Intermittent Reinforcement: How to Get Addicted to Good Habits

Burrhus Frederic “B.F.” Skinner was a professor of psychology at Harvard University from 1958 to 1974. He is considered a pioneer of modern behaviorism and one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century1.

One of Skinner’s most important inventions was the “Skinner box”; a device used to study the effects of reinforcers on lab animals. The rat in the box had to figure out a task (like pulling a lever) that would give it a reward (like food)2.

This automated system allowed Skinner and thousands of his successors to study behavior in a controlled setting. And years of research into reinforcement have found that consistency and timing play vital roles in shaping new behaviors.

Continuous vs Intermittent Reinforcement

The best way to learn a new behavior is through continuous reinforcement, in which the behavior is reinforced every time it occurs.

Meanwhile, the best way to strengthen an already established behavior is through intermittent reinforcement, in which the behavior is reinforced only some of the time.

Imagine, for instance, that you want to teach a dog how to sit. Initially, the best strategy is to reward every successful attempt. If you don’t, the dog might interpret the lack of reward as a sign of incorrect behavior.

But later on, when the dog knows how to sit, it’s a better strategy to reward it only some of time. By making the rewards unpredictable, you’ll make the behavior even stronger.

How so? When you reward a behavior only some of the time, you add the word “maybe” into the equation. And, in the words of neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky3, “Maybe is addictive like nothing else out there”.

Uncertainty Boosts Dopamine

In last weeks article, we learned that dopamine is released in anticipation of a reward:

Interestingly, if you add uncertainty to that same reward, those dopamine levels will shoot through the roof:

The higher the level of unpredictability of a reward, the more dopamine will come pouring into the brain.

So, if you’ve ever wondered why people in places like Las Vegas spend hours and hours playing casino games where they are extremely unlikely to win, this is the answer.

Casino games are carefully engineered according to intermittent reinforcement schedules that make them incredibly addictive.

Much like a rat pressing a lever in a Skinner box, a human playing a slot machine experiences a powerful surge of dopamine that makes it very difficult to stop.

The Habit Reward Lottery

Whenever you want to create a new habit, you can use these insights to your advantage through a strategy I like to call the “habit reward lottery”. It’s a fun and simple way to get yourself hooked on the behaviors you want.

The way it works is that you set up a lottery with prizes that align with your objectives. Let’s say, for example, that you want to become a good runner. In that case, your prizes might look something like this:

  • Water bottle
  • Pedometer
  • Heart rate monitor
  • Running shoes
  • Entry to marathon (Jackpot!)

Once you’ve established your prizes, you write them down on winning tickets and mix them with a bunch of blank tickets. Then, each time you’ve completed your habit, you reward yourself with a ticket.

Whether or not your ticket is a winner, you can be sure that your dopamine levels will spike. And that, in and of itself, will make the habit much stronger.

Do you want to master your habits? Get my book The Habit Blueprint.

Footnotes

  1. B. F. Skinner
  2. Operant Conditioning Chamber
  3. Dopamine Jackpot! Sapolsky on the Science of Pleasure