26 March 2012

Desire engines

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Nir Eyal’s third Techcrunch article on behavioural engineering, delves into the topic of “desire engines”.

“Desire engines go beyond reinforcing behavior; they create habits, spurring users to act on their own, without the need for expensive external stimuli like advertising. Desire engines are at the heart of many of today’s most habit-forming technologies. Social media, online games, and even good ol’ email utilize desire engines to compel us to use them.

At the heart of the desire engine is a powerful cognitive quirk described by 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.”

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