Reinforcement Schedules: Variable Intervals WHAT? Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner, was America’s leading proponent of behaviorism throughout much of the 20th century. Much of Skinner’s work involved testing how organisms operated on their environments, and the learning that occurred as a result. (Passer, 2007). Out of these studies and observations, Skinner coined the term operant behavior. Patterns of reinforcement in our daily lives, Skinner termed schedules of reinforcement, and have predictable effects on learning, extinction and performance (Ferster & Skinner, 1957; Soto et al., 2006). Understanding reinforcement is as simple as understanding that when we do something, there’s a consequence. We put $1.00 in the soda machine and we get a drink. There’s also the chance that there are times when the machine breaks down and we don’t get anything for the $1.00 we put in the machine, though we expected to get a drink in return. This partial reinforcement wherein we don’t always get the typical response, can be divided into two different interval schedules: ratio (only a certain percentage of responses are reinforced—50% for example), and interval (time-sensitive) wherein a certain amount of time elapses before the next one. Several websites have used this type of reinforcement to encourage frequent checking in. Foursquare, and other location-based apps are a great example. Another is facebook, wheren users check frequently to see if friends have updated their status messages, added new features, or commented on their walls. Additionally, our own email clients are great examples of a service we keep coming back to. Whether it’s a reply to an important email, or just the knowledge that we may miss some important bit of news—we find ourselves hitting the send/receive or refresh button quite frequently.
Process @ Play: Variable Reinforcement Schedules Steepandcheap.com is fully aware that the variable interval schedule produces addictive behavior. They’ve turned this into a great marketing tactic by offering deals on partner sites. So, not only do customers check back frequently for steepandcheap.com merchandise, but also to see what the parter sites have to offer. Genius. Item limit and time limit varies per product. Fewer items and less time usually encourages visitors to buy now and check back often.
Application: Reinforcement Schedules Steepandcheap.com is a popular site among adventure enthusiasts—climbers, bikers, backpackers and even the average wannabe outdoors person like yours truly. Their selection of gear, from pocket knives to running shoes, to cycling jerseys, is typically 50% off the retail price. Deals change daily—hourly, in fact, so they can keep offering the “downright criminal” prices to their customers. The site’s “How to” section even notes the potential for addictive tendencies: Check SteepandCheap.com throughout the day to see what deal we have going. Check back often. Warning: It’s addicting (Steepandcheap.com, 2010).
The figure to the right shows how partial reinforcement schedules affect performance. Responding decreases immediately after reinforcement and then increases as the time for the next reinforcement approaches. (Passer 2007). SO WHAT? What does this mean for the real world? For steepandcheap.com? They have a good thing going. Customers know they have to check back, but they don’t know exactly when. This leads customers to keep checking back probably more frequently than if they knew that every 8am, 3pm and 8pm they would have to check back for a new deal. Part of the thrill is checking back every hour knowing that there may be something new to buy. And with quantities limited, you almost have to check back more frequently than every hour. What’s genius (but messes up the frequency) is that Google Chrome browser has a a countdown timer for steepandcheap.com when a new deal becomes available.
Examples & Recommendations: Reinforcement Schedules Offer UGC. Incorporate a twitter feed with #steepandcheap to cross polinate buzz. Based on last week’s lectures, UGC encourages users to check back for comments to their comments, or to see what the current conversation is. Guaranteed check backs. Incorporate facebook connect so you can easily recommend the page to your friends, or see what other friends have already come by. Build in SMS alerts for your mobile device. Offer an iPhone or Android app. The website says it’s in the works, but when?! This enables users to check the site from more than one device. Steepandcheap already provides RSS feeds, limited email blasts. Now you can check no matter where you are. Recommed other products after purchase. It’s the whole Amazon approach—viewers who viewed this product also viewed/bought these…
References Passer, Michael. Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behavior, 4th Edition. McGraw-Hill/CourseSmart, 12/31/2007. 229). YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V_iRM9DLNSA Steepandcheap.com http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reinforcement