A better addiction

My first year in undergrad I was like many first year college students. I had been spoon-fed information during high school, so I didn't study much when I hit college - not having developed these habits before then. This resulted in a rough first semester. (If you or someone you know is getting ready to enter college next year, probably the most important lesson to learn is to become personally responsible for learning most of the information. That's a good thing, and it's a shame this is a lesson most kids aren't learning until college.)

In one of my classes, Intensive Writing, I procrastinated turning in most of the assignments. The professor told us we would have a surprise prompt for the final exam, but gave us some direction before about what kind of prompt it would be. I mulled over what she told us, knowing that if I didn't get a good grade I'd fail the class, based on my performance thus far. When I got to the classroom for the final, the professor confessed she had also procrastinated: she hadn't graded our assignments as we'd turned them in. She admitted she didn't have the time to grade all of the assignments before grades were due, but she did have enough time to grade some of them. She threatened that anyone who blew the final exam would get their old papers graded as well, which for me meant extra pressure to get a good grade on the final - and to make the impression on the professor that this was one student whose papers she didn't need to go back and grade. The prompt? 'Using the tools we've developed during the course of the semester, explain what you've learned in this class.'

I had the perfect first sentence for my essay: "After careful consideration, I have concluded I learned nothing in Intensive Writing this year." Although I wrote well, I admit I was nervous to get grades back given that opening sentence. I used onomatopoeia, alliteration, assonance, allusion, and really crushed that essay. But the subtext was that the whole class was just a refresher course on stuff I'd learned elsewhere. It was not substantively flattering.

I got an A in the class.

This same semester I took a psychology course, where the professor put up weekly end-of-chapter quizzes online. Each chapter's quiz became available at the end of the week, but none of the quizzes had a due date. Or rather, the end dates for all the quizzes were set to just before the final exam. Naturally, I procrastinated finishing any of them until the week before they were due. This was folly.

I spent the week before finals reading the entire textbook from cover to cover (along with catch-up from all my other classes). I completed each end-of-chapter quiz as I finished the chapter, plowing through 5-7 textbook chapters a day. This is not a strategy I recommend, but it did teach me how to study and greatly improved my performance in subsequent semesters.

This brings me to the impetus for this post's title. During my read-through of this textbook, nearly twenty years ago, I came across a gem of an experiment some psychologists did on birds. (I'm working from a memory that's nearly two decades old, so forgive me if I get some details wrong.) They had three different experimental groups under the following setup:

The birds had a button they could peck that gave them a treat. The birds liked this treat, so they'd peck the button to get it. The researchers, however, could set the button to only give the birds a treat at certain intervals. The first set of birds got a treat every time they pecked the button. The second set got a treat at set intervals, meaning they had to peck a few times before getting a treat delivered. The third set of birds got treats at random. This meant that sometimes the birds got two treats in a row, while other times they had to peck a dozen times to get a treat to come out.

Then they stopped giving the birds treats and measured how long it took the birds to realize the button didn't give out treats anymore.

The first group of birds realized pretty quickly they weren't getting treats and stopped pecking the button. The second group took a little longer to realize it, and pecked two or three times as long, but gave up after a dozen or two pecks yielded no treat. The final group continued to peck for the duration of the experiment, at which point the researchers stopped after tallying more than 25,000 pecks! (I assume they had some automated counter on the button.)

I've often thought about this experiment as the psychology of gambling has been steadily expanded beyond the casinos of Las Vegas and into my own pocket (via smartphone - and no I don't use gambling apps, I'm talking about the psychology of gambling, not the traditional manifestation of it). Many services rely on being occasionally-reliable, whether it's as a source of information, entertainment, or the perception of social connection. There's a reward, but it's not consistent. With the advent of cell phones and the internet, my opportunities to peck the button have expanded to the entire day.

My wife has a name for the popular trend of awful mobile phone games: tappy crack. I think that's an appropriate moniker for most of the cell phone experience. Yet I don't get rid of it, because it really does give me some beneficial things from time to time. What to do? Personally, I try to remember that I'm not that different from the birds.

I know that if I continue in my same routine, I'll keep doing the same thing over and over again long after the reward has been shut off. I try to periodically reevaluate my routines to determine whether I'm still getting value from them. For example, I've decided most prediction-based 'news' is too failure-prone to waste time on. Other things don't provide any reward at all for long stretches, but when they do there's content of value, so I keep them in the queue. (Dan Carlin of Harcore History knows he produces content less consistently than I do, but it's always high quality so I keep pecking that button.)

Perhaps you've wondered the same thing about this blog. Specifically, that the content has not been coming at a consistent interval, so is it worth coming back? I'm sorry for the long hiatus. If you're like me, some of you will have stopped coming long ago, realizing the posts had stopped coming. I'd apologize to you, but since you're not here anymore I can't really do that. There will be a new post soon. In part the delay was due to a perfect storm of lots of personal things (including my grandmother coming to live with us for a few months - she has severe dementia, so it was an interesting experience). The storm seems to have passed, and NaNoWriMo is over. (I finished, with just under 65,000 words for November!)

I know some of you have become regular readers, and the conventional wisdom is that it's a bad idea to stop writing for a few months because you'll lose readers. Given the bird story from above, that wisdom may not hold too well. I'd personally rather have posted a lot more over these past months, as many topics came to mind. I honestly didn't have the time.

But if I were a devious type of person, I might have pursued the same strategy. (Though I probably wouldn't have told you about it if that were the case.)

I know I post at random. That's not by design, but by necessity. I hope to put out quality content every so often, so it's worth it to keep coming back here. Even so, I'd suggest reevaluating your routines from time to time, just to make sure you're still getting the rewards you expect.

(For other things - not for this blog. Keep me in the queue!)


  1. Congrats on 65k words for NaNoWriMo! That's very impressive.

    As far as the other thing you're talking about, I've always heard labeled as "Variable response conditioning" though when I search on that it appears that I'm close to the only one.

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