Does Tech Have to Be Addictive to Succeed?

On a recent whirlwind tour talking positive computing with folks at Google, Facebook, and across the valley, it was an impromptu meeting with a Sesame Street monster that would do the most to change my view of the future and how affiliative experience could be the new holy grail of engagement.

We seem to be living life bathed in dopamine--the result of a constant push towards competition, productivity, and achievement. There’s no doubt our drive to reach and acquire is evolutionarily essential but the disproportionate focus we’ve placed on these emotions has prevented us from valuing and designing for those more likely to increase our health and happiness according to research.

Striving-based vs. affiliative engagement

In a talk for Stanford's Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), I presented Paul Gilbert’s categories of positive emotion as a way of thinking about digital experience.  In a nutshell, Gilbert identifies two types of positive emotion: seeking-focused and affiliative-focused, and the latter involves those connective and caregiving emotions like compassion and contentment. There is significant evidence that it’s the affiliative rather than seeking-focused emotions that contribute to better mental and physical health.

So why does so much of our technological experience (eg. to-do lists, email, news feeds, games, comparison status rewards, tracking devices, etc.) reinforce our striving systems, with comparatively little support for genuine affiliation.
If technology is to increase wellbeing, we’ll need to start designing for more affiliative experience, an effort I refer to as affiliative design. 
During the talk at Stanford mentioned above, CCARE director and outstanding neurosurgeon/compassion researcher, James Doty, suggested that we may have no choice but to trigger the “striving” emotions, if only at first, to make technologies “sticky” enough to retain interest over time. He pointed to the difficulty for dedicated wellbeing apps to sustain user interest over time.  Admittedly, this is a billion dollar question, but I’m not so sure striving emotions are the only answer.

This is where a muppet comes in.  Earlier that day, at the VirtualHuman Interaction Lab at Stanford, I was invited by researcher, Jakki Bailey, to step into a virtual world she was building with Sesame Street for young children.  Who could possibly turn down an invitation to meet Elmo and Grover? Certainly not me, so I popped on the Oculus and dove right in.    

The wisdom of Grover

The impact of suddenly seeing a 5 foot furry Grover in the corner of the room was far more powerful than I expected.  My gut reaction was to wave at him frantically squealing in toddler-esque delight.  The presence of the goggles seemed to blind me to the social absurdity of my actions, and although Grover did nothing to acknowledge my presence, I ran over to him desperate to squeeze him as hard as I could.  Fortunately my sudden regression to childhood lead to some useful insights for the researchers, so there was some value in my total loss of composure.   

For me, the most surprising effect was that, once I took off the goggles and Grover no longer shared the space with me, I actually felt a loss.  I missed him.  No really. In fact, I went on missing him for the rest of the day.  As absurd as that sounds I do believe it’s an example of the power of affiliative emotion in even very brief and virtual experiences.  

I obviously brought to this experience a deep-seated memory of connection to a character I’d come to feel affection for in early childhood, and that not only made it a deeply enjoyable experience, it made it an experience I wanted to return to. 
If “stickiness” is necessary in order to engage users, my experience with Grover proved to me that stickiness didn’t have to be of the striving-achievement variety.   
I had no desire to reach a goal, top a leader-board, collect points or compare my performance to others.  Simply being with Grover was the draw.  The feelings of affection, warmth, childhood nostalgia, kindness even -- these were all a part of my Grover construct and they were all I needed to be motivated to return.

Affiliative motivation in daily life

It’s worth pointing out that we are also drawn to hang out with friends again and again despite the fact that we seldom get badges for it.  I think the Grover experience was, in a small way, tapping into this kind of motivation.  

 It shouldn’t be surprising that as human beings we are intrinsically drawn to connect and share presence with other people.  It’s no doubt, this aspect of our humanness is part of what draws us to play social games and chat and text with friends. Of course our digital experiences within social media and gaming environments are also riddled with competition, performance, status-motivators, comparison, and goal-seeking, but lets not let those blind us to the intrinsic affiliative motivators sharing that same space. 
What we need to do is stop smothering opportunities for affiliation with points and striving.  We need to do more to bring out and design to support affiliative experience, and to empower users to integrate this experience more easily into their lives, themselves.
 After all, this is why inspirational stories and LOL cats go viral.  They bring moments of affiliation back into our lives, allowing us, for just a moment, to break from the striving and get some of the stress-relieving effects these warm-and-fuzzies bring.

Pondering the importance of more affiliative design leaves me to a compelling question: What would a world of people addicted to compassion and kindness look like?  More to the point, what would the technology in such a world be like? 
Let’s begin to find out.