Intermittent Reinforcement - Are You Addicted to Email and Smartphones?

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How email rules your life and conditions your behavior.

Nearly everyone has heard the terms positive or negative reinforcement, maybe even operant conditioning, but most are not aware of the term “intermittent reinforcement.”

What is Intermittent Reinforcement?

Intermittent Reinforcement is a term that originated from B.F. Skinner's theories on Operant Conditioning and Behaviorism.

Intermittent reinforcement is given only part of the time a subject gives the desired response. It is often used instead of continuous reinforcement once the desired response is conditioned by continuous reinforcement and the reinforcer wants to reduce or eliminate the number of reinforcements necessary to encourage the intended response.

How does this relate to today’s world?

Many people refer to their Blackberry as a Crackberry, and with good reason. It is obvious that many people are addicted to their Smartphone or electronic devices that keep them in touch with their friends, work, and family. Many people often check their phone the first thing in the morning and don’t put it down until they go to bed.

A recent article in the New York Times discusses the effect on the brain from remaining constantly connected. Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain -

Psychology and Email

Psychologists would label this addiction to email or information as ‘operant conditioning’; that is our behavior is shaped by its consequences; how what we do depends on the rewards and punishments of what we did last time. This topic is the heart of behaviorism, that school of thought which dominated psychology for most of the last century.

It was discovered that if you want to train an animal to do something, consistently rewarding that behavior isn’t the best way. The most effective training regime is one where you give the animal a reward only sometimes, and then only at random intervals. Animals trained with an intermittent reinforcement schedule, work harder for their rewards, and take longer to give up once all rewards for the behavior is removed. This is because even though the rewarding has stopped, the animal has gotten used to performing the behavior and not always getting the reward. The next time might always be the occasion that produces the reward, there’s never definite evidence that rewards have stopped altogether.

Checking email is a behavior that has variable interval reinforcement. Sometimes, but not every time, the behavior produces a reward. Everyone wants to get an email from a friend, or some good news, or even an amusing link to a Youtube video. Occasionally checking your email will get you one of these rewards. And because you can never tell which time you check will produce the reward, checking all the time is reinforced, even if most of the time checking your email turns out to have been pointless. You still check because you never know when the reward will come.

Just as in the past we used to run to the mailbox to see if an important letter has arrived even though 90% of the mail was junk or bills. Or always answering the telephone to see if a friend was on the other end, but this was before the days of caller ID.

People even go through their old email when they do not have a connection and often try to refresh their inbox to see when the connection is re-established.

While the research is just beginning, preliminary results show that memory is increased, stress levels are reduced, and productivity increases the more we stay disconnected from the Web. In the past, we used to take some down-time to relax or meditate, maybe now we just need to put down the laptop and cell phone for a little while.

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Posted on Sep 2, 2010