Monday, October 02, 2006

Operant Conditioning & Email Addiction

How often do you check your email? Are you constantly clicking over to see if you have any messages? When you've been away from your desk for a time, then return to it, is email the first thing you click on?

The good news is, you're not alone. The bad news is, you're an addict. Although email doesn't produce any chemicals in your brain or cause any physical change, an article on Mind Hacks says it's addictive nonetheless:
The key is what psychologists call 'operant conditioning'. This means the mechanisms by which behavior is shaped by its consequences; how what we do depends on the rewards and punishments of what we did last time... One surprising finding is that if you want to train an animal to do something, consistently rewarding that behavior isn't the best way. The most effective training regime is one where you give the animal a reward only sometimes, and then only at random intervals. Animals trained like this, with what's called a 'variable interval reinforcement schedule', work harder for their rewards, and take longer to give up once all rewards for the behavior is removed. There's a logic to this... Because 'next time' might always be the occasion that produces the reward, there's never definite evidence that rewards have stopped altogether... Email is addictive because it is a variable-interval reinforcement schedule.
The article goes on to suggest ways of breaking the addiction, but what's the point of that?

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