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iPad vs Kindle and the Struggle for Self Control

A psychological holiday shopping guide.

Worldwide, people spend roughly 200,000,000 minutes every day playing the video game Angry Birds. That's 380 years of gameplay per day, if you're counting. And that's nothing compared to Netflix, which currently accounts for roughly 20% of all US internet traffic during primetime. Twenty percent!

The Amazon Kindle and Apple iPad are two of the hottest new devices out there, and both can be used as e-readers. Which is better for you? There are plenty of technical differences between the two devices (e.g., only one offers Angry Birds and Netflix). But the psychological differences may be just as important.

The Choice

If you plop down on the couch and fire up your Kindle (or NOOK, etc), you have to make one decision: What should I read? You might choose a novel, a magazine, a newspaper, a textbook, a scholarly article, or what have you.

If you plop down on the couch and fire up your iPad (or Galaxy Tab, etc.), you face a very different decision: Should I read? With the Kindle, you'll probably be reading within seconds. With the iPad you could be reading within seconds, but you could also jump on Angry Birds or Netflix. Or Hulu, Facebook, Zappos, YouTube, Twitter, Farmville, or Gmail, ad infinitum.

As a computer, the Kindle can't compete with the iPad. But from a psychological perspective, the Kindle makes actually reading much easier. Not because of the screen or the technology. Because reading's your only choice. We usually think of choice as good. But choice can be a problem when you're struggling with self-control (as many of us learn during dessert every Thanksgiving).

Immediate and Delayed Rewards

If you're thinking "duh," hold on. The way people (and other animals) respond to immediate rewards makes the situation a lot worse than you're probably telling yourself. Most of us are a lot more virtuous when thinking about future temptations than when facing temptations right now.

One great example is how people use Netflix. Netflix Queue tend to fill up with highbrow, educational documentaries, Palme d'Or winners, etc. But when it comes time to actually watch a movie, people tend toward baser instincts (e.g., Hot Tub Time Machine). The difference is when you're going to watch a movie. Your Netflix Queue is for movies you're going to watch next week. Self control is a lot easier if you can schedule it for next week than if you have to face it now.

The same problem occurs with the iPad. It's easy to say "I'll have self control, I'll read, don't worry," when you haven't got the iPad yet. But it's even easier to sit down to read with your iPad and find yourself playing Angry Birds an hour later, wondering where the time went. Often, the best way to achieve self control is to remove temptation.

And make no mistake, iPads can be addictive, just like the other gadgets that we carry in our pockets and purses today (see the NY Times on teen text messaging). And the big temptation is not the e-reader.

Which Should You Choose

As a scientist, it's my responsibility to answer every question by saying "it depends." But that's the bottom line.

If your goal is to get a fun computer that will do it all, including serve as an e-reader, get an iPad. The internet offers amazing learning opportunities that you might miss with a Kindle.

But if you're already distracted enough when you're on your computer, and want to spend less time on Angry Birds, Netflix, email etc., not more, then the Kindle might be right for you.

In other (more hyperbolic) words, the Kindle isn't just the smart choice, it's the choice that will make you smart. Or at least, it'll make you read when you're using it.

Follow me on Twitter @natekornell.