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Clicker trained by our email

Slotmachinetwo

Do you keep checking your email even when you don't need to? (Like, say, at 3 AM) Do you hit reload on your web/blog stats page several times a day? Several times an hour? Do you check your Technorati links several times a day? And if you're an author, how often do you check your Amazon standings? How often do you check your blog aggregator for new feeds?

You might have a problem. And dog trainers know why:

Intermittent Variable Reinforcement.

And we're not so different from dogs... this kind of reinforcement works on humans too. From the site in the link:

"The interesting thing that Skinner discovered about intermittant reinforcement and maybe one of Skinner's most important discoveries was that behavior that is reinforced intermittantly is much more difficult to extinguish than behavior that is reinforced continuously."

From that same Time article I linked to in my multitasking post, comes this quote:

Patricia Wallace, a techno-psychologist,...believes part of the allure of e-mail--for adults as well as teens--is similar to that of a slot machine.
"You have intermittent, variable reinforcement," she explains. "You are not sure you are going to get a reward every time or how often you will, so you keep pulling that handle."

Who needs dog treats when You've Got Mail!


(FYI -- I've used horse clicker training with my Icelandic, who learned to go after a frisbee in just a single session. You dog folks may have no idea that a horse can often learn as fast--or faster--than a dog. The "sit" lesson is still a bit problematic...)

[Update: -- I just found this very old, but fantastic post on the topic of multitasking at Joel on Software]

Posted by Kathy on March 23, 2006 | Permalink

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» Email and Slots? from Bunnix
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Comments

Alexa traffic ranking is my newest scooby snack -- surprised you didn't mention it. Perhpas you are protecting the afflicted?

Congrats on the successful book!

Posted by: Sid Steward | Mar 23, 2006 11:21:58 PM

I read that's also the mechanism one-armed bandits exploit in casinos :)

Posted by: Emile | Mar 24, 2006 12:55:59 AM

(Dangit ! I just noticed the picture :P)

Posted by: Emile | Mar 24, 2006 12:57:02 AM

Pertinent only to Icelandics: http://www.hestakaup.com/

Posted by: Deirdre' Straughan | Mar 24, 2006 1:14:20 AM

That's pretty funny. I was a Psych major, so I know all about the power of intermittent reinforcement, but I never made the connection to my email/blog habit before. I feel so used... ;)

It was a supreme effort to slow my email auto-check down to every 5 minutes. I'm working my way up (down?) to 10 minutes. Sheesh...

Posted by: Jeff | Mar 24, 2006 9:25:15 AM

Hmmm. I've heard this a number of times, and I wonder about how this might be relevant to me as a parent? You see, one of the things that my wife and I try really hard to do, is always to be consistent with our kids. Always reward the good behavior, always discourage the bad. Always enforce the rules.

Of course, as any parent knows, this is not humanly possible. Now I wonder if it is even desirable? Does it have the OPPOSITE effect of what we want to achieve? Suppose the "good" reinforcing is predictable and tedious and boring, whereas every once in a while the kids get away with something. How exciting and wonderful! ("...let's try that again...")

I should admit, too, that I am perhaps more liable to be inconsistent that Mom. At least, she sees it that way, and it is the cause of many arguments.

Let's take our current nagging refrain, "Is your homework done?" Suppose doing homework was rewarded with a lottery? You might get nothing, you might get something small, but every once in a while you reach into the jar and pull out a trip to Paris, or something totally, wildly out of proportion. As weird as that sounds, maybe that's a better way to build habits that last.

Posted by: Charlie Evett | Mar 24, 2006 9:30:16 AM

Hmmm. I've heard this a number of times, and I wonder about how this might be relevant to me as a parent? You see, one of the things that my wife and I try really hard to do, is always to be consistent with our kids. Always reward the good behavior, always discourage the bad. Always enforce the rules.

Of course, as any parent knows, this is not humanly possible. Now I wonder if it is even desirable? Does it have the OPPOSITE effect of what we want to achieve? Suppose the "good" reinforcing is predictable and tedious and boring, whereas every once in a while the kids get away with something. How exciting and wonderful! ("...let's try that again...")

I should admit, too, that I am perhaps more liable to be inconsistent that Mom. At least, she sees it that way, and it is the cause of many arguments.

Let's take our current nagging refrain, "Is your homework done?" Suppose doing homework was rewarded with a lottery? You might get nothing, you might get something small, but every once in a while you reach into the jar and pull out a trip to Paris, or something totally, wildly out of proportion. As weird as that sounds, maybe that's a better way to build habits that last.

Posted by: Charlie Evett | Mar 24, 2006 9:31:31 AM

I couldn't have been more called out on that first paragraph. I check email, blog stats, feed stats, and all of that stuff all of the time. Even when I know the stats haven't changed. Pretty sad, but there is definitely the feeling that there might be some new nugget of info or piece of data that is so wonderful and amazing. Rarely does anything come anywhere near "wonderful" or "amazing". Generally it's, "that's cool", or something like that.

Posted by: Kendall | Mar 24, 2006 9:39:59 AM

Charlie,you may be on to a great idea. Variable intermittent reinforcement for kids who like to play the lottery.

Instead of cookies in the jar, lottery tickets.

I like it!

Posted by: Doug Emerson | Mar 24, 2006 9:45:37 AM

Sid: You just HAD to mention Alexa... ; )

Deirdre': I can't believe I didn't know about that blog. That's the most web video I've seen about Icelandics (although the idea of putting a five-year old--no matter how skilled--on a stallion seems pretty insane to me, but what a horse!) and I'm especially interested in the herd/trek scenes. One of my goals is to do a horse trek in Iceland. Although I can never take my horse there... no Icelandic (or any horse at all) is ever allowed into the country. Not in around 1,000 years. That's one thing that makes these horses so cool... Icelandics have had no natural predators, so after all these centuries of not having to live with the fear of being eaten -- they've been able to spend much more time *thinking*.

Jeff: "Five minutes at a time" is just fine. 43folders has a lot of tips for kicking the habits.

Charlie: You bring up a *really* important point. I just started reading a book yesterday called, "Punished by Rewards" -- the trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A's, Praise, and other bribes... by Alfie Kohn. It's controversial, intense, and covers both adults (employee motivation) and kids (both home and school).

From the Los Angeles Times: "Kohn, arguing that...[rewards] kill people's desires to do their best... is able to bck up his criticism of our motivational practices with sold, exhaustive evidence."

From W.Edwards Deming: "Alfie Kohn opens a new world of living, helping the reader to clarify the heavy losses from reward--and to replace costly practices with better ones."

University of Rochester: "A clear and compelling challenge to some of our most cherished asusmptions about what makes people tick. ... relevant to managers, teachers, and parents--and unnerving to those who rely on the carrot and stick."

I have no idea if I can recommend it since I'm only on page 20, but it's definitely relevant to any discussion on behaviorist theories, and my current (as in this week) interest is motivation... I'll have more to say on this later.

Kendall: The first step is to admit your powerlessness... ;)

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Mar 24, 2006 9:54:53 AM

It's true! I check my email every few minutes throughout the day when I'm by the computer. Complete addict... I've now set up Thunderbird to download new email every 30 seconds - how obsessive is that! And honestly I only get, on average, about an email an hour, including spam and mailing lists.

Posted by: Christina | Mar 24, 2006 11:18:54 AM

On my quest to break this circle, I've succesfully used the following tactic:

I've set up the online feed reader rawdog ( http://offog.org/code/rawdog.html ) to update once a day every night. Therfore I'm not tempted to check every minute, because I know I won't miss anything, rawdog will collect everything for me that night. :)

-Richard

Posted by: Richard | Mar 24, 2006 1:34:31 PM

When you talked about intermittant versus continuous reinforcement, it made me think of the difference in managing by observing and walking around against the micromanaging style.

To me the insight into "behavior that is reinforced intermittantly is much more difficult to extinguish than behavior that is reinforced continuously" confirms to me in people that are given more leeway and are measured less often, have more value to a company than those that are micromanaged and secretly rebel within themselves and don't take on the behavior that will translate positively to the customer.

Posted by: Gary Bourgeault | Mar 24, 2006 7:01:11 PM

IconBuffet is a good example of site that takes advantage of intermittent reinforcement... sort of. Each month, they make available one set of free icons to IconBuffet members -- different members get different sets of icons. Members get 5 deliveries to share with friends. Even though I know that it hasn't been a full month since my last delivery, I will check the site and the forum to see if IconBuffet has released a new set of free icons.

Posted by: jessi | Mar 26, 2006 12:06:21 PM

I'll admit that I'm a total sucker for intermittent, variable reinforcement. I have two tabs open to stats all day most days in my browser. Although I didn't know the Skinnerian term for it, I've been pretty aware of the behavior. I used to just check once in the morning and once in the evening. now it's a reflex between tasks. sigh.

RE: charlie's comment. I used to work with juvenile delinquents in a day treatment program. The kids were at the last stage before lockup, the "worst" our county had to offer. By the time the program ended we had about a 7% recidivism rate (which is insanely low).

One of our strongest tactics was short-cicuiting the standard power game the kids were used to. They had been raised in a system that encouraged adversarial behavior by turning everything into a contest of wills based on rules. We took a different approach. Instead of telling them "if you do x, the consequences will be Y," We set up a more open ended system.

We told them that we expected them to respect themselves and each other, that they knew the difference between acceptable behavior and harmful behavior, and that the consequences of their actions would be determined by what they had done. Hence, if you vandalize a garden, you might expect to spend an entire summer helping replant it. Basically, we sort of poeticized justice…

Because the consequences were never determined in advance, the kids quickly figured out that it was worth considering more deeply before acting out. It took the contest of wills out of the equation and caused them to weight their actions based on what it was worth to them to do something. It ended up being a little more like "real life" or more accurately, adult life. And very quickly they began to weight their options in a more adult fashion.

Posted by: john t unger | Mar 27, 2006 6:56:46 AM

Surely, if email is pathological, then blogs are even more so?

Should readers kick the habit of reading your blog?

This is a rhetorical question -- I, for one, will keep reading your blog (and many, many others) faithfully. After all, it's interesting.

Am I therefore an addict? Pathological?

There are a lot of online phenomena that are arguably "unhealthy" -- GTD comes to mind. Lifehacker, as a matter of fact, bills itself quite forthrightly as "Unhealthily obsessed with efficiency."

There is no doubt that there is an backlash against the always-on lifestyle. And how is that backlash making its case? Why, online of course. There is a fine line between "passion" and "obsession." IMHO, the distinction is mediated more by shortcomings of the physical forms of the hardware we're forced to use (banging into keyboards all day long as opposed to something more humane) than by the desire to be more intimately intertwined with a broader swath of humanity.

If you'll excuse me, I'm going to check my email -- I'm expecting one from Addis Ababa.

Isn't that amazing?

Posted by: Patrick Hall | Apr 6, 2006 11:58:14 PM

In reaction to Joel Spolsky's article on human multitasking, because there is no comment system on his blog..

Actually the task-switch time is quite a bit smaller than his proposed 6 hours. Research on "Promiscuous Pairing" shows that the pair-switch rate of around 90 minutes is optimal. So an individual is working on a task for 180 minutes, in which he goes from beginner to expert state, and then switches to another task. This means that the human task-switch time must lie well below 90 minutes.

http://www.google.com/search?q=%22promiscuous+pairing%22

For readers who don't know 'pair programming'; It is the idea that splitting the burden of 'doing' and 'thinking' over two people helps with productivity and quality of the work. There was already some practical evidence that it improves quality. But the "Promiscuous Pairing" paper also shows that productivity can actually be improved by figuring out the optimal swap time for your team and project.

Posted by: Henk Poley | Dec 13, 2006 10:05:33 AM

Blah! When reading my previous comment back I found it described it very machine like and abstract (but it's the people, stupid!).

Well, read the paper and listen to the podcast about it on Agile Tookit.

Posted by: Henk Poley | Dec 13, 2006 10:09:18 AM

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