Schedules of Reinforcement and the Systems That Keep Us Stuck

A behavioural psychologist, B. F. Skinner, used the phrase “schedules of reinforcement” to describe the relationship between our actions and the rewards we associate them with.

There are fixed-ratio schedules of reinforcement: rewards that are predictable. I know that every time I press this button, I get a cookie.

And variable-ratio schedules of reinforcement: rewards that are unpredictable. I know that if I keep pressing this button, at some point I’ll get a cookie.

Variable schedules of reinforcement are the most motivating. Think about it in terms of a slot machine: it would be no fun to play if you knew that you’d win every 15 times. That removes the magic and anticipation, and thus our motivation to play the game.

For better, and often, for worse, schedules of reinforcement are embedded in all areas of our lives. Look at social media. We check it obsessively knowing eventually we’ll get something good. Imagine how differently you’d interact with your Instagram account if your feed and notifications were only refreshed once a day. You’d only need to check it once a day!! Think about how that would shift the power from Facebook’s hands to yours.

Under a fixed schedule of motivation when the rewards stop, we stop pressing the button. Under a variable schedule of motivation, we’ll keep pressing the button long after the rewards have stopped, hoping something shiny is just around the corner.

Most of the systems (economic and otherwise) we operate within aren’t designed to help us thrive, they’re designed to keep us dependent on the system. They’re engineered to keep us pressing the button. If we’re not careful, this can separate us from our power and keep us from our work.

Having an awareness of both the systems you live in and the way you behave within them will help you show up and do the work, anyways.

You have agency.

Use it.

If you’re interested in reading more about this, Chapter 7: The Problem of Procrastination and Self-Control in Dan Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational, gives an solid overview.