figure out man if I'm doing this with her, where else am I doing this with my work, when I would say I was going to work on this big project and I would get distracted and do something else. I would do it when I would say I'm definitely going to eat right. I'm definitely going to exercise today. Then I didn't and I wouldn't and so that got me on this journey. So I guess the brave thing that I did was that I went back to her and I apologized. To say like I was wrong here, I messed up. As parents we're supposed to have all the answers correct until my daughter say look, I'm really sorry. I was not my best and I would really love to know what superpower and she told me later on that the superpower she would want is the power to be kind that was what she wants. Not to fly like Superman or whatever other superpowers but the power to be kind and that of course melted my heart and it actually had a message of indestructible because being kind is an incredible superpower. You don't need to be bit by a race. Like Spider Man, you don't need to be born on an alien planet like Superman. To be kind is something that we all can adapt, same goes for being indistractible. That is a choice that we can make that decision to be kind or to be indistractable.
Jeremy Au: (48:38)
When you see the next generation of kids your children and the next generation of children, what are first of all your hopes, and then secondly was your fears for them as they grew up?
Nir Eyal: (48:52)
My hope is that they have a sense of agency that having a belief in your own power changes things is incredibly important. In the psychology literature, we call this an internal versus an external locus of control. And we know that there is differentiation, this dichotomy of people who believe that their life is controlled by circumstances outside themselves, versus people who thinks that circumstances are controlled by inside themselves. So personal agency versus doing whatever the world has given you,fate. People who believe in agency are better off in almost every conceivable metric, they live longer, healthier, more productive lives by believing in their agency, even when it's not there. So that's the kicker. If it's true, and it clearly is, I'm not a blind optimist to say, everything is in your control. It's not in your control, you're discriminated against as an ethnic minority, or as of a particular gender or orientation. There are problems that are not your fault, clearly. But even if that's the case, it never serves us to think we're victims. It never serves us to think of ourselves as victims, to think that the world has done this to us, it always is better to believe that you have agency, so that's my wish. And my fear for this generation is that they lose this sense of agency. And so the more we can help our kids understand, we have a role to play a huge role, the biggest role to play comes down to you and your choices.
Jeremy Au: (50:27)
That was amazing. And I really appreciate you sharing that hope for our children and next generation. On that note, I love to wrap things up by I summarizing the three big themes that I got from this conversation. The first that really came through was really fighting for agency, personal accountability, ownership. And, being thoughtful about a world where there are financial incentives, there's the industry players, and all the various games that folks are playing. But never forgetting about that personal sense of responsibility. And being thoughtful about the fact that the human condition is a function of pain management, and escape from discomfort. So really thoughtful philosophy that actually makes it much easier for me to not think about it, is adding the value core across both the books ‘Hooked and Indistractable’. The second I really enjoy was free speech and the regulatory point of view on Tik Tok and social media. I really enjoy it. For example, you sharing about the nuance that you have seen from your moves across geography and time. And also, to some extent, have you changed your point of view, in terms of how you want to fight for the rights of children, folks who are easily addicted, and undue influence, the role of government, but also the limits or capability of industry self regulation, for example, in the op ed that you wrote, years ago. Lastly, I think one thing that came up was quite clear was, the hope for next generation and our children. What really came across for me in this conversation was, these books are not only ways for product designers or individuals to live life today. But I really think there are a stake in the ground to fight for the next generation in terms of the values and I really appreciate your story about how you chose to be brave, to be present with your child again, and admitting your error. So I really love everything you shared.
Nir Eyal: (52:21)
Thank you so much. It was wonderful to be with you. Thank you for having me.