Random Rewards

Random Rewards

011 - I do not believe that Gerry Geurts is a sadistic mastermind bent upon controlling the minds and souls of tens of people.  I just believe he inadvertently stumbled upon one of the world’s most effective pathways towards addiction.  Gerry has then casually released this tool upon the hapless individuals that take an interest in fantasy curling.

Why are the slot machines in casinos occupied at all hours of the day?  Why do you have to wait behind a line of people looking to redeem and buy new scratch tickets every time you want some Pepperoni Pizza Cracker flavored Combos, Skittles,  and a Coke?  Why were so many people playing Candy Crush back in 2013?  Do you remember Farmville?  Why can’t kids get off their phones?  Why were you reading Twitter when you found the link to this blog post?

In the tech world, social networks and online games rely on building “desire engines” into their systems.  These are techniques to keep users hooked on their app and almost guaranteeing they are constantly coming back for more.  The psychology employed is fundamentally based on the work of B.F. Skinner, but has been greatly expanded in recent years.  Skinner was interested in conditioning behaviors, much like Pavlov.  Instead of ringing a bell to stimulate a drooling dog, however, Skinner looked more into reinforcing behaviors.  Skinner, his students, and researchers around the world conducted innumerable experiments.  Many of these focused on scheduling reinforcement of a particular behavior and learning how different schedules affected the behavior.  Picture lab rats in a cage with a food dispenser connected to a lever.  Every time the rat pushes the lever, a food pellet comes out.  The behavior being tested is the pushing of the lever.  The reinforcement is the food pellet.  Experiments could then change the schedule of reinforcements. In other words, how long a rat would have to wait until the food pellet arrived would be altered, how many times the lever would have to be pushed before a pellet was dispensed, how big of a pellet was dispensed, and so on.  It turns out that one of the best ways to keep rats punching levers is to introduce what Skinner called a Variable Ratio Schedule.  In short, sometimes a rat got a pellet, and sometimes not.  Sometimes the rat would have to push the lever five times to get a pellet, and sometimes just once.  Sometimes the pellet was huge, and sometimes it was a crumb.  Skinner and his followers found that there were some magic ratios.  If it took too long to be reinforced, the rats would quit.  If the reinforcement was too big or too frequent, the rats would also quit.  If the researchers planned it just right, however, they could keep those rats punching levers throughout their waking hours.

This Random Reward System first described by Skinner is the fundamental idea behind creating a desire engine.  It is why slot machines, Facebook, and your email are so addictive.  Many times when you hit the button, nothing happens.  However, sometimes you are rewarded.  Some of the rewards are big, and some are small.  However, the reward may be enhanced if you reply to that Facebook post quickly or email your boss back right away.

Gerry’s Fantasy Curling game at CurlingZone is a desire engine.  A participant's rankings are solely based on the number of correct matches picked.  The more matches you choose from, the more you will get right, and the better your rankings will be on the site.  However, as I mentioned in a previous post, there is often no indication that matches are available to pick.  A large number of matches are posted ahead of time, but as events pair down to quarter, semi and final rounds, more matches will be added to the site.  Sometimes a fantasy participant will have only a short window of time to pick a winner before the actual match is played.  The result is that a fantasy participant must come back and check on the site frequently to see if there are new picks to be made.  Most times, there are none.  But sometimes there are, and if you miss them, you are out of luck.  Those that made the picks are sure to move ahead of you on the leaderboard.  If you do not think I am addicted, I have made over 500 picks in just five weeks, and I am not wearing the most track marks on my arms.


As an aside, I drove to Connecticut yesterday to attend the memorial service of a wonderful woman who was a childhood neighbor and the mother of some dear friends.  It was a beautiful and celebratory service, and during the five hours I was away, apparently a bunch of matches were posted that I failed to pick.  I am currently in eighteenth place this week.  I need to reconsider fantasy curling procedures while attending somber events and/or driving.


Image Credit

Picture of lab rat from flickr user: audrey_sel

Reproduced under Creative Commons License

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