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The Addiction Economy: psychological and social effects

The addiction economy – how modern business models exploit our psyche


The addiction economy thrives on addictive design – the creation of appealing digital products and services that capture users’ attention. Findings from psychology and behavioural science are used in such a way that they bind users to them as strongly as possible, leading to addiction.

The mechanisms of the addiction economy

The addiction economy utilises various mechanisms to achieve this.

Intermittent rewards

Intermittent rewards are a powerful tool in the addiction economy. Similar to slot machines, rewards are granted at unpredictable intervals. That maintains the excitement and makes it difficult to stop. Social media platforms often use likes, comments and shares as rewards to keep users returning.


Algorithms track user behaviour to personalise content, advertising and recommendations. This customised experience makes users feel understood and valued and spend more time on the platform. Netflix’s recommendation system and Facebook’s newsfeed are prime examples of personalisation.


Integrating game elements such as points, levels and prizes in non-game contexts increases engagement enormously. Apps like Duolingo and fitness trackers like Fitbit use gamification to keep customers engaged.

Social confirmation

People have an innate need for social affirmation. Platforms capitalise on this with approval and recognition from like-minded people. Likes on Instagram and retweets on Twitter are examples of how social validation lures users.

Infinite shilling and autoplay

Infinite scrolling and autoplay keep users constantly engaged. This design reduces the likelihood of users turning away from the content and thus extends their time spent on the platform.

So it’s always about the same thing: training human habits, manipulating behaviour and encouraging the regular use of unnecessary products. A trigger triggers an action that is sometimes rewarded, sometimes not. The reward triggers renewed interaction.

Triggers can be boredom or FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). They prepare the ground for nudging by the application, which entices the user to act, such as opening 𝕏. 𝕏 lets the user scroll endlessly and rewards them with likes in between. That positively reinforces user behaviour and encourages them to post a new tweet. Likes on Twitter also mean that users measure the value or importance of their posts by the number of likes and retweets. It creates curiosity and new FOMO if the user is not using the app at the time and then opens it again to see if they have received any more likes.

This combination of reward effect, which is mediated in the brain by dopamine, and excitement, which leads to the release of adrenaline, is incredibly addictive, as gambling addiction shows, much faster than the two neurotransmitters on their own.

The unconscious drives

At the heart of the addiction economy is the manipulation of deep-seated drives. Psychodynamic theory, particularly the work of Sigmund Freud and later psychoanalysts examines how unconscious desires and conflicts shape behaviour. Viewed through the lens of psychodynamic theory, the constant need for affirmation and social recognition, which manifests in social media, expresses unresolved childhood conflicts and the desire to increase self-esteem.

According to Freud, human behaviour is primarily influenced by unconscious motives and desires. The addiction economy exploits this by creating environments that convey pleasure and reinforce behaviour through rewards. Users’ satisfaction when they receive likes on social media fulfils their need for validation and recognition, which is deeply rooted in early developmental experiences.

Self-ideal and social media

Karen Horney’s concept of neurotic self-idealisation offers further insight into the addiction economy. Horney found that people often create idealised versions of themselves to cope with inadequacy and insecurity. Social media platforms reinforce this tendency by offering users tools to create idealised versions of their lives. The curated images and status updates are less a reflection of reality and more often an exaggerated, usually unattainable self-image, leading to a cycle of comparison, envy and further engagement in search of validation.

Horney’s theory states that this constant striving for an idealised self leads to frustration and dissatisfaction when reality increasingly falls short of the ideal. Social media reinforces these feelings. They provide a platform for constant comparison with others. That creates a feedback loop in which the individual feels compelled to optimise their “online personality” and spend more and more time on these platforms.

Life in hyperreality

Jean Baudrillard’s theory of consumer society and simulacra extends our understanding of the addiction economy into the realm of hyperreality. Baudrillard argued that in a media-saturated society, representations of reality (simulacra) become more real than reality itself. With its filters and curated content, social media creates a hyperreal environment in which users engage with simulations rather than the real world. By blurring the boundaries between reality and representation, users are caught in a constant cycle of seeking validation within a constructed reality.

In his critique of consumer society, Baudrillard explained how consumption becomes a means for individuals to express identity and experience belonging. In the addiction economy, digital content is constantly provided to make us feel connected and validated. Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality suggests that users invest more in the representations of reality they find online than in their actual experiences, leading to detachment from the real world and an increased focus on maintaining and improving one’s online presence.

The company of the spectacle

Guy Debord’s concept of the society of the spectacle complements Baudrillard’s ideas by emphasising how images dominate social life. For Debord, the spectacle is not just a collection of images but a social relationship mediated by images. The addiction economy transforms all aspects of life into commodities that can be consumed, including turning personal experience into content and promoting a society in which appearance and representation override authentic human relationships.

Debord argued that the real is subordinated to representation in a society dominated by spectacle. This value shift has far-reaching implications for social interactions, as people are more concerned with how their lives look to others than how they actually live. The addiction economy provides platforms that reward the production and consumption of images and encourage users to engage more deeply with these representations.

Symbolic power and social media metrics

Pierre Bourdieu’s symbolic power concept helps explain how the addiction economy maintains its influence. Symbolic power is the ability to impose meanings and enforce them as legitimate. Social media platforms exert symbolic power by shaping norms and values around social status and success. Likes, shares, and followers become symbols of social capital that drive individuals to conform to the platform’s logic and gain status and recognition.

Bourdieu’s concept of symbolic power suggests that the metrics used by social media platforms are not only measures of engagement but, above all, symbols of social value. These ‘metrics’ influence how individuals perceive themselves and others and reinforce certain behaviours and norms. In the addiction economy, these symbols of social capital drive users to achieve more interactions with their content, leading to increased time spent on platforms and greater dependency.

Psychological and social effects

However, the addiction economy not only provides fodder for sociological analyses but, unfortunately, also has considerable psychological effects.

Reduced attention span

Constant engagement with highly stimulating content reduces users’ ability to focus on tasks that require sustained attention. The constant barrage of notifications and updates fragments attention, fragments and quickly causes boredom with complex or time-consuming tasks if the next “kick” is missing.

 Anxiety and depression

The constant comparison with idealised representations of other people’s lives on social media leads to feelings of inadequacy, helplessness, anxiety and depression. The pressure to maintain an idealised online presence results in enormous stress and exhaustion.

Disturbed sleep rhythm

Excessive screen time, especially before bedtime, disrupts the quality and rhythm of sleep. The blue light emitted by screens disrupts the production of melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone.

Relationship problems

On a social level, the addiction economy promotes superficial relationships and exacerbates social division. The pursuit of social validation through digital platforms weakens authentic interpersonal relationships and subjects people to judgment based on their online presence rather than their characteristics in the real world.

Dealing with the addiction economy

Individuals and society can use various strategies to mitigate the effects of the addiction economy


It is essential to realise your digital consumption habits and make conscious decisions about your own media consumption. Techniques such as mindfulness meditation improve self-control. Apps such as Headspace and Calm develop the necessary mindfulness for this.

Digital Detox

Regular breaks from digital devices allow the brain’s reward system to be reset. Setting aside specific times for digital-free activities thus reduces addiction. Real-life activities such as meeting friends, reading, exercising or spending time outdoors offer refreshing alternatives to digital consumption.

Set limits

Limiting screen time and switching off unimportant notifications stops the compulsive urge to look at devices constantly. Technology-free time before bedtime improves the quality of sleep.

Media competence

Only those who understand how addictive design and social media algorithms work can consciously shape their social media consumption. It would be naïve idealism to think that companies can be persuaded to adopt ethical design and consider their products’ psychological and social impact. After all, if the providers of gadgets, platforms and apps implement user-centric functions at all, even those that enable users to monitor and control their user behaviour, then only with the aim of gamification. Tools such as screen time trackers, notification controls and break reminders seem to enable users to manage their digital consumption proactively. However, they mainly serve as a nudge to interact with the product again and provide companies with insights into user behaviour.

But, of course, users are always free to make informed decisions about their behaviour on digital platforms.


The addiction economy has a profound impact on the psychology of individuals and social dynamics in general. Understanding the interplay between these factors and developing strategies to overcome them is critical to reclaiming control of our digital lives. The industry cannot be expected to adopt ethical design practices and support technologies that prioritise user well-being over engagement metrics.


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Montag, Christian (2021). Du gehörst uns! Die psychologischen Strategien von Facebook, TikTok, Snapchat & Co – und wie wir uns vor der großen Manipulation schützen. Karl Blessing.

The Addiction Economy. It’s not you, it’s them. (Accessed 22.06.2024).

Zabel, Mari. The Economics of Addiction. New Paradigm Recovery. (Accessed 22.06.2024).


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