The Powerful Addiction of Variable Rewards

How Silicon Valley Uses This

My friend Nir Eyal introduced this concept to me in 2012. What is now the crucial underpinning of almost all of the most popular products that have come out of Silicon Valley in the last decade. Products that tap into the deeply ingrained human behavior and drive. Variable Rewards.

“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.

Source: Want To Hook Your Users? Drive Them Crazy.

This was further illustrated by former CPO of Tinder, Brian Norgard in his interview on the Pomp Podcast.

Tinder was exemplary in utilizing variable rewards into the product. This was the reason Tinder became the juggernaut in the dating space. Apparently they are one of the highest grossing mobile apps of all time. They brought this concept from the gaming industry which is the essence of video games itself.

As Nir writes “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.”

People are always looking for cheat codes & achievement experience. So for example “Superlike” or “Boost” features in Tinder. These features are always positive & aspirational.

Also these products have to be super simple to understand and use. They have to be “No Mind” because people do not want to go to your product, process and learn. They do not want to think about it, they want it to be consumed passively. We see this on TV, IG, FB, where you use it literally mindlessly.

Personally, I had to delete the Instagram and Facebook apps off my phone because I ended up wasting so many hours every day even though my intention was just to do a quick 5 minute check. It was that easy and mindless.

Variable Rewards is a key part of Behavioral Design methodology. Also no surprise that many of the best product people know of this methodology and why it is embedded in many of our favorite tech products. I personally think like most technology, it’s neutral and cuts both ways. It can be used for good and for evil. But regardless of any value judgments on this, as investors, founders, consumers and users we should be aware that this tool is now being used more widely. So the more we understand its power, the better we are able to manage it wisely.

“Be the chess player not the chess piece.”--Raph Charrell