No More Intermittent Rewards!

There’s this funny weakness we carry in our animal DNA: if you don’t reward us continuously – but only occasionally – we get addicted.

If you’ve seen the documentary The Social Dilemma, you’ve learned how Google, Facebook and Twitter keep us hooked on smartphones. But big tech weren’t the first ones; they borrowed their tricks from the slot-machine and online-gaming industries of the early 2000’s.

The method is called “intermittent reward,” and it’s genius: it’s not based on regular payoffs (say, winning every 100 times we play the slots, or every 20 minutes)… but on inconsistent reward schedules. So we keep playing… certain we’ll eventually figure out — and beat — “the system.” It’s our confidence in our own cleverness that keeps us stuck!

The real pioneer here was the American psychologist B. F. Skinner, who performed groundbreaking research with lab rats back in the 1960’s. In his experiments, rats were put into a cage with a lever (nowadays called a “Skinner box”). At first, the rat might randomly hit the lever while exploring the box, and bing! out came a pellet of food. After eating the pellet, the rat hit the lever again, and received another pellet. Whenever an organism receives a reinforcer each time it displays a behavior, it learns to repeat that behavior… until it becomes a habit. Skinner termed this “continuous reinforcement.”

But when Skinner altered the mechanism so that pellets arrived only intermittently, the rate of activation increased. In fact, the rat kept pushing the lever over and over again. (Cut to any of us checking our social media for random “pellets” of attention all day long… and you get the idea of how far we’ve evolved.)

I bring this up today because I believe that almost all our relationships are inherently intermittent. Whether it’s with parents, jobs, companions, or even ourselves… it seems like we’re always waiting for that next big phone call, that missing compliment, apology, or payoff….

Then, one day, ahhh… we can no longer stand the ups and downs, the games, the sitting by the phone. We’re tired of accepting breadcrumbs. We’re tired of the narrow focus. We see that, no matter the cost, we can no longer give our hearts to that which is intermittent, which comes and goes.

Now, it’s not easy to find the JACKPOT. The relationship we’re looking for has to be both rewarding and continuous, something that doesn’t ever leave us, that’s always HERE – no matter what. But if something is always and everywhere, like the air we breathe – how would we even notice it? Our brains have evolved to register differences, movement, and change… not constancy. Somehow, this consistent relationship will have to be noticed in a new way. Like watching oil being poured from an endless can, we’ll have to be interested enough in the constant flow to focus only on that… and not get bored or distracted.

So hmm, we’ll need to adjust our attention. What would a “constant pellet” look like? It wouldn’t be visible (that would be temporary), so we’ll need a new measuring system. The senses won’t help us anymore… we’ll have to go past them. We’ll have to develop a sixth sense… some new kind of feeling. Duality won’t cut it anymore, we’ll need a purer consciousness here.

What we’re looking for is called “Wholeness,” friends… and the funny thing is, once we “find” it, we realize it was HERE all along… we just didn’t notice it before.

We were too busy being distracted by that lever thingy!

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