Why can variable rewards, in some instances, be effective? Why would variability even be seductive in the first place?
Let’s think about the purpose of conscious attention vs. automatic/habitual functioning for a moment.
Habits are, simply, reliable solutions to recurring problems in our environment.
Pretend that you’ve just started working in a new office building. It doesn’t contain a cafeteria, and so you need to go out for lunch each day. The first day, you walk outside and stumble upon a reasonably priced (and reasonably delicious) falafel stand. You’re pleased with your purchase.
The next day, when your hunger pangs hit again, the thought of that juicy pita wrap pops into your head. You go back.
Every once in awhile, you try out a new place with a few coworkers, but the falafel cart quickly becomes your go-to spot. All of us have a place like this.
It’s a good enough solution to a recurring problem (your lunchtime hunger), and so it quickly becomes a fairly automatic behavioral program–AKA a habit.
You also tend to order the same thing day after day at this spot; a habit within a habit.
There’s no reason for your mind to put effort into making new decisions about lunch–you can devote its conscious, analytical abilities to other pressing problems.
But what if the restaurant suddenly closes, or decides to completely change its menu; getting rid of your favorite item? Now, suddenly, you have to put thought into your lunch again. Your conscious mind will be pulled back towards the restaurant, to choose a new item off the menu, or to the other restaurants in the area that can fulfill your needs.
In short: your conscious attention is an emergency problem solver, called upon to solve new conundrums. In this case, it’s how to find food now that the usual option no longer exists.
When the environment changes, new problems arise. Thus, variability creates the need for conscious attention & processing.
This is why traveling is so exhausting. We can’t spend much, if any, of our time in this automatic mode when we’re in a new place. We have to deliberately determine where to eat breakfast, how to wash our clothes, and so on.
So now that you understand why variability grabs our attention, I want to dive into “variable rewards” for a moment. We say that a reward is variable when it is only given out intermittently in response to a behavior. The classic example is the slot machine. You’re not rewarded for each pull of the lever. You will only win some percentage of the time. Research has shown that these variable rewards cause the recipient to perform the behavior in question with more intensity, frequency, etc. The question is: Why?
As we just covered a minute ago, the conscious mind is used for solving new problems. It pays attention to patterns in the environment and codifies them into rules that it can store away in the realm of subconscious processing. The normal pattern of functioning is: “Do behavior A –> Get reward B, Do behavior A –> Get reward B…”, and so on. If that occurs every time, you’ll learn that that doing A gets you reward B pretty quickly. You don’t really need to pay conscious attention anymore. When the need arises you’ll just do that thing. If, however, you do behavior A and only get reward B half the time… uh, that’s confusing. Your mind is searching for answers. “Did I not pull the slot machine handle hard enough? Is that what’s different? Or maybe it’s my posture? Or maybe I wasn’t thinking the right thing when I pulled the lever?!” Your mind can’t just shuttle away a predictable rule into your subconscious since it’s presented with a random 50/50 reward schedule… So your brain will churn away and your conscious & semi-conscious attention will be pulled toward the machine more, trying to crack the code. That’s the power of a variable reward.
But, as I said yesterday, much more important than the variability of a reward is the *content* of a reward.