Old-School Behaviorism and Smartphone Technology: A Marketer’s Dream Team?

Have you noticed lately that your favorite smartphone app or videogame greets you with an occasional surprise or random reward when you log on? For example, a popular app for an upscale taxi service called Uber rewards its customers with unexpected one-day options such as on-demand roses, ice cream, or even helicopter rides. The offers are “just for fun” says Travis Kalanick, Uber’s CEO, and customers seem to agree: traffic to their app spikes on days when these special services are offered. But there is nothing random about this kind of marketing, according to Steve Henn, Technology Correspondent for National Public Radio.

“Many of the most popular technologies of our time tap into powerful reward mechanisms in our brains,” said Henn in a July 24 story on NPR’s All Tech Considered program. “Many techies and marketers are tapping, sometimes unintentionally, into decades of neuroscience research to make their products as addictive and profitable as possible.”

As every student of psychology knows, unexpected rewards are much better at driving behavior than predictable ones; this was proved by the famous behaviorist B.F. Skinner in the 1930s with his Skinner Box experiment. Skinner trained rats to press a lever in order to receive a food pellet; he then set the mechanism to release the pellet only occasionally and randomly. This caused the rats to obsessively click the lever again and again, hoping to trigger a reward.

This kind of behavior, in both rats and humans, is a response not to hunger but rather to the boost of dopamine released by the brain in anticipation of a reward, says Nora Volkow, the head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Volkow and others have studied the effects of dopamine on the brain and its role in addictive behavior, and a large body of research has shown that unexpected rewards trigger the release of more dopamine than expected ones. So the repeated clicks to your favorite app might be a desire for the dopamine rush in anticipation of the latest special offer.

What do you think? Are apps with random rewards just for fun, or are they cultivating genuinely addictive behavior? PAR wants to hear from you, so leave a comment and join the conversation!

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