The Gambling Industry’s Redemption

Slot machines are incredibly habit forming. Their designers know exactly why, and have fine tuned them with decades of work. The simple answer is that anything which reliably spits out a variable but always positive reward will be extremely addicting.

Now what if the people who designed slot machines designed another environment, like learning to play guitar or coding a computer program?

Imagine a facility where you could pay an hourly rate to learn guitar on your own. You would sit in a room made with a comfortable, relaxing atmosphere and focus on improving your guitar playing. Now here’s the catch.

At a random interval, an employee enters the room and compliments your progress. Or the notes you just played. They could sit beside you for a few minutes and offer encouragement, or high five you for all your efforts so far and leave. This would repeat with different staff for the duration of your stay. Maybe they promise you a reward if you practice continuously “for some length of time between thirty minutes and one hour” without telling you specifically.

But I think they could do an even better job. Adding in an occasional reminder of the intrinstic reward for learning guitar would be even better.

What comes to mind is an opportunity to play what you’ve been working on for a small crowd after your first session, and then again after your fifth or tenth (I’m not smart enough to know which is the best one). The response of the crowd would be the variable reward for playing and improving. Over time, practice and performance would be linked in your mind with a reward. And like a slot machine, you wouldn’t really know what.

But here’s the real story.

When you practice something on your own, how long you continue that habit largely depends on whether it is rewarding or not.

A person who picks up guitar and remembers only frustration (memory is key) before putting it down won’t be as likely to pick it back up the next day. And this will continue as long as negative associations build up.

My guess is that lifelong musicians have a steady stream of variable but positive rewards from their efforts. Just like a slot machine, if you went without a reward long enough, you would eventually stop pulling the lever.


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