You Bet Your Life

Tom Morgan
Jan 19, 2017 · 6 min read

Occasionally one stumbles on a behavioural trait that seems to explain a vast amount of the world around you.

The archetypal image of a slot machine addict probably isn’t a flattering one. The little old lady with her oxygen tank stubbornly frittering away her pension in the perpetual twilight of a casino floor. But despite their tawdry image, slot machines are still a surprisingly huge business. According to Der Spiegel, slots make more money in the US than baseball, movies, and theme parks combined. Moreover, people get “problematically involved” with slot machines three to four times faster than other forms of gambling.

While we would probably regard a slots addict with a mix of condescension and pity, many of us are unconsciously exhibiting similar behavior. Worse, we are wasting an even more precious resource than money: our time.

Psychologist B.F Skinner conducted a series of famous experiments where rats were trained to pull a lever in order to receive a small food reward. His findings were recently explained in the Economist’s 1843 Magazine. ‘He discovered that if the rat got the same reward each time, it pulled the lever only when it was hungry. The way to maximise the number of times the rat pulled the lever was to vary the rewards it received. If it didn’t know whether it was going to get one pellet, or none, or several when it pulled the lever, then it pulled the lever over and over again. It became psychologically hooked. This became known as the principle of variable rewards.’

As it turns out, humans are similarly susceptible to the addictive nature of variable rewards. Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, argues that our brains are wired to search endlessly for the next reward. We respond to instances of connection and discovery with dopamine hits. Jonah Lehrer further explains in Your Brain on Gambling. ‘Think about the slot machine from the perspective of your dopamine neurons. Whenever you win some money, the reward activates those brain cells intent on anticipating future rewards. These neurons want to predict the patterns inside the machine, to decode the logic of luck. Yet here’s the catch: slot machines can’t be solved. They use random number generators to determine their payout. There are no patterns to decipher. There is only a little microchip, churning out arbitrary digits. At this point, our dopamine neurons should just turn themselves off: the slot machine is a waste of mental energy. But this isn’t what happens. Instead of getting bored by the haphazard payouts, our dopamine neurons become obsessed. The random rewards of gambling are much more seductive than a more predictable reward cycle.’ Interesting anecdotal evidence for the link between dopamine and gambling comes in the form of Parkinson’s patients given dopamine receptor agonists. Many later developed compulsive gambling addictions as an unintended side effect.

In the years since Skinner, intermittent variable rewards have stealthily infiltrated multiple areas of our lives. In 1971 Economist Herbert Simon presciently argued that attention would become the scarcest asset of the information age. ‘What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.’ The entire smartphone app ecosystem is therefore increasingly concerned with monopolizing the attention of its users. It turns out that intermittent variable rewards are a wonderful way to do that. The average smartphone user checks his phone 150 times a day; an impulse so frequent that seems more borne out of compulsion than necessity. It’s therefore no surprise to learn that many of the principles used in slot machine development have since been used to make apps more addictive.

Once you become aware of the phenomenon, you start to realise it’s virtually ubiquitous, especially on the internet. There are the different varieties of notifications on Facebook; who liked what and when, messages and friend requests. There’s Reddit Gold, Instagram likes, incessant SnapChats and push alerts. As an article in Nautilus explained, many freemium video games manipulate seemingly random events to increase the sense of luck and therefore the reward response. Slot machines create the same illusion by showing an unusually high number of ‘near misses’ on matches to keep players engaged for the next spin.

A gargantuan recent example of the power of putting intermittent variable rewards in apps can be found in China. Tencent’s app WeChat is limitlessly fascinating- an ‘everything-app’ that dominates their online communication. In China, 90% of Chinese internet users connect online through mobile, and a third of that internet time is spent in WeChat. In 2014 WeChat made the slot machine analogy even more obvious. As Fast Company recently explained, WeChat introduced a gambling element where digital ‘Red Envelopes’ with a variable amount of money within could be sent to other users. This led to 20 million ‘Red Envelopes’ being sent during Chinese New Year 2014, but then rising to 3.2 billion in 2015, then 32 billion in 2016! That’s what happens when intermittent variable rewards can be distributed at massive scale.

Nir Eyal has divided variable rewards into three types: rewards of the tribe, rewards of the hunt, and rewards of the self. ‘Email is so addictive because it provides all three reward types at random intervals. First, we have a social obligation to answer our emails (the tribe). We are also conditioned to know that an email may tell us information about a potential business opportunity (the hunt). And finally, our email seems to call for us to complete the task of removing the unopened item notification in a sort of challenge to gain control over it (the self).’

Even when the rewards aren’t monetary, social media apps exploit the inexorable human drive to connect with others. An essay on Melting Asphalt argues that online social status is actually becoming very similar to money. It’s a medium of exchange, a store of value and, increasingly on the Internet, a unit of account. As Wired’s Kevin Kelly stated, ‘if today’s social media has taught us anything about ourselves as a species, it is that the human impulse to share overwhelms the human impulse for privacy. This has surprised the experts. So far, at every juncture that offers a choice, we’ve tilted, on average, toward more sharing, more disclosure, more transparency.’

The broader context offered by the evolutionary history of humanity provides a fascinating explanation for why the impulse to share and connect is so powerful. A critical insight of Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari is that ‘we control the world basically because we are the only animals that can cooperate flexibly in very large numbers.’ That cooperation is based on our ability to communicate using abstract myths and ideas, such as money, religions and laws. You can’t motivate a chimp with promises of imaginary bananas in heaven. In his follow-up, Homo Deus, Harari argues: ‘over 20,000 years humankind moved from hunting mammoth with stone-tipped spears to exploring the solar system with spaceships not thanks to the evolution of more dexterous hands or bigger brains (our brains today seem actually to be smaller). Instead, the crucial factor in our conquest of the world was our ability to connect many humans to one another.’ So if our drive to connect and share ideas is hard-wired into us, and explains our primacy in the world, expecting us to voluntarily roll it back seems highly unlikely.

If preaching outright disconnection is therefore unrealistic, then the next best option is to control for the variability of the rewards. That means deactivating all non-essential notifications. That will probably also help to illustrate how few interruptions are truly critical to daily life. You can also control the ‘amount you gamble’- in this case your own time- by keeping social media usage to periods defined by the user rather than by the app. There are also now browsers that externally restrict app access to certain times of day. Some people also create artificial barriers, like an inconveniently long iPhone passcode. But the key conclusion is to realize how ubiquitous the manipulation has become. Anthropologist Deborah Schull argues: ‘The world is turning into this giant Skinner box for the self….The experience that is being designed for in banking or health care is the same as in Candy Crush. It’s about looping people into these flows of incentive and reward. Your coffee at Starbucks, your education software, your credit card, the meds you need for your diabetes. Every consumer interface is becoming like a slot machine.’

Tom Morgan

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