Are You Taking Your Psychological Nutrients?

Competency, autonomy, and relatedness. They matter!

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I once checked Twitter about every five minutes. That is not an exaggeration. I glanced at it between every email, every conversation at work, and seemingly every other thought. Then I took this habit home with me, where my wife became understandably annoyed. “Can't you just put it down for like an hour?” she’d ask.

Most people would say that I was “addicted” to Twitter. Critics today are quick to make that diagnosis — that we all are, in some way, addicted to our smartphones and the internet more generally.

But recently, I had a conversation that helped reshape my understanding of this issue — and my own experience with it. Why was I so hooked on Twitter? It wasn’t because of Twitter. It was because of me… and the needs I wasn’t fulfilling elsewhere.

Real problems have complex causes, but our instinct is often to simplify them — to point at one obvious culprit and blame the entire thing on that. When we do this, we do ourselves a disservice: Simple explanations stop us from properly understanding complex problems, and therefore leave us unable to develop helpful solutions.

So here, I want to briefly lay out the argument for why I was not addicted to Twitter… and why, in the conversation about technology and our lives, we need to take more responsibility for ourselves.

Let’s stop calling it “addiction”

The conversation I had was with the best-selling writer Nir Eyal. He wrote a book called Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, back before the idea of habit-forming products seemed so worrisome. Then he followed it up with, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.

These two books — first about products that capture attention, and then about how people can claw that attention back — might give you the impression that Nir believes we are victims of our technology. But that isn’t the case. Nir agrees that products of all kinds can captivate us, but he argues that this is the price of progress. What’s the alternative, he says — companies intentionally making crappy things? No. We should want good things.

But we should also recognize our own role in these tools’ use and adoption. That’s the exact opposite of what the “addiction” narrative tells us.

“By medicalizing an otherwise normal behavior and telling everybody that we're all addicted, well, then what can we do about it? Nothing,” Nir told me in a recent podcast I made. “When you call it what it really is — a distraction or overuse — well, Now I can do something about it? But that's no fun. Now I actually have to change my behavior as opposed to just shaking my fist at these companies and hoping the politicians and the companies will do something about it.

By way of example, he pointed me to the groundbreaking research of psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, who in the 1980s introduced their “self-determination theory.” In short, they argue that people need three things in order to thrive — competency, autonomy, and relatedness.

Competency is feeling like you’re good at something. Autonomy is the agency to do things on your terms. And relatedness is shorthand for being connected to friends, family, and community. Nir likes to call these “the three psychological nutrients” — and if you’re not getting them from your day-to-day life, then you’ll be drawn to find them in other places like the internet.

What single adult hasn’t opened a dating app when their confidence is low? What kids, after feeling incompetent in school and not having enough autonomy from their parents, hasn’t found those things in video games instead?

When Nir explained all this, I realized how perfectly it applied to my Twitter usage. At the time (many years ago), I was emotionally malnourished at work: I could not understand what my bosses wanted, which killed my sense of competency. The company’s burdensome policies made me feel a lack of autonomy. And because I was so sour, I felt disconnected from most of my coworkers. Then I found all those things on Twitter, where I felt confident and in control and connected to a community.

I don’t blame Twitter for this. I also don’t blame my old workplace. I should have left that job a lot earlier than I did — and when that day came, and I found more satisfying work elsewhere, my impulse to live on Twitter faded away.

What’s the point of all this?

I was overusing Twitter, but I wasn't addicted to Twitter. Addiction is a specific medical problem that primarily applies to substances, and the research into how it applies to behaviors is in its infancy. The problem in this case was me. And the solution had to come from me, too.

Does that excuse everything about attention-economy tech? Of course not. There’s plenty to fix. And yes, I acknowledge that I’m writing this on a platform owned by an often-criticized Big Tech company.

Still, waving around the word “addiction” isn’t going to help anyone. When we turn to our phones for mental nourishment, we are exhibiting a problem that cannot be solved simply by limiting our phone time or blaming technology makers. And when we simplify our problems and outsource our solutions to pundits and politicians, who just point at boogeymen and say that they are the problem, then we have learned to be helpless.

Here’s what’s empowering: We can do something about our problems ourselves. And we can start by doubling down on living fully — which doesn’t seem so bad.


Credit: Cover photo from Unsplash.