Data Use and Habit-Forming Products

Since being back from the field, I have been reading Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction and Nir Eyal’s Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. 

The two books do well as companions, with O’Neil providing full overviews on the gathering and use of data at a societal level, stories such as how data gathered by companies is increasingly used to target vulnerable populations to purchase overpriced education from for-profit universities.

In contrast, Eyal focuses on the micro design processes of constructing habit-forming platforms. He analyzes how Instagram and other programs move users from joining the platform through the use of external triggers (paid advertisements, word-of-mouth) to habitually logging in or scrolling on Instagram as the result of internal triggers (feeling lonely, wanting to capture a moment).

While Eyal acknowledges that habit-forming products can be used to either positively or negatively impact users, O’Neil goes into great detail on how addictive data-gathering platforms have been used to hurt people.

Adding a new lens onto both of these texts, I picked up Sociobiology, the classic tome by Edward O. Wilson. On the first page of the text (page 3) he states that “The biologist, who is concerned with questions of physiology and evolutionary history, realizes that self-knowledge is constrained and shaped by the emotional control centres in the hypothalamus and limbic system of the brain” (Wilson 1980: 3).

I find Wilson’s words good to think with in relation to O’Neil’s societal reflection on the gathering and socially detrimental use of data by governments and companies and Eyal’s micro analysis of how to construct habit-forming products. Wilson brought me back to thinking about how we process the platforms/information available online, in print advertising, in institutions at the human level.

Reflections such as O’Neil’s can wake us up as individuals to the larger dynamics that are attached to products that we interact with in our daily routine, products that increasingly hardwire habit through our hypothalamus and limbic system. How might such social level knowledge exist within our brains biologically, in relation to our habitual interactions with data gathering platforms?

Information for thought.



Eyal, Nir and Ryan Hoover. 2014. Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. New York: Penguin Group. 

O’Neil, Cathy. 2016. Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. New York: Broadway House.

Wilson, Edward O. 1980. Sociobiology: The Abridged Edition. Cambridge: Belknap Press.


By aneiltripathy

Aneil is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Bologna. His research focuses on climate finance and the green bond market.

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