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Variable Rewards: Want To Hook Users? Drive Them Crazy


Here’s the gist:

Rather than using conventional feedback loops, companies today are employing a new, stronger habit-forming mechanism to hook users — the Hook Model. At the heart of the Hook Model is a variable schedule of rewards: a powerful hack that focuses attention, provides pleasure, and infatuates the mind. Our search for variable rewards is about an endless desire for three types of rewards: those of the tribe, the hunt and the self.

In advertising, marketers reinforce a behavior by linking to the promise of reward. “Use our product,” they claim, “and you’ll get laid”; it’s the gist of many product pitches from soapto hamburgers.

But online, feedback loops aren’t cutting it. Users are increasingly inundated with distractions, and companies find they need to hook users quickly if they want to stay in business. Today, companies are using more than feedback loops. They are deploying the Hook Model.

The Hook Model goes beyond reinforcing behavior; it creates habits, spurring users to act on their own, without the need for expensive external stimuli like advertising. The Hook Model is at the heart of many of today’s most habit-forming technologies. Social media, online games, and even good ol’ email utilize the Hook Model to compel us to use them.

THE ENDLESS SEARCH

At the heart of the Hook Model is a powerful cognitive quirk described by B.F. Skinner in the 1950s, called a variable schedule of rewards.Skinner observed that lab mice responded most voraciously 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.

Humans, like the mice in Skinner’s box, crave predictability and struggle to find patterns, even when none exist. Variability is the brain’s cognitive nemesis and our minds make deduction of cause and effect a priority over other functions like self-control and moderation.

If you’ve ever asked someone a question while he or she was engrossed in a video game, only to receive a mumbled “sure, ok, whatever,” you’ve seen this mental state. Players will agree to almost anything to get rid of distraction and keep playing. Variable rewards seem to keep the brain occupied, removing its defenses and providing an opportunity to plant the seeds of new habits.

Bizarrely, we perceive this trance-like state as fun. This is because our brains are wired to search endlessly for the next reward, never satisfied. Recent neurosciencehas revealed that our dopamine system works not to provide us with rewards for our efforts, but to keep us searching by inducing a semi-stressful response we call desire.

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