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Variable Schedule of Reward aka Intermittent Reinforcement

A "variable schedule of reward" is a strategy marketers use to keep consumers repeating the same behavior. It is also called, "intermittent reinforcement". Intermittent reinforcement conditions us to pay attention and keep doing a repeated action in the hope for another reward.

Here's the background on this: B.F. Skinner in the 1950s, observed that lab mice responded most consistently and strongly to random rewards. The mice would press a lever and sometimes they’d get a small treat, other times a large treat, and other times nothing at all. Unlike the mice that received the same treat every time, the mice that received variable rewards seemed to press the lever compulsively.

How does variable schedule of reward work for humans?

Humans want predictability and we try to find patterns, even when none exist. Variability is the brain’s cognitive nemesis. We want control and logic. We need things to make sense. Our minds make connecting a cause and effect a priority over other needs like self-control and moderation. We will err for what we think is a pattern when none exists.

If you’ve ever asked someone a question while they're focused on their phone, only to receive a mumbled “sure, ok, yeah,” then you’ve seen this mental state. People will agree to almost anything to get rid of distraction so they can continue focusing on their phones. Variability keeps the brain occupied, removes its defenses, which provides an opportunity to plant the seeds of new behaviors. Our brains are wired to search endlessly for the next reward. We are never satisfied. Our dopamine system does not to provide us with rewards for our efforts, but keeps us wanting and pursuing that reward. We are the most relentlessly curious species on the planet. It is in our nature to search endlessly, never satisfied, that creates habitual behavior from many new technologies.

Be aware of how your brain works.

Be aware of how you're being conditioned.

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