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In the 1950s, psychologist B. F. Skinner conducted experiments to understand how variability impacted animal behavior. First, Skinner placed pigeons inside a box (now known as Skinner boxes) rigged to deliver a food pellet to the birds every time they pressed a lever. The pigeons learned the cause-and-effect relationship between pressing the lever and receiving the food.

In the next part of the experiment, Skinner added variability. Sometimes the lever dispensed food, other times it didn’t. Skinner revealed that adding variability increased the frequency of the pigeons’ completing the intended action.

This is what separates Hooks from a plain vanilla feedback loop. Feedback loops are all around us, but predictable ones don’t create desire. The predictable response of your fridge light turning on when you open the door doesn’t drive you to keep opening it again and again. However, add some variability to the mix—say a different treat magically appears in your fridge every time you open it—and voila, intrigue is created. You’ll be opening that door like a lab animal in a Skinner box.

Products using infinite variability stand a better chance of holding on to a user’s attention, while those with finite variability must constantly reinvent themselves just to keep up. This is why the classic user-generated “feed” is so popular. The same goes for our inbox - we can never be sure what exciting emails might have appeared since the last time we checked.

Today’s task
Think of a few services that use Skinner’s principle of variable rewards. Is there a way for you to copy some of them? Please discuss this with a co-worker today. 

Wondering about what exciting stuff you will learn in the next lesson? The only way to find out is by opening it.


Nir Eyal

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