Easily distracted by shiny objects
Sound familiar to anyone?

There’s something thrilling about newness and uncertainty. Whether it’s watching a gripping Christopher Nolan film, starting the next level in a game or going on a first date, we can be easily captivated by what we don’t know.

The human species possesses a disposition towards novelty – and tens of thousands of years ago, that drove us to explore new lands, try new foods and see what happened when we struck two rocks together.

But just as our craving for sweets, salts and fats were valuable in the Paleolithic era, when such foods were scarce, but are now warped in the age of carmel-drizzled kettle corn, our novelty-seeking tendencies can lead us astray.

Variable rewards are a particularly powerful “hook” for the brain. Casinos and many games use frequent but hard-to-predict rewards to keep their players coming back for more.

In this post, I want to talk about how variable rewards work and how we can use them to drive positive behavior change for ourselves.

The science behind variable rewards

Variable rewards are when you positively reinforce a behavior at an non-fixed (ie less predictable) schedule. By varying when you deliver the reward for a certain behavior and how big that reward is, you can quickly reinforce that behavior and make it very strong and resistant to extinction (aka it becomes a habit or routine).

This finding is born out of the research conducted on animals, for instance: teaching a rat to press a lever. Researchers found that when compared to a fixed schedule (eg: a piece of cheese every other lever presses), mixing up the schedule (eg: two rewards in a row after one press, then a single reward after three presses, etc) was more effective even when the overall reward ratio was 1 to 2.

How Variable Rewards Work - Jason Shen
Quick chart I whipped up to explain the difference between fixed ratio and variable ratio rewards.

Why does this work?

The answer has to do with dopamine, a neurotransmitter that’s tightly linked with desire and habit. Getting a reward increases dopamine levels in your brain, which motivates you to do the thing which got you the reward (rats with missing dopamine receptors struggle to build habits). Continue reading