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Random Reinforcement - Scott Adams' Blog

Random Reinforcement

I read somewhere that rats become more obsessed with tasks that offer random rewards than tasks that offer rewards every time. In other words, if a rat touches a button with his nose and gets a pellet every time, he’ll like the task, but if he only gets a reward now and then, he’ll be addicted to it. It’s counterintuitive.

I can’t find a link to that study, and I’m probably remembering it wrong, but I’ll forge ahead as if accuracy doesn’t matter. That’s how I roll.

I wonder if the rat study is applicable to humans and can explain most of our seemingly irrational behaviors. Take prayer, for example. Prayers are only answered as often as the proverbial blind squirrel finds a nut. It’s the ultimate random reinforcement. And if you haven’t noticed, people are quite addicted to their religions. Is that coincidence or causation?

Consider horoscopes. You’d think that being wrong 75% of the time would be enough to relegate that pseudoscience to the trash heap of history. But perhaps the 25% accidental accuracy is exactly what makes horoscopes so popular. One can know that horoscopes are not real and be addicted to reading them at the same time.

Consider listening to music on the radio. You might love only 25% of the music you hear, even if you’re listening to your favorite station. Perhaps that randomness is exactly what makes you obsessed with your favorite artists as opposed to simply liking them.

Even your iPod has a shuffle mode that guarantees your favorite songs will be random instead of predictable. You might explain your use of shuffle mode as a preference for variety. And that’s probably true. But why do people enjoy variety in the first place? Perhaps the study on random rewards exposes that mechanism.

Consider your smartphone. People are totally addicted to smartphones, and those are the ultimate random reinforcement. Email and text messages arrive at unpredictable times and are rewarding only sometimes. When you type, only rarely do you avoid typos, especially with screen keyboards. And now with Apple’s Siri voice recognition, you can expect to be awed and delighted with its accuracy…well…sometimes. Result: addiction.

I’ve long been amazed that comic strips are so popular, given that even the best ones are only funny about 25% of the time. Now I’m wondering if the unpredictable nature of the rewards is exactly what causes the addiction.

Consider sports and games of all types. They all have in common a randomness of outcomes. When you swing a bat or kick a soccer ball, you never know for sure if you’ll get the reward you seek. I recently took up golf (don’t judge me) and I find it more random, and perhaps for that reason more addictive, than any sport I’ve tried.

Last night my wife and I watched a sitcom that is generally 20 minutes of predictable, hackneyed writing for every one chuckle. We looked at each other and realized we were experiencing some sort of addiction because the show hasn’t been entertaining for years. I offered to delete the show from the DVR and never watch another, but neither of us could pull the trigger. That one unpredictable chuckle per episode has us addicted.

I have a hypothesis that for alcoholics and drug addicts, the thing called “hitting bottom” isn’t real. We observe that addicts have to experience the near-death bottom before they have the will power (another illusion) to beat their habits. But suppose what’s really happening is that once an addict manages to stay high or drunk for 24 hours a day, for enough days in a row that there is no randomness to the reward, the addict starts to lose the addiction naturally. That would look exactly like hitting bottom, since a person’s life would disintegrate under those conditions, but the hitting bottom would simply be a coincidence and not a contributing cause of the ultimate recovery.

The practical application of this idea is that perhaps you could keep an alcoholic mildly inebriated for 24 hours a day in a controlled clinical setting, for as long as it took for randomness to be removed from the equation. Would that lead to just as much recovery as the so-called “hitting bottom”?

This is where I caution you not to take health advice from cartoonists who can’t be bothered to find links to back up their speculation. All I’m suggesting is that random rewards might be controlling our lives in more ways than we imagine.