Search This Blog

Monday, May 2, 2022

Random Rewards are Powerful... and Dangerous

 There’s a proven psychological effect in which a randomly-issued reward will generate a stronger “reward” impulse than a consistently-provided reward. Even if the consistent reward is more frequently provided and the rewards dispensed by either method are identical.

This is an important thing for all humans to understand. It’s

Important for introspection and reflection on the behaviors of others as individuals and on the flow of society as an aggregate of individuals.

It’s important to understand this effect and how it drives impulses in us, and around us. It’s important to understand how it alters our behaviors because, in my, granted very limited in scope and depth, observation is that people who understand and move through life with purpose tend to be more successful.

It doesn’t matter how one measures success - whatever goal you are seeking is more achievable when you understand yourself, understand the path between where you are and the goal, and when you understand those with whom you will interact along the path. 

The question then becomes - does their purpose align with their happiness or not? This is not a question that can be answered by anyone other than a person’s own internal emotional barometer. Those closest to them can, surely, identify when things induce unhappiness but the inner peace of happiness can only be identified and differentiated from contentment and inert apathy by the beholder.

Which brings us back around to the specific psychological effect of random rewards. If one is on their journey toward success and that journey is contra to their own happiness then the intermittent positive rewards along the path will induce a form of short term happiness that can be deceptive toward the long-term health. These short-term flares of dopamine can seem greater, and truly be more addictive, than a sustained level of happiness brought forth by a parallel journey whose goal is happiness.

It’s important to understand this effect on psychology and how it can alter your own views on the world to bring you short term positive feelings but it’s also important to recognize how it can undermine your long term well-being.

The classic example of this is an experiment with rats. Rats were given levers. One lever did nothing. One lever always dispensed a treat. One lever would randomly dispense a treat. Rats literally worked themselves to death pushing the random lever to get the next treat instead of just going to the treat lever.

A more overt and obvious analogy to the rats and the levers can be found with humans and slot machines. The “the next pull is a winner! I can feel it!” concept is this physiological effect working on the mind of the one playing the machine.

But overt gambling isn’t the only place this happens.

One example can be found in friendships.

A long, sustained and constantly-positive friendship is a valuable thing to have but they are often pushed aside when one of the friends gains a new romantic partner because the NRE (new relationship energy) is a disruptive, randomly-presented reward that gives a similar emotional comfort to the long-term relationship. 

It’s normal for NRE to disrupt a person’s life and existing relationships in almost all ways. Eventually the NRE interactions settle down into a “standing wave” of predictability and the psychological effect of randomness in the reward ceases, allowing the steady positive interactions to become ingrained in the return to normalcy. 

There are, however, people who get so distracted by NRE that, when it starts to become supplied regularly, they lose all interest in the steady-supply and MUST chase the “high” of the next random provider of attention.

This is a detectable pattern and one that can cause harm to everyone involved, hence the reason why it’s important to understand this psychological effect when it is present in others…

In a milder relationship example this can be found when an individual finds that they are always the one reaching out to others and that their efforts are often left unanswered for days or weeks at a time but, when the party finally reaponds, they feel obligated to keep trying; to keep the thread of friendship alive because the random responses push those psychological buttons.

This is why it’s important to understand this phenomenon in ourselves; we need to know when to let go of people who are nothing more than random reward distributors to us. We need to have the strength to see imbalances energy and walk away from it when it is unhealthy to us… and, in extreme cases, we need to be able to see a random reward giver as the abuser they are (not all random reward givers are abusers but it seems to be a psychological tool that all abusers instinctively know and utilize to their benefit). 

I want everyone I know to find their path to success and I want them to find a path to happiness and I desperately want for those paths to not conflict. I want them all to understand their own reactions to stimuli so that they can navigate our world and the interruptions to the paths we walk in the best way possible.

Most importantly, I want to make sure I always understand my own behaviors to ensure I never use this trick against anyone else. I don’t want to be a villain and the things that stick to my mind the most are those when I accidentally harmed others through my own ignorance or carelessness. I hope that being aware of mental processes like this one will help me better-attain that which I want from life while also allowing me to be a better person overall.

And no, despite the content about relationships, there is NOTHING in this post related to my relationship with my lovely wife. We’re good. I just think a lot about a lot of things and sometimes have to write them out to ensure they leave my squishy skull fat’s priority processing queue.