A couple of months back, I read Nir Eyal’s Hooked. I didn’t particularly get hooked to the book – it’s one of those books that should have been a blogpost (or maybe a longform article). However, as part of the “Hooked model” that forms the core of the book, the author talks about the importance of “uncertain rewards”.
The basic idea is that it is easier to get addicted to something when the rewards from it are uncertain. If the rewards are certain, then irrespective of how large they are, there is a chance that you might get bored of them. Uncertainty, on the other hand, makes you curious. It provides you “information” each time you “play the game”. And you in the quest for new information (remember that entropy is information?), you keep playing. And you get hooked.
This plays out in various ways. Alcohol and drugs, for example, sometimes offer “good trips”, and sometimes “bad trips”. The memory of the good trips is the reason why you keep at it, even if you occasionally have bad trips. The uncertain rewards hook you.
It’s the same with social media. This weekend, so far, I’ve had a largely good experience on Twitter. However, last weekend on the platform was a disaster. I’d gotten quickly depressed and stopped. So why did I get back on to twitter this weekend when last weekend was bad? Because of an earlier weekend when it had provided a set of good conversations.
Even last weekend, when I started having a “bad trip” on Twitter, I kept at it, thinking the longer I play the better the chances of having a good trip. Ultimately I just ruined my weekend.
Uncertain rewards are also why, (especially) when we are young, we tolerate abusive romantic partners. Partners who treat you well all the time are boring. And there is no excitement. Abusive partners, on the other hand, treat you like a king/queen at times, and like shit at other times. The extent of the highs and lows means that you get hooked to them. It possibly takes a certain degree of abuse for you to realise that a “steady partner who treats you well” makes for a better long term partner.
Is there a solution to this? I don’t think so. As we learn in either thermodynamics or information theory, entropy or randomness is equal to information. And because we have evolved to learn and get more information, we crave entropy. And so we crave the experiences that give us a lot of entropy, even it that means the occasional bad trip.
Finally, I realise that uncertain rewards are also the reason why religion is addictive. One conversation I used to have a lot with my late mother was when I would say, “why do you keep praying when your prayers weren’t answered the last time?”. And she would quote another time when her prayers WERE answered. It is this uncertain reward of answers to prayers (which, in my opinion, is sheer randomness) that keeps religion “interesting”. And makes it addictive.