Variable Rewards: designing for user retention

Have you ever wondered how social networks, video games or online games catch millions of people? Why do free online games like Candy Crash generate so much profit? The answer to all these questions is the variable reward system.

The Skinner’s Box

Human behavior in the digital environment is closely related to the theory of behaviorism that the psychologist B.F. Skinner studied.

In his study, Skinner wanted to discover how to get certain animals to reproduce certain behaviours by offering rewards. One of his best known inventions is The Skinner’s Box, also known as operant conditioning chamber.

During the experiment, small animals such as rats or pigeons were placed inside a box. The research team turned on the lights inside and the animal knew that, if it pushed the adequate lever it would obtain its reward.

The objective was to know how much time the animal could reproduce the same behaviour.

Since that moment, the system of variable reward was created, where the unknown variable and randomness of not knowing when the reward will be received until the repetitive behaviour of the animals would be very difficult to extinguish.  

Variable Reward system

And you would ask: Can this behaviour also be seen in humans? Yes, and all the blame is on dopamine. Robert Sapolowsky studied the dopamine for discovering how is this molecule related with the behaviour of human beings.

He discovered that dopamine is the substance that guides us into doing something. In other words, it gives us the push (in a moment of uncertainty) that we need for carrying out the action when seeing the sign.

From this factor is where we take the benefit of the world of video games where the system of variable reward is blossoming, especially in all free video games. In them, the game itself is free but the creators fill it up with objectives of variable reward like boxes or chests, that require a micro pay for obtaining them.

However, not only in video games this can be found, also in every bar and restaurant, like the famous slot machines.

These machines are designed for us to lose money (and we know that). Nonetheless, the randomness of the game and the instinct of “the next round for sure is going to be my lucky one” makes us unable to stop playing and it becomes a vice.

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What happens in social networks?

Social networks have grown hugely in the last decade and one of the reasons is that many hide a system of variable reward. 

B.J Frogg in 1998 created the “laboratory of persuasive technology” where he wanted to investigate how to do a more persuasive technology for generating a concrete behaviour between users.

Frogg and his team defended the fact that for a technology to be persuasive and guide towards a specific behaviour, we need three things:

  • Ability: we must know how to use the technology
  • Motivation: we need a reason
  • Trigger: a sign (system of variable compensation) that reminds us to do a particular behaviour

What type of behaviours social networks search in us?

The goal of social networks is that we stay connected the longer the better, thus them being able to bombard us with lots of ads and earn money, and here, is where the variable reward system enters.

The first step is ability. Technology these last years has experienced a big increase in its usability, due to the fact that society has a generalized access to technology and knows how to use it.

This is followed by motivation: Facebook is driven by reconnecting with people from the past, in Instagram you share your life for obtaining social affection, in LinkedIn connecting with your colleagues  from work and brag, in YouTube entertain…

Out of all these factors that all social networks accomplish, there is the variable reward system that is the trigger. In these platforms the key of success can be found in notifications that remind us to spend more time there. Afterwards, this action in the social media is traduced in time of consumption and finally, the variable reward relieves content that, no matter the quality, we consume it no matter what.

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