Why Recycling Isn’t Good for the Environment

Remember what Mr Miyagi said about balance?

Mr. Miyagi: You remember lesson about balance?
Daniel: Yeah.
Mr. Miyagi: Lesson not just karate only. Lesson for whole life. Whole life have a balance. Everything be better. Understand?

The Karate Kid (1984)

Life is all about balance.

Perfect balance is what you find in the exact middle of the spectrum, in between one extreme and another.

Between work and play.


This lesson about balance can inform us why recycling might not be the best solution to our environmental woes.

Is recycling actually a bad idea?

The environmentalist will say that recycling is good for the environment. You reuse resources such as paper and that means that less trees will get cut down.

On the other hand, the office that hasn’t gone green and isn’t recycling is wasting resources.

S. Landsberg says that if you recycle too much paper, trees won’t get chopped down, and forests will shrink.

“Environmentalists can quote reams of statistics on the importance of trees and then jump to the conclusion that recycling paper is a good idea. But the opposite conclusion makes equal sense. I am sure that if we found a way to recycle beef, the population of cattle would go down, not up. If you want ranchers to keep a lot of cattle, you should eat a lot of beef. Recycling paper eliminates the incentive for paper companies to plant more trees and can cause forests to shrink. If you want large forests, your best strategy might be to use paper as wastefully as possible-or lobby for subsidies to the logging industry.” 

Following the logic of the above statement, if everybody was an environmentalist, we’d all go green and that would be a problem.

Conversely, if everybody wasted paper, that would also be a problem.

It looks like there has to be a balance between recycling paper and wasting paper.

In actuality, the ongoing tension between environmentalists and anti-environmentalists is wherein the nugget of wisdom lies.

Paper conservers are the yin to the yang of paper wasters.

Without either side passionately fighting for their ideology – there would be no balance.

What pesticides can teach us about balance

Turns out that pesticides can have harmful effects on our health.

But if we were to stop using pesticides on fruit, for example, then there’d be less fruit for people to eat which would also be bad for our health.

Landsberg credits this observation to biologist Bruce Ames:

“Environmentalists call on us to ban carcinogenic pesticides. They choose to overlook the consequence that when pesticides are banned, fruits and vegetables become more expensive, people eat fewer of them, and cancer rate consequently rise.”

You have to strike a fine balance between using pesticides and refraining from using them.

If you’re really bothered about pesticides on food, going organic is a great option. No point cutting corners on the food you eat to fuel your most precious asset – your body.

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Ideas on How to Get Students to Return Overdue Library Books

When you borrow a ‘7-day loan’ book from the university library and fail to return it before the 7 days are up, you are forced to pay a fine of 50 pence for every day that the book is overdue.

The crux of the issue is exactly what we’ve been talking about a second ago.

If someone wanted to keep a book for longer that 7 days, all he had to do was pay a small, petty fine of 50p a day and v’oila! he bought himself some extra time.

And just like that, gone are the times of experiencing guilt for holding on to an eagerly sought out book at the expense of someone else’s intellectual enterprise and education.

The whole thing is ruled by market norms now.

50p isn’t much of a fine

But the thing with paying just 50p is misleading and takes advantage of an inherent psychological tendency that we all have.

This is how libraries earn their money for “new books”.

This natural tendency is called delay discounting which is the process of devaluing future outcomes. You can read more about that here.

Essentially, paying 50p a day is chickenfeed to most people.

But 50p on day 1 turns into £1 into £1.50 and so on…

Hold on to a book for 10 days and you have to pay £5. Then you’re thinking – where’d that fine come from?!

Funnily enough, £5 turns out to be 1/8 of the price of a new copy of that very book you’ve been nursing for ages.

We don’t care about other people, only about ourselves

Let’s face it, we’re egocentric and tend to be selfish.

On the other hand though, we’re not purely motivated by self-interest.

Behavioural research shows that we do exhibit other-regarding preferences in that we factor in other people’s interests in our decision-making.

But these preferences aren’t at the forefront of our value hierarchy.

Sad but true.


There is a solution.

A solution that would make people focus on the needs of others…

And it’s been around for millenia.

That solution is to instil feelings of guilt.

People are egocentric and look for their benefit but guilt has always been able to inspire at least a modicum of regard in those who have strayed off the path of righteousness (getting carried away here but you get the point.)

So if libraries want to help a student out, it has to be better at instilling guilt in students that are taking the mick.


 How to instil guilt back

Social norms

Norms are important because they’re unspoken promises we make to people in our immediate social circle.

In the good ol’ days, if someone was a deviant in the social circle, he’d be banished or killed.

So to make the student feel compelled to bring the book back (bring the bloody book back, Russell!), we need to make him realise he’s a deviant in accordance to the unspoken laws/norms that govern every student.

Sure, sure, he probably knows this already, but we need that thought to be in the forefront of his consciousness.

So send him an email which reads something along the lines of:

99% of people give the books back on time – would you like it if someone did that to you?

This informs the person of the norm (i.e. how the majority acts = norm) and plays on their emotions a bit…

This ties in with the second point:


A big theme here is to introduce empathetic imagination by putting them in the shoes of the people that are worse of for someone not bringing an overdue library book back (damnit, Russell!)

Another example that would play on empathy would be:

Please return the book as overdue books disadvantage students in their revision.

What would be even better would be to put that sentence in red.

Red attract attention and assigns urgency.

By the same token though, a lot of students don’t check these library emails and give in to the ostrich effect. Basically, they hide their head in the sand and avoid the issue (don’t you dare, Russell…)

But if you include in the email that “you could save X amount of money for returning the book on time” in the subject line, you might just get them to open the email after all.

Higher fees

Students taking the mick oftentimes don’t mind paying 50 pence a day for an overdue book.

Let’s face it – it’s a small price to pay for being daft.

So what about compounding the fines over time?

On day 1, the fine is 50p but on day 2 the fine increases to £1 etc.

Another thought: what about exorbitant fees?

Nobody wants to pay super high fees for a measly, chewed-up, dog-earred, nineth-hand book, right?

But this could have some unintentional effects, like encouraging malpractice where the students with the overdue books wouldn’t even bother paying the fines, returning the books, and would just vanish from the face of the Earth.


Making them experience the negative experience of holding overdue books

What about giving deceiving them into thinking that the book was overdue so that they experience the negative affect and feel like a criminal before telling them that you were joking but also add “but seriously – don’t forget to bring the book back on time yeah.”

Obviously this would raise “ethical questions” due to the deception used (still a thought, though…)

Make paying off fines a unpleasant experience

When paying off their library fines, sometimes people with overdue books rationalise that “well at least I’m helping the library with my money.”

It’s this rationalisation that doesn’t deter them from similar transgressions in the future.

So how would one go about making sure this rationalisation isn’t conjured up?

What about setting fire or shredding the money they use to pay for their fines?

Parting with hard, cold cash can be difficult, especially if you’re paying off library fees.

What if a student paying off his fines were to insert a note into a machine only to receive a fake shredded note in response?

They wouldn’t be able to rationalise that the money was going to a good cause (i.e. library) but rather was wasted because of someone’s laziness…

You could argue this puts a lot of undue stress on the student who is paying the fine. But once he’s parted with the money – what difference does it make what happens to the money?

After all – he’s parted with it and it’s no longer his.

But the downside is that no actual money is exchanged (i.e. it is taken off your student card).

I guess cash is slowly becoming archaic (not to mention unsanitary.)

Plus, now you’ve got machines where you can return your books back, so you aren’t able to experience any walk of shame as you would if you had to return the overdue books to a member of the library staff.

Trying to compromise and be on their side

Okay, the past two ideas were a bit “out there” so how about something that would be more ethically sound?

Like trying to be on their side and offer them an easy way out.

In the email remind him of the overdue book, you could write something like this in it:

“You can quietly come to school to give it back, no one will know…”

P.S. Thanks for reading and feel free to subscribe to my email list.


Thank you to S. Reimers for brainstorming these ideas with me. Obviously some were more on the jokey side while other more legitimate but overall it was a fun intellectual exercise I fondly look back on.


The Two Worlds We Live In


In his seminal book “Predictably Irrational”, behavioural economist Dan Ariely describes how we live in two worlds: one is governed by social exchanges and the other is characterised by market exchanges.

He emphasises that different rules apply to each of these two very different worlds.

For instance, imagine that your friend invites you to a party and you end up having so much fun that you decide to pay your friend for all the expenses it took to organise the thing.

How do you think your friend would react?

Such good deeds don’t come at a price.

The very act of offering to pay for them (i.e. placing a price tag on them) transitions the relationship with your friend from a social exchange to one governed by market norms.

In other words, by proposing such a thing, you’ve introduced market norms into a social exchange.

You’ve changed the dynamic of the social relationship and most likely even hurt it by negating the very foundation it was built upon in the first place i.e. intangible qualities such as trust, loyalty, kindness.

Social contract vs. market exchange

In his book, Ariely mentions an experiment conducted by researchers Uri Gneezy and Aldo Rustichini where the long term effects of introducing market norms into a social relationship could be recognised.

The researchers studied a daycare centre in Israel where they imposed fines for parents who were late in picking up their children.

From a behaviourist standpoint, it makes sense: if you want to reduce the frequency of a behaviour, you have to impose some sort of punishment to do so.

After all, world-renowned behaviourist B.F Skinner would reduce a rat’s button-pressing behaviour by simply shocking it. This is called negative reinforcement and it reduces the frequency of an undesirable behaviour.

However, upon introducing these fines, the situation hadn’t got better. Parents continued to be late in picking up their children. In fact, they were even more late than ever before.

How could this be?

Well, before the fine was introduced, the relationship between the caretaker at the daycare centre and the parents of the children operated within a world based on social exchanges.

Whenever the parents were late, their sense of guilt was so great that it increased their compliance to avoid being late.

But now that the fines were introduced, the dynamic of the social relationship had changed. The parents began to interpret the social exchange in terms of market norms.

They could now choose to be either a) early and not pay, or b) late and pay, say £2. They could literally buy themselves some time by paying the fine, absolving themselves of any guilt in the process, living in the conviction that it’s okay to be late as long as you pay up.

The relationship had moved from an implicit social contract to one dictated by market norms.

No going back

What happened when the fines were removed? Did the relationship between caretaker and parent return to one that was based on a social norms?

Here’s what Dan says about that:

“The most interesting part occurred a few weeks later, when the day care center removed the fine. Now the center was back to the social norm.

Would the parents also return to the social norm? Would their guilt return as well? Not at all. Once the fine was removed, the behavior of the parents didn’t change.

They continued to pick up their kids late. In fact, when the fine was removed, there was a slight increase in the number of tardy pickups (after all, both the social norms and the fine had been removed).”

This experiment illustrates an unfortunate fact: when a social norm collides with a market norm, the social norm goes away for a long time. In other words, social relationships are not easy to reestablish.

Once the bloom is off the rose — once a social norm is trumped by a market norm — it will rarely return.”

Lead and Be Strong In Your Decision-making

Being strong and firm in your choices and decisions is a valuable skill to master.

It is a skill because in a world that is abundant with options, it can be really difficult to a) choose in the first place, b) be confident that the choice you made is the right one, and c) stick with your decision once you’ve made it and not “flake” on it.

Perhaps more importantly, an opportunity cost of deciding is time and there’s always another option where you could spend it better, spend it elsewhere, or simply to save it.

Because time is indeed a precious resource.

You have probably noticed how the importance of time trickles into and manifests itself in everyday language.

You spend time with people.

You try to find time.

People who would like some of your time ask politely whether you have a moment to spare?

There is no time like the present, so why waste it on trying to decide?

As Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice puts it:

“Time spent dealing with a choice is time taken away from being a good friend, a good spouse, a good parent, and a good congregant.”

You also expend precious mental resources when trying to decide.

In my earlier posts on willpower, you will realise that using up your willpower and decision-making capabilities on one decision means you will have less to use for the other decision.

That’s why Barry urges us to:

“learn to be selective in exercising our choices. We must decide, individually when choice really matters and focus our energies there, even if it means letting many other opportunities pass us by. The choice of when to be a chooser may be the most important choice we have to make.”

And it’s not just trying to make a decision that uses up your willpower, merely thinking about making the decision will have the same effect.

The problem of abundant choice in the world rears its ugly head in the most inconspicuous of situations.

Like on a night out.

In his book Behavioral Economics Saved My Dog, behavioural economist Dan Ariely tackles this topic and comes up with a decent solution.

“When someone asks what do you want to do tonight?, what they are implicitly saying is: What is the most exciting thing we can do tonight, given all the options and all the people involved?

The problem is that figuring out the absolute best solution (the optimal solution) is very difficult.

First, we need to bring to mind all the possible alternatives; next we need to work out our preferences and the preferences of all the people in the group.

Then we have to find the one activity that will maximise this set of constraints and preferences.”

Okay so once you’ve gone through these motions – what’s next?

Ariely suggests:

“To overcome this problem, I would set a rule that limits the amount of time you are allowed to spend searching for a solution, and I would choose a default activity in case you fail to come up with a better option.

For example, take an acceptable good activity (going to drink at X, playing football at Y) and announce to your friends that, unless someone else comes up with a better alternative, in ten minutes you are all heading out to X or Y.

I would also set up a timer on your phone to make it clear that you mean business and to make sure that the time limit is honoured.

Once the buzzer sounds, just start heading out to X or Y, asking everyone to come with you and tell the people who do not join you immediately that you will meet them there. 

After repeating this tactic a few times, your friends will get used to it and you should experience an end to this wasteful habit.”

What you can do

It’s tough making decisions.

But sometimes, among all the options that you’re considering, it doesn’t necessarily matter what you choose.

Dan Ariely explains why:

“The larger point is that once we have spent a substantial amount of time on a decision, and we still can’t work out which option is the best, it must mean that the overall value of the competing options is more or less the same. It is not that the options are identical, but that the difference in their overall quality is hard to distinguish.” 

So if – on a night out for example – you’re having trouble deciding between option A, B, and C which are identical in value then save yourself the trouble and just choose any option.

You’d be surprised to notice that once you’ve confidently made the decision to go to place A and lead the group, that option somehow becomes more valuable because it’s moved the interaction forward.

And your unwavering confidence in your decision and you’re enthusiasm about your choice rubs off on your group of friends.

And more often than not, the choice you made turns out to be the right one.

P.S. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, feel free to sign up to my email list.

Behavioural Economics in Real Life

Do it London

The London HIV Prevention Programme has launched a campaign that is designed to increase awareness about HIV, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Moreover, it promotes HIV testing and encourages the practice of safe sex. The initiative offers sexual promotion advice and free condoms.

The behavioral economics principle used in this campaign is message framing. Prospect theory proposes that framing messages can have a huge influence on the preferences and choices of people (Tversky and Kahneman, 1982). Moreover, people tend to be risk-averse when messages are framed as gains, and risk seeking when messages are framed as losses. In fact, it was found that gain-framed messages encourage preventative health behaviors more so than loss-framed messages (Gallagher and Updegraff, 2012). 

5p carrier bags

The British government implemented a policy to put a 5p charge on every new plastic carrier bag used in supermarkets in England. The policy encourages shoppers to re-use their plastic bags in the effort to curb usage, which severely affects the habitats of wildlife and massively contributes to carbon emissions. The 5p charge has been successful across other countries of the UK. For instance, Wales saw a 71% drop in bag usage after having implemented the policy in 2011. The government estimates that the campaign will greatly reduce the carbon footprint, equivalent to taking 35,000 cars of the road. Over the next 10 years, it is expected that the 5p charge will raise £730 for charitable causes.

The effectiveness of this campaign is attributed in part to the Incentives aspect of the MINDSPACE principles (Dolan et al., 2010). For instance, supermarkets like Sainsbury’s offer extra points to loyalty cardholders for reusing their plastic bags. Also, Sainsbury’s incentivizes this re-usage by trading in old bags for new ones free of charge.

John Lewis Christmas Advertisement

John Lewis has launched a Man on the Moon campaign to raise money for older people for Christmas. In partnership with the UK’s largest charity working with older people Age UK, the advertisement aims to raise awareness for the problem loneliness among elderly people and features a fundraising appeal. When certain John Lewis products are bought, 25% of the proceeds go to this charity. These products include cards or mugs.

The effectiveness of the charity campaign lies in the MINDSPACE principle called Messenger (Dolan et al 2010). This principle upholds that we are heavily influenced by who communicates information. The John Lewis brand is widely recognizable across the UK. By endorsing Age UK’s message of raising awareness for charity, the John Lewis brand will allow for the message to gain more traction and reach a much wider audience. It will also inevitably influence people to donate to charity this Christmas and to reach out to their elderly family members.

Amazon Prime

Amazon Prime is an annual subscription programme, which offers a plethora of services, ranging from unlimited access to movies to a one-day delivery for eligible items. The membership costs £79 per year for adults and £39 for students. Amazon offers a 30-day free trial to new customers, allowing them to experience the broad array of services that having a membership entails. Once the 30-day free trial expires, the membership automatically renews itself and upgrades to an annual plan. However, customers have the liberty of opting out whenever they please.

The membership programme uses a MINDSPACE principle called Defaults (Dolan et al 2010). When a new customer opts in for the 30-day free trial, it is more likely that the customer will stick with the service and become a permanent member. This occurs due to the fact that decisions are psychologically effortful and humans are cognitively lazy. The decision to actively opt out of the service requires cognitive effort. For this reason, many customers remain opted in. 

Transport for London (TFL) London Cycle Hire Scheme

In this scheme, people can hire bicycles to travel and dock them at any docking station across the city. It is a very cost-efficient strategy for travelling around the city. The first 30 minutes of any cycle hire is free, and it costs £2 to gain 24-hour access to a bike. TFL also provides information on how to discover the “hidden gem cycle routes” in London, promotes bike rides around the city, and offers free of charge personal cycle training. The scheme has the intention of promoting exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle, bicycling as an alternative means of travelling to cars, and reducing congestion in public transport.

The scheme uses a MINDSPACE principle called Norms (Dolan et al., 2010). On the TFL website, it is emphasized that “thousands of people” use the cycle hire service. It is a means of telegraphing to the user that using cycle hires is a socially accepted rule of behavior. By the same token, it sub-communicates that it is socially contagious to hire cycles.


Stoptober is a Public Health England campaign that encourages cigarette smokers to abstain from smoking for the entire month of October. Starting from October 1st, smokers will have the chance to quit smoking for good by participating in this 28-day event. The enticing message of the campaign proposes that people that quit smoking for 28 days are 5x more likely to quit smoking altogether. The campaign offers support in the form of information and advice to help smokers complete the challenge.

The campaign uses MINDSPACE principles such as Commitment and Ego (Dolan et al 2010). People will use commitment devices be consistent with their public promises and achieve their goals. Therefore, by publicly taking part in Stoptober, participants will inform other participants of their promises and will want to act in accordance with them. Regarding the principle Ego, people want to project a favorable image of themselves to the world and will act in accordance with this image. Also, they want to act consistently with how they view themselves – their self-image.




Best Places For a First Date (Backed by Science)

You have to build attraction on the first date.

If you do that well, then a second date will follow.

So what makes for a great date?

Masculine personality traits, (learned) charisma, sharp wit and charm all aside…

The place you choose to go to is hugely important.

The Rollercoaster Ride Experiment

Why are rollercoasters a great place for a date?

Here’s Dr. David Lewis, author of Impulse to give you some insight:

“I first studied the potent relationship between roller-coasters and sexual arousal some 30 years ago. In my research I equipped couples with heart-rate monitors as they were about to board a ride and divided them into two groups.

Couples in the first group sat side by side while those in the second were separated and placed next to strangers. The results were surprising.

Those seated beside their partner not only experienced higher hearts rates throughout the ride, but also reported heightened physical attraction to one another.

They were far more physically demonstrative on leaving the ride, holding hands, cuddling and embracing.

The couples who had been separated experienced slightly lower heart rates and were less physically attracted and close after the ride.

The greater the thrill experienced in the presence of one’s partner the greater the impact on emotional and sexual excitement.”

That’s pretty awesome – you now know a secret about building emotional and sexual excitement.

So what underpins this excitement?

Here’s David:

“The key lies in the surge of the powerful ‘fight-or-flight’ hormone adrenalin which is triggered by the speed, the turns and above all the sudden increase in G-force to which people are subjected on a modern roller-coaster. The more thrilling and nerve-tingling the ride, the grater the adrenalin release and the bigger the sexual buzz.”


The Shaky Bridge Experiment

Adrenalin and sexual arousal… hmmm.

What’s the commonality here?

Allow me to present another study that fully explains this nuance.

There were two bridges.

One of the bridges is the Capilano Canyon Suspension bridge which is made of wooden boards that are merely attached to wire cables.

It sways in the wind, wobbles when you walk across it, and is 70 metres above the river.

This is the scary bridge.

Not too far away from this bridge is another, safer walkway; this one is more sturdy and isn’t suspended as high as the Capilano bridge.

In a famous experiment by researchers Dutton and Aron (1974), male participants were asked to walk across both the scary bridge and the safer bridge.

In both instances, a very attractive female “experimenter” awaited the men in the centre of the walkways to reward their valiant and brave effort with a… meagre survey.

The female “experimenter” would give the men her phone number to call her if “they had any further questions.”

The men who crossed the scary bridge were more likely to call the lady.


Crossing the bridge no doubt elevated their heart beat, stressed them out, and flooded their bodies with adrenaline.

These fundamental changes in physiology, this arousal, was obviously caused by the scary, shaky bridge.

But these guys misattributed their arousal from the bridge for arousal (i.e. attraction) for the woman.

In other words, it’s as if they psychologically chalked up all this emotion to being caused by the woman.

The Best Place to Go Out on a Date

Here’s behavioural economist Dan Ariely:

“With noise and people all around them, daters are likely to feel a much higher level of arousal, and, most important, they may misattribute this emotional state to the person they’re with. (Social scientists call this “misattribution of emotions.”).

To the extent that people confuse the emotions created by the environment with the emotions created by the person sitting next to them, going out to loud, busy places could be a winning strategy.

Just imagine leaving a bar after two hours where, during the entire time, the person with you was certain that the strong emotional feeling that he/she experienced was all stemming from you.”

-Dan Ariely, Behavioural Economics Saved My Dog

Not only can noisy places mask awkward silences but these silences can easily be chalked down to being in the now, soaking in the vibe, enjoying the music that is blaring out from the stereo.

Or giving your voice a rest from talking over the music.

Also, you can get physically closer and engage in kino escalation.

It gives plausible deniability for you to talk directly into your date’s ear.

The best thing about loud, stimulating, exciting environments however has to do with arousal and misattributing it to your partner.

The Rickshaw Ride

It’s not as fine and dandy as that though.

It’s not as clear cut as one would like.

And here’s a story to show you how one dude tried to use this insight to his advantage but failed miserably.

Helen Fisher, biological anthropologist at Rutgers University and chief scientific adviser to the dating site Match.com, tells the story of a guy suffering from unrequited love and his feeble attempt at trying to win her over using the power of science.

Having read some of Fisher’s work, the guy thought to himself that if he exposed this girl to a novel situation, he’d be able to drive up the dopamine levels in her brain and perhaps trigger brain system responsible for romantic love.

So he decided to take the girl out for a rickshaw ride together.

A rickshaw ride can be quite exhilarating, especially in London. The rider can manuovre in between the buses and cars and trucks; it’s noisy and it’s crazy.

It’s incredibly stimulating.

The chick screams and shouts and squeezes the guy and once the ride is over she squeals out laughing “what a rush, and wasn’t that rickshaw driver handsome!”

Closing thoughts

It’s still worth keeping a list of emotionally-arousing scenarios for potential future dates.

Like I mentioned earlier, going to a noisy place or going on a rickshaw ride all provide opportunities for easy kino (i.e. lingo for ‘kinestetic’, or touch).

Another example can include watching horror movies together where there is an opportunity for comfort via a hug or a squeeze (unless you don’t handle horrors too well.)

Here’s David:

“In 1989 scientists [Cohen, Waugh, and Place (1989)] conducted a somewhat similar piece of research, this time in a cinema. They studied sexual attraction and arousal among couples who had just seen one of two types of film. One was nail-biting, highly arousing suspense movie, the other a far less arousing film. The researchers found that the couples who had viewed the suspense film were far more likely to be touching, holding, embracing and kissing one another than those leaving the less exciting movie.”

Or watching boxing or UFC together – that surely will get your blood pumping!

Fundamentally though, it’s all about arousal being mistakenly attributed to you and being interpreted as attraction to the other person.

Or as Dr. David Lewis puts it “arousal from the roller-coaster ride, the flimsy bridge, or the scary film – is mistaken for sexual excitement provoked by another person.

P.S. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, feel free to sign up to my free weekly newsletter for more psychological insights into everyday life.



Why am I Addicted to Pokèmon Go? The Full Psychology Behind the Game



Pokèmon Go has been quite the phenomenon.

It is the newest craze that has managed to garner more followers in the 5 days since its initial release than Twitter managed to in the 5 years since its inception.

People are spending over 43 minutes a day playing Pokèmon Go, which is higher than Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram, Snapchat, or Messenger.

People even shunned Justin Bieber in favour of collecting a rare Pokèmon…

But make no mistake – Pokèmon Go has been built on the shoulder of giants.

But it’s not the overnight success people first thought it was.

Niantic, the developer of Pokèmon Go, made a previous game about finding cool places in the real world called Ingress.

Ingress players would submit their favourite locations to the game and Pokèmon Go uses some of these landmarks.

Downloaded around 12 million times, it was the ideal training ground for Niantic to experiment with the core game mechanics that we’ve come to enjoy in Pokèmon Go – the #1 most downloaded app in the App Store.

In addition, Niantic was a Google Company which explains the innovative Augmented Reality (AR) feature and rich geolocation data that makes Pokèmon Go so unique.

But what makes Pokèmon Go so addictive?

The game has been built on the foundation of some the most basic psychological core principles.

It has been engineered to hook you.

And it’s hooked millions of players.

In this post, you will find out how they did it.


By playing this game you are transported back to a time when you were a child who fell in love with Pokèmon.

When I downloaded Pokèmon Go I was back in the mind of my young self, joyous at catching my first Pokèmon.

I was transported back to a time when I was throwing Zubat Pokèmon cards around my room just because they were flying-type Pokèmon.

Back to a time where I was imagining the most detailed of battlegrounds when all I had was the edge of my bed, a stack of Pokèmon cards, and a child’s vivid imagination.

The game’s developers are now capitalising on whatever emotional attachment we had with these lovable creatures in the past.

It’s a bit like a sequel to a beloved first film, where most of the marketing has already been done before.

After all, the Pokèmon brand enjoys an unparalleled legacy.

Nobody had to persuade you too much to download the game – your buying temperature is already high.

This is in great part thanks to nostalgia.

The New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998) defines nostalgia as “a sentimental longing for the past.”

Indeed, nostalgia is a bittersweet emotion.

Nostalgia combines the pleasant memory of the past with the cold realisation that a desirable aspect of that past is irredeemably lost.

When experiencing nostalgia, we experience both joy and a sense of loss as the past can no longer be recreated.

But the beautiful thing about Pokèmon Go is that we can relive our childhood memories and our childhood fantasies of becoming a real Pokèmon trainer.

What was once lost has been found.

Though our childhood years may be long gone, a big part of it is back.

The inner child in all of us couldn’t be any happier.

Buying Temperature

Think of buying temperature as your loyalty to the Pokèmon brand and any prior investment in it, whether it be financial, emotional, or otherwise.

You’ve made so much prior personal investment into the Pokèmon brand when you were a child.

You had all the cards, played the Game Boy games, collected stickers for the sticker albums, and maybe even had a few Pokèmon key rings.

Pokèmon Go is an extension of all of that; a new spin on the whole thing.

It makes sense that you and I will want to play Pokèmon Go.

In the same vein, WWE – the world’s most prestigious wrestling and sports entertainment promotion – signs old wrestlers from 10 years ago to wrestle for the promotion once again so that they bring back old audiences that used to watch the product.

Rightfully so, fans around the world call these wrestlers nostalgia acts.

From the get go, you and I will be heavily invested in Pokèmon Go as we get to relive our childhoods and witness Pokèmon jump out of nostalgic reverie and back into the real world.

Music and SFX as Positive Affect

The Gameboy-like music and sound effects in Pokèmon Go play on our nostalgia, transporting us to a time where we used to play Pokèmon on our Gameboy.

Just listening to the music and sounds allows us to experience feelings of joy and elation.

But also it brings back fond memories, positive emotions, and feelings of immersion associated with the Pokèmon games we used to play on Game Boy.

That’s very smart multi-sensory stimulation from Niantic.

It’s a nice touch.

You get to be Ash Ketchum

By playing Pokèmon Go, you are the Pokèmon trainer.

You are the main actor in this Pokèmon world and your phone is your Pokèdex.

Essentially you are Ash Ketchum – a childhood dream come true.


The ease of performing an action

The gameplay is so simple.

All you have to do is flick at your screen to throw a Pokèball and v’oila – you’ve just caught a Pokèmon.

As Nir Eyal in his book Hooked writes:

“Companies leverage two basic pulleys of human behaviour to increase the likelihood of an action occurring: the ease of performing an action and the psychological motivation to do it.”

As you’ve read already, the psychological motivation to play is centred around feelings of nostalgia.

The ease of performing the action (i.e. playing the game) facilitates the process of making playing this game a habit. Also, the learning curve is super low so anyone of any age can play.

The path of least resistance

But this simplicity is important for another reason.

It’s effortless to start playing and you can immerse yourself in the action quickly. In other words, you don’t have to think too much to start playing.

As Nir puts it:

“Reducing the thinking required to take the next action increases the likelihood of the desired behaviour occurring unconsciously.”

The game mechanics embrace the idea of the path of least resistance.

All you have to do is walk and when prompted – just flick at the screen to catch a Pokèmon.

What this means for your brain is that your rational part of the brain (i.e. you don’t have time to play now) and your impulsive side of the brain (i.e. I want to play now, now, now!) have very little time to talk to each other.

Just like using Paypal, contactless cards, or reaching your hand out to grab a little snack from a basket in front of the cash tills at Starbucks –  the ease to act in Pokèmon Go shortens the information relay time between System 1 (i.e. impulsive) and System 2 (i.e. rational).

A direct consequence of that means that there is a greater likelihood that you will give into your impulsive side!

The difference with Paypal or contactless is that once you’ve given into your impulsive side, all you have done is bought something on an impulse.

With Pokèmon Go – once you’ve started playing, the game is quick to immerse you in it.

Within seconds, you catch a Pokèmon. Within 5 minutes, I caught around 10 Pokèmon in my flat, it was crazy.

Awash with this new experience and reward, the game got me into a focused state which – in the words of Nir Eyal – “suppresses the areas of the brain associated with judgment and reason while activating the parts associated with wanting and desire.”

Pokèmon Go helps your impulsive side win.

A Play on Our Emotions

Novelty bias

If curiosity is supposed to get you through the door, then novelty and salience are meant to keep you inside the room.

The game uses novel, cutting-edge technology in the form of Augmented Reality (AR) which allows to enjoy the thrill of catching Pokèmon that are directly in front of you – either in your room or your favourite pub or coffee shop – as if they were real life creatures.

But it’s not just the technology that inspires this novelty.

It’s the fact that you constantly discover and capture new Pokèmon.

This novelty plays on our natural reflexes as humans.

That is, we exhibit a novelty bias to unfamiliar, novel things around us.

Novelty captures our attention.

And this is why we’ll always notice shiny objects in the corner of our eye.

Millenia ago, this bias served our predecessors well as it predisposed them to notice things that were out of the ordinary in their immediate environment, for better (e.g. animals as a potential meal) or for worse (e.g. danger).

For this reason, novelty can be quite gripping. That’s why whenever we encounter something new, whether that is a first Sudoku puzzle or a shiny diamond ring in a shop, our cognitive processes are enhanced, especially in learning contexts.

But the most important thing about new things is that they’re simply very rewarding.

In fact, a paper by Bianca Wittman and colleagues found that “novelty stimulates explorative behaviour in humans as a potential mechanism to predict reward.”

In other words, by focusing our attention at novels things in the environment, we’re bound to find something rewarding.

And when we do, the novelty- and reward-seeking centres of the brain (i.e. our impulsive parts of the brain) become activated, causing a burst of endogenous opioids.

Obviously, we’ll continue to chase that high – we’re only human.


Salient things (i.e. things that stand out) capture our attention, too.

Pokèmon appearing in front of you is so unusual and so out of the ordinary that it is bound to do so.

But there is a lot of salience in local pubs, bars, coffee shops being Pokèstops or Gyms where you can battle with other Pokèmon.

A place in the area you live is a Pokèstop?

It’s so out of the ordinary that it sticks in our mind.

Both novel and salient stimuli are placed in the forefront of our mind as they are prioritised in our psychological processing.


As I mentioned before, finding a Pokèmon you haven’t in the game seen before is a novelty and is very rewarding to our brain.

At the same time, we view this novel Pokèmon as scarce.

According to Commodity theory by Brock (1968) – scarcity enhances value.

You and I experience this when we run into a new Pokèmon we haven’t caught before.

Because it is scarce, it is more valuable and as a result more desirable.


Uncertainty is potent when trying to catch it, especially if it’s a strong Pokèmon.

If it’s a strong scarce Pokèmon, it will most likely resist being caught by jumping out of the Pokèballs you throw at it.

Worst case scenario – it will run away.

This is what we fear.

Uncertainty creeps in when you throw the Pokèball at the Pokèmon and wait until it is caught or jumps out again.

While you wait as the Pokèball rolls around, trying to secure the newly caught Pokèmon, you experience short-term pain.

As humans, we are fundamentally motivated to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

Indeed, uncertainty is uncomfortable because it registers as pain in the brain, according to Olivia Fox Cabane, author of The Charisma Myth.

“[Uncertainty] registers almost like physical pain in the brain. There is a tension, a gap where the brain is not easy again until it is resolved.”

This places you under minor psychological strain and discomfort.

Because we are naturally averse to uncertainty, we strive to eliminate it as well as escape the uncomfortable sensation of discomfort it produces as soon as possible.

That is, we seek to achieve cognitive closure (i.e. the need for psychological relief resulting from a definite conclusion as opposed to confusion or ambiguity; Kruglanski & Webster, 1996).

“Two highly related tendencies are assumed to underlie this need, namely ‘urgency’, that is the need to arrive at closure quickly, and ‘permanency’, that is the need to remain at closure once it has been achieved.”

-Hewstone, Stroebe, and Jonas (2012)

Whenever a strong, scarce, and challenging Pokèmon appears, we feel pressured by a limited time frame to successfully catch it. We fear it might run away and we feel motivated to act swiftly.

And when we finally manage to catch that scarce, valuable, challenging Pokèmon – “Gotcha!” only accentuates the relief it by dramatising the catch.

The Power of Familiarity and Resonance

Sure, there’s a lot of novelty to Pokèmon Go.

With novelty comes the element of surprise when catching new Pokèmon, especially the ones you really liked as a kid.

For instance, I was actually genuinely happy to have caught a Machop. It was one of my favourite Pokèmon growing up.

Indeed, the more emotionally or energetically connected we feel to a Pokèmon, the deeper the resonance when catching them.

There’s a magnetic quality to this, which only further draws you into the game.

Psychologically, this is quite interesting.

There’s the novelty of catching Pokèmon which breeds excitement and there’s a familiarity with all of them that breeds regard.

By now, I’m sure you realise that Pokèmon Go elicits a lot of complex emotions.

As an aside – we humans inherently like familiarity.

In a world full of strangers we know nothing about, it’s a nice feeling to comes across a familiar face that we know is welcoming and harmless (Zajonc, 1968).

Plus – familiar faces require less neural resources to process by the brain, allowing for them to be more fluently processed.

If something is easily processed by the brain, the brain rewards us for it.

The Endowment Effect

As Barry Schwartz writes in The Paradox of Choice:

“Once something is given to you, it’s yours. Once it becomes part of your endowment, even after a few minutes, giving it up will entail a loss.”

This is called the endowment effect.

When we are given things, buy them, or catch them like in Pokèmon Go, we become invested in them. In Pokèmon Go, we derive a sense of ownership over whatever Pokèmon we catch.

However, not all Pokèmon were created equal – some are better, some are worse, and some of them get preferential treatment because they were the ones that we loved most as kids.

In Pokèmon Go, the endowment effect is most pronounced for Pokèmon we invest in via power ups and upgrades (e.g. evolving them), the ones we’ve had the longest, and the ones we are most emotionally invested in, for whatever reason.

Here’s Barry once again:

“The endowment effect helps explain why companies can afford to offer money-back guarantees on their products. Once people own them, the products are worth more to their owners than the mere cash value, because giving up the products would entail a loss.”

So if Niantic were to introduce a “trade my Pokèmon” option with other Pokèmon trainers, I don’t think it would work well and now you know why.

The value of the Pokèmon you would want to trade would be skewed in the same way that house owners overvalue houses they are looking to sell.

Generally speaking, house owners want to sell their houses for more than market value because they inflate it with their own sentiment and emotional attachment to them.

But also, trading in a Pokèmon you own for a Pokèmon owned by another person would be experienced as a loss (holding Combat Power equal).

This is called loss aversion. That is, we dislike losses more than we enjoy gains.

Perhaps it would work if a trading system were put in place beforehand.

Niantic would have to shy away from the general metric of Combat Power (CP) and weight the Pokèmon trading system a la currency exchange rates. For example, a single Hypno could be worth 3 Raticates.


Humans have an innate need to experience a sense of progress.

In Pokèmon Go, you are constantly advancing, always progressing.

You’re always gaining Experience Points (XP), always finding new Pokèmon and items etc.

At every part of the game – you feel a sense of progress and are rewarded for it.

Even when you are flicking a Pokèball to catch a Pokèmon, you are getting positive reinforcement in the form of words like “Great!”, “Nice!” or “Excellent!”

But sometimes there are lulls in the game where you’re just walking and not finding or catching anything.

If you were just sitting around and waiting to catch something, you’d become frustrated. That’s because we’re naturally averse to idleness (more on that later).

But by being idle, we open ourselves to rumination.

“Why aren’t I catching anything?” or “What’s going on?”

Here’s the fascinating part.

By walking, we feel that we are progressing, that we are in control of the situation, and are taking necessary steps (literally) to reach the end goal of catching a Pokèmon.

We don’t open ourselves to much rumination because we know that we just need to keep walking.

For this very reason, people at the airport prefer to walk to distant carousels to collect their luggage rather than wait at nearer carousels.

In the same vein, people are idle when waiting and because of an aversion to idleness, they start ruminating “why are we waiting so long”, “what if something happened to my luggage”, and so on.

Just like in Pokèmon Go, by walking – they feel that they are progressing.

You could even argue that people ruminate and use their imagination to conjure up potential scenarios and solutions to subconsciously feel a sense of progress in a situation when there isn’t any.

After all – when you ruminate, it’s like your mind is spinning.

Spinning is movement.

Movement is progress.

Sunk cost fallacy

Once we open a tub of ice cream, it’s easy to just finish to whole thing.

“I opened it – might as well just finish it off.”

If you were thinking of quitting smoking and you smoke a cigarette after a period of abstinence – you smoke another, and then another, and next thing you know it, you’re chain smoking.

“If I already broke my promise and smoked a cigarette – might as well smoke more.”

Such rationalisations can lead you into a behavioural downward spiral, whether it be overeating or chain smoking.

By opening a tub or smoking a cigarette, in our minds, we’ve made a mental commitment to either eating or smoking.

Once we’ve had a bit of ice cream, we’ve started a bit of momentum and the default state is to just go with the flow, and keep building that momentum until the tub is gone.

This behaviour is called the sunk cost fallacy. That is, we convince ourselves to continue a behaviour just because of our prior investment in that behaviour.

In Pokèmon Go, our default state is to just keep walking. We’ve made a mental commitment to go for a walk to catch some Pokèmon so we just keep on walking and keep on catching them.

“I’ll catch one more Pokèmon and then I’ll go home,” you might think. But then you catch it and then want to catch another, and then another…

Delayed gratification

Although Pokèmon Go has been designed to cater to our impulsive and irrational need for instant gratification but embedded in the game’s mechanics is a trigger that is designed to make you want to delay gratification.

Here are a few examples of how the game incentivises a delay of gratification:

Pokèmon eggs and incubators

For example, you place Pokèmon eggs in incubators. To hatch them and receive a new Pokèmon to your collection – all you have to do is walk.

Depending on the egg, it will hatch when you’ve covered a certain distance (e.g. 2 km).

But the incubator incentives you to cover more distance if you want to get a better Pokèmon.

In other words, hatching “5km” eggs will yield you a better Pokèmon that a hatching a “2km” egg.

It’s simple.

Walk more – get a better Pokèmon.

Pokèmon Candy

There is incentive to delay gratification when catching Pokèmon.

You have to collect a lot the same Pokèmon (e.g. a Pidgey) if you want to evolve that same Pokèmon.

So you wait and build up until you achieve that long-term goal.

Evolving your Pokèmon while using a Lucky Egg

You might catch enough of the same Pokèmon and choose to wait to evolve them until you have many Pokèmon to evolve.

You might delay gratification by saving up such Pokèmon until you feel it’s time to use your Lucky Egg to double the Experience Points (XP) you gain from evolving them.

This way, you put off the smaller-sooner reward of evolving one Pokèmon for the benefit of experiencing a larger-later reward of evolving many Pokèmon under much more enjoyable circumstances.


Let’s face it – Magikarp is a crappy Pokèmon.

But there is some incentive to practice delayed gratification.

If you catch 400 Magikarps and substitute them for 400 candy – then you’ll be able to evolve a Magikarp into a Gyarados, which is a rare and powerful Pokèmon.

Delayed gratification and goal-setting

The important thing to note about delayed gratification is that this is how our commitment to and investment in the game is enhanced.

We’re goal-oriented creatures and the game has no short supply of hurdles for us to jump over, rewarding us with medals, upgrades, items, and new Pokèmon once we manage to.

A game component that rewards delayed gratification is important because it plays on our Symbolic Self Awareness (Sedikides and Skowronski, 1997).

That is, it plays upon our ability to imagine future behaviours and their possible outcomes (like evolving a Pokèmon or catching rare on) before we can act them out in real life.

We will make projections into the future to see what we can achieve and immerse ourselves in present actions to reach those goals.

In a sense, we bounce back and forth between imagining our future self and immersing ourselves in the present to achieve that vision (Carver and Scheier, 1982) called this behaviour a discrepancy-reducing feedback loop.)

This is one of those things that will keep us heavily invested in the game by occupying our imagination and thoughts – even when we’re not playing.

I’m sure some kids are dreaming of Pokèmon while they are fast asleep after a long day of trying to catch ’em all.

Anticipatory pleasure

These future projections also build our anticipatory pleasure when we’re away from the game.

Anticipation of doing something is part of the experience.

It can be enjoyable in of itself.

In fact, you experience a surge of dopamine in the brain just by anticipating all the Pokèmon you’ll catch and manage to evolve!

The anticipation of the experience in itself is an experience (take that, Emmanuel Kant).

As behavioural economist Dan Ariely puts it:

“Holidays are not just about the two weeks you are away from work; they’re also about the time you spend anticipating and imagining your trip, as well as the time after the trip when you get to replay special moments from it in your mind.

Among these three ways of appreciating your holidays – anticipations, the trip itself, and enjoying the memories afterwards – the shortest amount of time is spent on the holiday itself.”

-Dan Ariely, Behavioural Economics Saved My Dog

Intermittent reward

Anticipatory pleasure comes from looking forward to that little hit.

The hit that will stimulate your brain to produce dopamine – a neurochemical that will make you feel good.

By playing Pokèmon Go, you’re getting a little hit here, a little hit there.

This is called intermittent schedules of reinforcement (a.k.a variable reward).

This concept takes root in the behavioural approach to psychology (i.e. behaviourism) and was coined by world-renowned American psychologist/behaviourist B. F. Skinner way back in the 1950’s.

In his research, Skinner would place rats in a box and reward them with a food pellet whenever they’d press the lever.

The rat would realise that every time it pressed the lever, it would be sweetly rewarded for its efforts. They’d get the same hit we’re getting whenever we capture a Pokèmon.

Whenever the rat was rewarded for its behaviour (i.e. pressing the lever) with tasty food, the rat would press the lever again and again. This is called positive reinforcement.

In contrast however, if the rat were to be shocked every time it pressed the lever – this would decrease the frequency of behaviour. This is called negative reinforcement.

But what Skinner found was that the rats would press the lever like crazy when they didn’t know when they were going to get their next reward. In fact, they’d press the lever compulsively when they were getting the food pellets at random.

They were endlessly chasing that hit, the high.

Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, conducted similar experiments on monkeys.

When the monkeys saw a signal, they would work and shortly afterwards get a reward.

But Sapolsky says that dopamine levels would sore when the monkeys saw the signal rather than when they received the reward. Sapolsky explains:

“Dopamine is not about pleasure. It’s about the anticipation of pleasure. It’s about the pursuit of happiness rather than happiness itself.”

Sapolsky also found that by rewarding via intermittent schedules, dopamine levels would go through the roof.

For instance, if the monkeys were rewarded 50% of the time, their dopamine responses to the signal would be much greater than their dopamine responses to the signal if they knew they would be rewarded 100% of the time.

Sapolsky says that through intermittent reward:

“You’ve introduced the word maybe into the equation. And maybe is addictive like nothing else out there.”

It’s all about the uncertainty of the reward.

Sapolsky goes on to say that if you block the rise of dopamine in monkeys, they won’t do the behaviour. “It’s not just about the anticipation,” Sapolsky says, “it’s also about eliciting goal-directed behaviour.”

So the reward doesn’t only give you feelings of pleasure but it also makes you do the behaviour necessary to make sure you experience these feelings.

In Pokèmon Go, you and I also don’t know when we’re going to catch the next Pokèmon.

That’s why we keep looking. That’s why we keep pressing the lever.

Sparse reward

In the beginning of Pokèmon Go, you are showered with various rewards (i.e. Pokèmon).

The rewards are frequent but intermittent, so you still don’t know what you’ll get, when you’ll get it.

But as you level up, have you noticed that these rewards are less and less frequent?

The reward has become sparsely distributed.

Here’s the deal.

To start the behaviour of playing in the first place, the game needs to reward us often and sweetly so that we want to keep playing it and keep enjoying the rewarding experiences it provides us with.

But once you’ve levelled up to, say, level 20, slightly different rules apply to you.

By now, playing Pokèmon Go has become somewhat of an automatic response, almost – if not already – a habit.

But also, you’ve invested so much time and effort into the game that you don’t need to be rewarded that often to keep you playing.

But remember the principle that scarcity enhances value.

Scarce rewards make them more valuable.

So even though they might be scarce, once players get the reward – it will be enough to keep them playing until the next reward appears.

Put simply:

Newbies play because they want the next reward.

Experienced players play because they need the reward.

Why they need the reward could be due to a combination of things.

Examples include playing out of habit, prior investment into the game (sunk cost fallacy), a sense of mastery from playing, and of course addiction to the quest for new and better Pokèmon.

Competence and Mastery

Being competent in the world around you is a core psychological need and satisfying it improves your overall well-being.

The unpredictability and variability of being rewarded for your efforts with new Pokèmon, potions, Pokè balls or other goodies directly translates into this feeling of competence.

That is, you realise that you have what it takes to do well in the game.

When you hit level 5 in the game, you can fight in gyms and you might even see that you can actually beat the powerful Pokèmon that tend to be there.

By beating them, you achieve a strong feeling of competence in the process.

Curiosity and sense-making

Humans are meaning-making creatures. According to many psychologists such as behavioural economist George Loewenstein, sense-making is a fundamental human drive.

Here’s George:

“As noted by Gilovich (1991), “We are predisposed to see order, pattern, and meaning in the world, and we find randomness, chaos, and meaninglessness unsatisfying. Human nature abhors a lack of predictability and the absence of meaning.” (p.9)”

Exotic Preferences: Behavioural Economics and Human Motivation by George Loewenstein

When looking to make sense of something, we look for simplicity.

This is what we find in predictability.

In variability on the other hand – we find curiosity.

In Pokèmon Go, variability ranges from the Pokèmon we encounter and the items we find at Pokèstops to the different gym battles we can have with other trainers and the various potions we need to use to revive our fallen Pokèmon.

Even the schedules of reinforcement are variable to sustain curiosity.

Curiosity, the need to see what happens next, is an important feature in a game.

It is predictability’s arch-rival.

Inherently, curiosity is a mixture of uncertainty and excitement which directly translates into pleasure.

And a key human motivation is to seek pleasure. That’s why our brains are wired to keep chasing the next reward, never completely satisfied.

Hunting and Gathering 

There’s something primal about ‘hunting’ for Pokèmon and basking in the glory of what you’ve been able to bring back home.

Millenia ago, our predecessors would go hunting for food and after a long day of hunting they’d bring back whatever haul they had to enjoy at the dinner table.

Pokèmon Go is hunting and gathering of the 21st century.

The game really taps into our primitive parts of the brain and masterfully plays upon our natural instincts – ones our predecessors wouldn’t have been able to survive without.


Pokèmon Go definitely cures boredom.

But what is boredom?

According to behavioural economist George Loewenstein, it is the misutilisation of cognitive resources.

Boring things usually require a small amount of attention, but require it nonetheless (so you can’t use the remaining ‘attentional’ resources on other things).

In Pokèmon Go, you’re totally engaged and locked in the game.

Novel and salient stimuli are constantly capturing our attention, skilfully managing to hold our undivided attention for extended periods of time.

As a result, Pokèmon Go doesn’t get boring quickly.

The Need for Connection 

According to the Self-Determination theory, interacting and being connected to other people is one of the three most basic human psychological needs.

One example of social connectedness is the purpose of so called “Lure Modules”:

“A module that attracts Pokèmon to a Pokèstop for 30 min. The effect benefits other people nearby.”

When I went out looking for Pokèmon, I saw people sitting at lures and waiting for Pokèmon to appear.

Because Pokèmon Go is designed in a way that you can’t do other things on your phone while waiting for new Pokèmon to approach you, just waiting around and sitting on a bench and doing nothing is annoying.

After all, humans have an aversion to idleness.

That is, we hate just sitting around and doing nothing.

It’s annoying, stressful, and can ruin your mood.

By sitting around, we open ourselves to mental frustration like “why aren’t there any Pokèmon here?!” or “It’s been a while since I got a Pokèmon, what’s going on?!”

A welcome byproduct of this natural aversion is that people sitting around the lure just start talking to each other.

This is a source of in-group social belonging where you talk about the game and maybe even get to know someone new. From the get go, you already have a lot in common.

The bar for starting a conversation is extremely low and it is simple to start one that is light-hearted and easy-going.

By playing Pokèmon Go, you are becoming part of a subculture with various social norms.

In a sense, people playing Pokèmon Go are a family.

If you’re looking for Pokèmon and see someone nearby characteristically walking around with their phone in their hand, you could argue that it is okay to have a small chat.

Especially when you see other Pokèmon trainers talking to trainers they’ve just met.

If walking up to trainers and talking to them and other norm-related behaviours are well-received, people like you and I will do them do, too – and they will become more automatic and habitual for us.

But let’s not forget that people go for a walk with a friend and look for Pokèmon together.

I’ve seen children on their skateboards or scooters with smartphones in hand, exchanging their personal little victories with one another, for example.

Or people strolling around in suits together on their lunch break.

This is how the game satisfies a basic human need – the need for connectedness.


People even start building social gatherings around Pokèmon Go.

They go for long walks to the park together or just turn on a Lure Module at a local pub or bar and wait for the Pokèmon to come to them while they enjoy a cocktail or two by the river.

People rationalise playing Pokèmon Go as an opportunity to meet up and spend time with friends.

Pokèmon Go is such a habit forming product that it can easily weave itself into the fabric of our everyday lives (if we let it).

Another example of this is playing the game but rationalising it as exercise.

You bump into moms with their children who rationalise “as long as it gets them out of the house to get a bit of exercise it’s fine.”

Even I caught myself thinking “I’ll just go for a walk, because I like walking to x, and plus I like walking and it’s good for me, and its exercise and it’s…”

I’d rationalise going to the park for a peaceful stroll to enjoy nature and the fresh air. It just so happens that in parks there are usually more Pokèmon frolicking around.

I’d rationalise breaking into a job to obviously get somewhere quicker and definitely not to pile on the kilometres to hatch a Pokèmon egg and add a new Pokèmon to list…

Make no mistake, walking is an integral feature of the game but – at least in the eyes of the game’s developers – the exercise is a mere byproduct of what you are really doing and that’s giving away a lot of your data (which can be sold to third parties).

Augmented reality

There’s definitely something special and unique about being able to play a game in which you can find and recognise familiar locations from your life.

Pubs, bars, statues, monuments, signs, bell towers, historic points of interest, old playgrounds, parks, riverside walkways.

You can go to one of these familiar places and collect a lucky egg, a revive potion, or a bunch of pokèballs.

All of a sudden, there is another layer of exploration to something that is so familiar to you. The game shows you a different world, with different laws in your real world; the world you thought couldn’t get any different.

Anchoring of emotional and mood states

Due to simple old familiarity and habit, nearby places from your home are already imbued with some sort of emotional charge stemming from the sum of all the experiences you’ve had in that particular area.

The emotions associated with the familiar places are juxtaposed with the thrill of the chase and catch of old, old friends – the Pokèmon.

“I caught a Ghastly near the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain, lol.”

You can relive a time that you thought was long gone as well as relive all the emotions associated with that time.

In a sense, Pokèmon Go fuses both old and new versions of your identity as well as combines a melange of different emotional associations.

Whenever and wherever you gather Pokèmon, you anchor these places to certain emotional and mood states.

The lines of reality are blurred and it’s no longer a game where you sit at home and play in front of your television or computer screen but where you go outside and actively engage in your own reality and in the shared reality with other people.

It’s intricately linked with a piece of your identity.

The Paradox of Choice

In his book “The Paradox of Choice“, Barry Schwartz distinguishes between two types of people: maximizers and satisficers.

Maximizers will search for only the best things in life whereas satisficers will settle for ‘good enough’ even though they might have also have high standards.

Satisficers will play the game until they’ve done a “good enough” job.

Maximizers will play until they’ve totally maxed out the area they were looking for Pokèmon in. That is, they will leave no stone unturned to make sure they’ve done their very best to capture every last Pokèmon.

And they will be very reluctant to leave that particular area before they do.

Consequently, if you enter a park in Pokèmon Go, the effect is that much greater.

In parks, you are met with so much choice when it comes to the Pokèmon you might encounter.

You get to choose which Pokèmon you want to catch and which you might want to avoid. I remember a fellow gamer tell me that Magikarp is s**t and that he “won’t be risking a crash by trying to catch it.”

But the point I’m trying to make is that there is an abundance and a huge variety of Pokèmon to be found in parks.

In his book, Barry talks about what a wide array of options can do to people:

“It is possible that a wide array of options can turn people into maximisers. If this is true, then the proliferation of options not only makes people who are maximisers miserable, but it may also make people who are satisficers into maximisers.”

So even the casual-satisficer gamer can easily get hooked on the game just because of the abundance and wide variety of Pokèmon to catch.

I remember my thought process when I went to a park – “wow there are so many Pokèmon here! There’s so much choice and variety – I’ve just got to come back!”

After all – gotta catch ’em all.


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