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Random Rewards in Technology

Recognizing habit-forming features

The mind is a strong fickle thing. It’s able to break down abstract concepts and build up complex contraptions, yet it’s easily manipulated. Popular psychology shows there are certain cognitive weaknesses in our thinking, I’ll summarize them briefly and analyze a couple of examples in technology to show how they’re used to reinforce behaviors in products we use everyday.

Random Rewards

Back in the 1950s, B.F. Skinner did research on conditioning with lab rats to see what would be the most effective way to convince them to perform a certain task repeatedly. He found that by putting a lever in the rats’ cages, and rewarding them randomly with food when it’s pressed, even when the food stopped, the rats continued to press the lever in the hope that it would eventually lead to a payoff.

Today, in the physical world, many examples of variable rewards exist, from classic examples like slot machines and the lottery to perhaps uncommon ones like the next Game of Thrones episode or social gatherings where you might meet a new lifetime friend. Some have unhealthy consequences like gambling addiction, but others are a part of a healthy lifestyle, which makes it difficult to differentiate between them.

Technology

There are many types of random rewards used in common apps and products. Each offers a different range of positive rewards, from social interaction to monetary rewards, and certain negative drawbacks like advertisements. However, more importantly each of these random reward systems forms a habit that uses your time. It’s essential to objectively analyze whether the positive rewards are worth your attention.

“Scroll for new stories”

A newsfeed is a classic example of variable rewards. Every time you scroll down, new cards are loaded with a friend’s status, a picture from a group, or the occasional ad. It’s easy to refresh for new content if you don’t like the stories that appeared.

Of course, for the company, this also means more revenue from ads. The more variable rewards the server creates, the more the users stay on the website, bringing in more engagement and more ad time.

Examples of newsfeeds include: facebook, reddit, linkedin

Like items in the newsfeed, each app notification gives you information, whether it’s a new email, an incoming message or the daily weather. However, some notifications are more important than others, which makes it also a variable reward activity.

Direct messages and emails are usually important, but many notifications are often a form of advertising or drawing you into the application to further user engagement.

One thing to be wary for are virtual rewards, or non-monetary ones. Reputation and status can disguise as motivators even when they don’t pay the bills.

Uber badges for drivers

By using badges for compliments and keeping a tally of each, drivers are rewarded for continuing to drive and play the game. As software, these badges cost Uber little to nothing to give to the drivers, but help to convince them driving is worth it even at lower salaries.

However, not all gamification has negative repercussions.

Fitbit Badges

Fitbit similarly also uses badges and trophies as a form of virtual reward, but its main purpose is to encourage the user to exercise more. Although you could argue that this feature also serves to increase user engagement with the Fitbit, the behavior that it creates is distinctly different, adding short term value to enhance physical fitness for the user, rather than drawing attention to the application.

Other examples: Google Local Guides, Yelp Reviewers

Product

Products don’t have to reinforce negative behaviors to be successful.

Value can be provided for both the product and the user simultaneously. If a product is more beneficial for the user, they’ll come back to it naturally. Granted, it’s too idealistic to think that no products will reinforce bad behaviors. However, hooking users to your feature may bring you profit, but is that what‘s most important to you? Would you value user engagement over user experience?

Not all users may have the same experience, so a good experience for one, may be a meaningless form of engagement for another. By offering differentiation and options, it’s possible to provide a more custom tailored experience.

User

As a user how would I stop these behaviors?

Whenever you see a news feed and are tempted to scroll down further and further, ask yourself, “How important will the next story be? Is my time worth it?” Filter out notifications unless you truly need them.

It’s impossible to fully immunize yourself from exploitive habit forming features, but recognizing these behavior-changing techniques exist is one way to decrease their influence.

Purpose

I see the purpose of technology as a means to raise our collective standard of living, to make available services that hadn’t been possible in the past, and to free our time for other activities. Technology should be a complement for our ideas, not an endless rat wheel for our minds.

SWE @ Nuro | Formerly Facebook/Google | Yale ’18 | alanliu.dev

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