Working Smarter

Technology Harder to Resist Than Drugs

Posted by Joe Robinson

Email overload erodes impulse control

Exhibit number one for the addictive power of technology has to be the text-walking phenomenon, in which pedestrians glued to their screens walk off curbs into traffic accidents, open ditches, off docks, and wind up in ER’s. The urge to text or check email is so powerful it overrides the survival instinct.

It's always amazing to see people, head down in their phones, inching across crosswalks against full-on red lights, oblivious to the fact that they are exposed to cars that could mow them down like bowling pins. 

This kind of death-wish behavior comes courtesy of an urge stronger, apparently, than the one to stay alive. Several deaths in South Korea have been attributable to video gamers ignoring all sustenance in marathon several-day sessions.


What drives this behavior? Researchers have found that technology obliterates willpower and is the hardest of all urges to resist, harder than alcohol or drugs, according to a German study of 205 adults.

Resisting Facebook, smartphones, and texting is right up there with turning down a margarita for an alcoholic. One of the reasons technology is so addictive is that it plays to one of the social animal’s most powerful needs, the need for positive reinforcement. Send an email and get one back, and you get reinforcement, but it's an ephemeral version, feeding the urge for more validation, because real validation comes from the inside, not external approval.

You can see the hold technology has when you try to engage in a conversation with someone who has a smartphone in hand. Eye contact: zero. Listening abilities: nada. You might as well be talking to a cucumber.

Technology has such a powerful hold on us, because it erodes willpower in several ways. It’s easy to indulge in all day long, the study reports, and unlike alcohol and drugs, it doesn’t have high perceived costs. Yet the damage is being done inside brains, as the constant interruptions and mail-checking erode the self-regulation equipment and drive stress and obliterate work-life balance.


The more you check email, the more you have to check it, as any smartphone user knows. You lose impulse control and the ability to regulate impulsivity. The result: It's hard to stay on task or concentrate. The urge to check or text, minus impulse control, sets off a cycle of self-interruption. It also makes it harder to regulate impulsive behavior in other areas of life beyond technology that might be prone to habits you could do without. 

When the devices are in charge of attention, the more job stress there is, since the chimes, bells, pulses, and noisemakers play to the survival instinct of “bottom-up” attention, something we are wired to have no resistance to, since that sound could be a threat to life and limb.

We all pay when technology is unbounded, in the form of shrinking attention spans, more time pressure and stress, fractured concentration, frayed relationships, and text-walkers barging into traffic.

If technology is an addiction harder to resist than drugs, it's time for an intervention. A good email overload program or information management system can save impulse control mechanisms, control email overload, dramatically cut job stress, and cure technology addiction. Manage the devices, instead of the other way around, and you're back in control.

When we set the terms of engagement with devices, not only does it restore willpower, the work gets done faster, with vastly improved stress management, and more attention. And we don’t go off the deep end of curbs and piers.

Tags: email overload, text walking, technology addiction, work life balance, stress management, job stress

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