Friday, February 5, 2010

Brains: Theory of intermittent reward

Here is something very unusual. If you google this phrase, "theory of intermittent reward," only one link comes up (only one? I didn't even know that was possible anymore!).

I find it odd that there's so little reference to it because it's the one thing I remember most from Psych 101 in college. It explains so much about human compulsive behavior (gambling, whining children, people who stay with abusive partners, etc). It's a BF Skinner theory (I think) and perhaps it has a more official name but I couldn't find a simple explanation of what I remember learning anywhere but on this page. (Start reading at the yellow highlight* or you can click on the picture at left.)

In short, it's the idea that the unpredictable reward is more alluring than one at even intervals. The subject never knows when the reward is coming, so they can never be sure when or if the rewards have stopped. They think "maybe next time I'll get what I want" so they never stop hoping. This takes many forms... "Maybe this time the slot machine will make me a winner," "Maybe mom will give in if I whine long enough," "Maybe my boyfriend will be nice to me again," etc.

How does this theory apply to my life? It's why I'm so addicted to checking my page. I click on it multiple times a day to see if a sale has occurred while I wasn't looking. Because the time between sales is unpredictable (it might be 5 minutes, 5 days, or 5 weeks), there is always the chance that THE VERY NEXT TIME I look, my sale number could be higher. As a result, I never tire of checking it. I'm like the little rat pushing the bar in hopes that next time I'll get that pellet! I guess we can just be thankful that OCC (obsessive craftcult checking) is not harmful.

*The picture and link are from a 1985 story by Gary Diedrichs called "Love in the 80's, In Praise of Dangerous Women" in Orange Coast Magazine

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