Beware of the pop psychologist with the “variability” hammer

Beware of the pop psychologist with the "variability" hammer

Pop psychologists love slot machines.

And I don’t mean that they love playing them.

To the pop psychologist, they’re the perfect metaphor for everything: cell phones, apps, video games, you name it.

Why is Facebook so addictive?

Well, variability of course.

Why are smartphones so hard to put down?


This analysis, though, misses the point. Yes, variability is compelling (for reasons I’ll cover in tomorrow’s email), but it’s the content on the phone, or in these apps, that’s actually causing their persistent usage. We don’t go to Facebook because it’s constantly changing. We go there because that’s where all the people we care about hang out.

That’s where we keep up-to-date on that cute boy or girl we’re checking out and see what our friends are up to. From an evolutionary point of view, this makes complete sense. We’re tribal creatures. We thrive (or fail) according to the strength of our social ties, and our sole purpose (from an Evo POV) is to procreate. What, then, is more important than maintaining and building relationships with others?

If you just get a bunch of people together on the street, people will come and see what’s up. We’re drawn to others. We, justifiably, find them fascinating.

So whenever someone tells you that variability (or variable ratio rewards) is why a product is successful, laugh and walk away. They’re missing the point.

They’re missing the forest for the trees.

Look at every popular or “addictive” product. They all solve fundamental needs. We go to them time and time again to scratch important itches, not just because they happen to change somewhat frequently.

More on this soon.