The Long Read: From a young age, humans love to press buttons that light up and make a noise. The thrill of positive feedback lies at the heart of addiction to gambling, games, and social media
Not long ago, I stepped into a lift on the 18th floor of a tall building in New York City. A young woman inside the lift was looking down at the top of her toddlers head with embarrassment as he looked at me and grinned. When I turned to push the ground-floor button, I saw that every button had already been pushed. Kids love pushing buttons, but they only push every button when the buttons light up. From a young age, humans are driven to learn, and learning involves getting as much feedback as possible from the immediate environment. The toddler who shared my elevator was grinning because feedback in the form of lights or sounds or any change in the state of the world is pleasurable.
But this quest for feedback doesnt end with childhood. In 2012, an ad agency in Belgium produced an outdoor campaign for a TV channel that quickly went viral. The campaigns producers placed a big red button on a pedestal in a quaint square in a sleepy town in Flanders. A big arrow hung above the button with a simple instruction: Push to add drama. You can see the glint in each persons eye as he or she approaches the button the same glint that came just before the toddler in my elevator raked his tiny hand across the panel of buttons.
Psychologists have long tried to understand how animals respond to different forms of feedback. In 1971, a psychologist named Michael Zeiler sat in his lab across from three hungry white carneaux pigeons. At this stage, the research programme focused on rats and pigeons, but it had lofty aims. Could the behaviour of lower-order animals teach governments how to encourage charity and discourage crime? Could entrepreneurs inspire overworked shift workers to find new meaning in their jobs? Could parents learn how to shape perfect children?
Before Zeiler could change the world, he had to work out the best way to deliver rewards. One option was to reward every desirable behaviour. Another was to reward those same desirable behaviours on an unpredictable schedule, creating some of the mystery that encourages people to buy lottery tickets. The pigeons had been raised in the lab, so they knew the drill. Each one waddled up to a small button and pecked persistently, hoping that the button would release a tray of Purina pigeon pellets. During some trials, Zeiler would programme the button so it delivered food every time the pigeons pecked; during others, he programmed the button so it delivered food only some of the time. Sometimes the pigeons would peck in vain, the button would turn red, and they would receive nothing.
When I first learned about Zeilers work, I expected the consistent schedule to work best. But thats not what happened at all. The results werent even close: the pigeons pecked almost twice as often when the reward wasnt guaranteed. Their brains, it turned out, were releasing far more dopamine when the reward was unexpected than when it was predictable. Zeiler had documented an important fact about positive feedback: that less is often more. His pigeons were drawn to the mystery of mixed feedback just as humans are attracted to the uncertainty of gambling.
Decades after Zeiler published his results, in 2012, a team of Facebook web developers prepared to unleash a similar feedback experiment on hundreds of millions of humans. The site already had 200 million users at the time a number that would triple over the next three years. The experiment took the form of a deceptively simple new feature called a like button.
Its hard to exaggerate how much the like button changed the psychology of Facebook use. What had begun as a passive way to track your friends lives was now deeply interactive, and with exactly the sort of unpredictable feedback that motivated Zeilers pigeons. Users were gambling every time they shared a photo, web link or status update. A post with zero likes wasnt just privately painful, but also a kind of public condemnation: either you didnt have enough online friends, or, worse still, your online friends werent impressed. Like pigeons, were more driven to seek feedback when it isnt guaranteed. Facebook was the first major social networking force to introduce the like button, but others now have similar functions. You can like and repost tweets on Twitter, pictures on Instagram, posts on Google+, columns on LinkedIn, and videos on YouTube.
The act of liking became the subject of etiquette debates. What did it mean to refrain from liking a friends post? If you liked every third post, was that an implicit condemnation of the other posts? Liking became a form of basic social support the online equivalent of laughing at a friends joke in public.
Web developer Rameet Chawla developed an app as a marketing exercise, but also a social experiment, to uncover the effect of the like button. When he launched it, Chawla posted this introduction on its homepage: People are addicted. We experience withdrawals. We are so driven by this drug, getting just one hit elicits truly peculiar reactions. Im talking about likes. Theyve inconspicuously emerged as the first digital drug to dominate our culture.
I knew way before launching it that it would get shut down by Instagram, Chawla said. Using drug terminology, you know, Instagram is the dealer and Im the new guy in the market giving away the drug for free.
Chawla was surprised, though, that it happened so quickly. Hed hoped for at least a week of use, but Instagram pounced immediately.
When I moved to the United States for postgraduate studies in 2004, online entertainment was limited. These were the days before Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube and Facebook was limited to students at Harvard. One evening, I stumbled on a game called Sign of the Zodiac (Zodiac for short) that demanded very little mental energy.
Zodiac was a simple online slot machine, much like the actual slot machines in casinos: you decided how much to wager, lazily clicked a button over and over again, and watched as the machine spat out wins and losses. At first, I played to relieve the stress of long days filled with too much thinking, but the brief ding that followed each small win, and the longer melody that followed each major win, hooked me fast. Eventually screenshots of the game would intrude on my day. Id picture five pink scorpions lining up for the games highest jackpot, followed by the jackpot melody that I can still conjure today. I had a minor behavioural addiction, and these were the sensory hangovers of the random, unpredictable feedback that followed each win.
My Zodiac addiction wasnt unusual. For 13 years, Natasha Dow Schll, a cultural anthropologist, studied gamblers and the machines that hook them. She collected descriptions of slot machines from gambling experts and current and former addicts, which included the following: Slots are the crack cocaine of gambling electronic morphine … the most virulent strain of gambling in the history of man Slots are the premier addiction delivery device.
These are sensationalised descriptions, but they capture how easily people become hooked on slot-machine gambling. I can relate, because I became addicted to a slots game that wasnt even doling out real money. The reinforcing sound of a win after the silence of several losses was enough for me.
In the US, banks are not allowed to handle online gambling winnings, which makes online gambling practically illegal. Very few companies are willing to fight the system, and the ones that do are quickly defeated. That sounds like a good thing, but free and legal games such as Sign of the Zodiac can also be dangerous. At casinos, the deck is stacked heavily against the player; on average the house has to win. But the house doesnt have to win in a game without money.
As David Goldhill, the chief executive officer of the Game Show Network, which also produces many online games, told me: Because were not restricted by having to pay real winnings, we can pay out $120 for every $100 played. No land-based casino could do that for more than a week without going out of business. As a result, the game can continue forever because the player never runs out of chips. I played Sign of the Zodiac for four years and rarely had to start a new game. I won roughly 95% of the time. The game only ended when I had to eat or sleep or attend class in the morning. And sometimes it didnt even end then.
Casinos win most of the time, but they have a clever way of convincing gamblers that the outcomes are reversed. Early slot machines were incredibly simple devices: the player pulled the machines arm to spin its three mechanical reels. If the centre of the reels displayed two or more of the same symbol when they stopped spinning, the player won a certain number of coins or credits. Today, slot machines allow gamblers to play multiple lines. Every time you play, youre more likely to win on at least one line, and the machine will celebrate with you by flashing bright lights and playing catchy tunes. If you play 15 lines, and you win on two of the lines, you make a net loss, and yet you enjoy the positive feedback that follows a win a type of win that Schll and other gambling experts call a loss disguised as a win.
Losses disguised as wins only matter because players dont classify them as losses they classify them as wins. This is what makes modern slot machines and modern casinos so dangerous. Like the little boy who hit every button in my lift, adults never really grow out of the thrill of attractive lights and sounds. If our brains convince us that were winning even when were actually losing, it becomes almost impossible to muster the self-control to stop playing.