Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Variable-Interval Reinforcement Schedules FTW

Ever since I discovered Twitter, I've been trying to stop using it. I've redirected it to in my hosts file, placed special anti-Twitter admonitions at so I would see them, plus declared brief Twitter diets and Twitter fasts. With Reddit and Hacker News, it's worse. After getting nowhere with hosts-file bans, I've deleted accounts, thrown away passwords, and deliberately antagonized entire userbases.

All to no avail (or, at least, all to less avail than I wanted). I'm still on all those sites, still frequently annoyed by how little value I actually get from them, and still struggling with a ridiculous, useless addiction to the Reload button.

However, I think I've accidentally discovered the cure.

A while ago I read this interesting article or blog post which claimed Twitter "addiction" might actually be a true addiction. It compared constantly checking Twitter (and Facebook, e-mail, etc.) with repeatedly pulling the lever on a one-armed bandit in Vegas. I haven't found the exact article, but here's one of the variants:

Dr Tom Stafford, a lecturer at the University of Sheffield and co-author of the book Mind Hacks, believes that the same fundamental learning mechanisms that drive gambling addicts are also at work in email users. "Both slot machines and email follow something called a 'variable-interval reinforcement schedule'," he says, "which has been established as the way to train in the strongest habits. This means that rather than reward an action every time it is performed, you reward it sometimes, but not in a predictable way. So with email, usually when I check it there is nothing interesting, but every so often there's something wonderful - an invite out, or maybe some juicy gossip - and I get a reward." This is enough to make it difficult for us to resist checking email, even when we've only just looked.

I remember at the time that these stories were circulating, I wrote something down as a note to myself - instructions to find a way to leverage this addictive pattern into doing something profitable over and over again. Then I forgot all about it. But these days, I'm checking Clickbank and Amazon's affiliate program site pretty regularly.

I've blogged about Clickbank and Amazon's affiliate programs before, so I won't go into too much detail. Long story short, both are web sites where I could be making money, and both are web sites which I check often, and both are web sites where I sometimes am making money and sometimes am not. That's a variable-interval reinforcement schedule, the same phenomenon that Twitter kicks my ass with, but put to a more obviously useful purpose.

It's too early to say, but this might be the cure for Twitter. I might be able to transfer the reload-button habit from one site to another one - one which moves at a slower pace, produces less blog wars, and makes me some cash. It's kind of like if methadone were made of vitamins. You not only shift your addiction to something much safer, you also get a great side effect.