The opponent process theory. Why some apps are more engaging than others?


Do they exist? I mean smartphones owners never got addicted to Angry Birds or to Ruzzle? If you know them, please introduce us! They are rare, almost unique. I’d love to interview them.

This series of posts was born from attending conferences, reading some psychological theories and articles in the effort to understand why some apps and products are more engaging than others. If you are a poor user feeling powerless like a Pavlov dog you should be interested on learning the tactics developed by all those evil manipulators attempting to brainwash you launching overpowering addictive apps.

If, on the contrary, your intention is to become outrageously rich developing addictive apps and/or products… well, first understand how to engage users. Don’t look for the magic recipe to be the next Angry Birds, but investigate how our brain works to be able to develop better engagement mechanism. Don’t believe to the claim: it’s all about gamification. Since is not. Gamification is a trendy buzzword often misunderstood.

Gamification: myth vs reality

The basic idea is simple: use game mechanics in a non-game context that rewards you for completing tasks. If you turn your life into a game, with digital rewards -coupons, badge, social recognition- for real life achievements, you’ll be more motivated to do something—or so the theory goes. Is it working? Well, gamification mostly relies on our own ambitions. Context matters. No evidence shows that gamification could motivate someone to do something she doesn’t want to, and there isn’t enough research into the effects and outcome of actual game design. Likewise, gamification seems to work best in helping with short-term and small goals. If you aren’t motivated, gamification won’t get you in shape or magically make you lose weight, or make you more productive, or make you a better person. However, a rewarding system could help you to get there, if you really want it. Like any game, designers need to create a compelling experience that brings you in, and if they can’t do, you won’t maintain your interest for long. If a gamified app doesn’t appeal to you right away, don’t bother with it.

Why we get addicted to apps and gaming? It’s all about sugar. Yes sugar. And it makes you acting exactly like your dog. In psychology this is called opponent process theory.

a trigger: you desire sugar

you are able to get sugar

your level of dopamine and serotonin get higher

you feel good

your body reacts

after a while the effect of sugar goes down

you are craving: you need other sugar

back to the initial trigger: you desire sugar

What could be considered a trigger? Triggers are anything that cues action and are the starting point for building habits. What stays between the trigger and getting sugar is your learnt behaviour. You have learnt to react to a certain stimulus with the desire of sugar. Exactly like the Pavlov dog. Sugar can be a marshmallow, a piece of chocolate or a sugary fruit. Or it can take the shape of immaterial gratification and reward. The joyful sound of victorious angry birds hitting the ugly&bad green pigs.

A recent article published by HBR consider smartphones as the contemporary marshmallow. The famous Stanford test was originally conducted by the psychologist Walter Mischel in the late 1960s. Children aged four to six, were placed in a room furnished only with a table and chair. A single marshmallow was placed on the table. Each child was told if they waited for 15 minutes before eating the treat, they would be given a second one. Then they were left alone in the room. Follow-up studies showed a correlation between an ability to wait long enough to obtain a second treat and various forms of life success. As adults we face a version of the marshmallow test nearly every waking minute of every day. We’re not tempted by sugary treats, but by our browser tabs, phones, tablets, and (soon) our watches. Your app= sugar.


Behaviour has, usually, a history and often is related to trigger and reaction. Just imagine to be a really anxious person, obsessed about being late. You commute daily by train. And your train is often late. You become more and more anxious. How to distress you? An app notifying you in advance if the train will be late and how much. The app won’t make the train arrive earlier or faster, but it will inform and reassure you: you could notify the delay to colleagues and friends, better plan your day, distress. Since this apps offers you a service and makes you feel well, you will probably use the apps every time you need to grab a train, so, due to your condition of commuter, probably at least 2 times per day. The habit (or addiction) is built. Train = app.

The brain works based on scripts, a simplification of reality and a guide for behaviour. Habits are often part of a script. Habits are great since they permit us to save a lot of time…but they could be as well a limit. As a kid you failed an exam. You felt stupid and you gave up. Or you felt stupid and you wanted to proof you were as good as or even better than your mates. You studied hard. You passed the exam. The habit built is: to pass an exam (trigger) you need to work very hard (reaction). This could be sometimes not true since you could probably pass it doing less. But due to the habit you will keep studying hard whenever you’ll have to prepare an exam.

It’s extremely difficult to unlearn a behaviour. Remember it when building your app.

When a trigger occurs the nucleus accumbens in our brain is activated. It’s called anticipation of reward. You know that hitting all the pigs you’ll get happy birds. If your product become a habit your users will open it with higher frequency, they will be less price sensitive, their churn rate will strongly decrease and lifetime value will increase. Well done: they got hooked.

Zuckemberg knows what we are talking about: back to 2013 he told Wall Street investors, “almost 63% of people who use Facebook in a month, will use it in a given day.” He continued, “we track how many people use Facebook not just every day … but what percent of people used it 6 days out of 7 days of the week. And that number, for the first time in the last quarter, passed 50%. So, that’s pretty crazy, if you think about it … more than 50% of people have used it 6 days out of 7 days of the week, almost every single day of a week.

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