What separates hooks from a plain vanilla feedback loop is their ability to create wanting in the user. Feedback loops are all around us, but predictable ones don’t create desire. The predictable response of your fridge light turning on when you open the door doesn’t drive you to keep opening it again and again; however, add some variability to the mix—say a different treat magically appears in your fridge every time you open it—and voilà, intrigue is created.
- The third step of the hook is the reward phase, and when we talk about rewards we have to talk about the brain. And in particular, an area of the brain that we call the nucleus accumbens. Now it turns out that we don't need electrodes in people's brains to activate their nucleus accumbens because your nucleus accumbens is activated every single day with things like junk food, sex, luxury goods, certain chemicals, and of course our technology. All of these things stimulate the very same part of the brain every single day.
Now it turns out that simply stimulating the nucleus accumbens that there's more to that story, that there's actually a way to manufacture desire, to actually increase this wanting, this craving response. And it turns out that the way to do that is to increase the variability of the response, of the reward. Why does this happen? Well, what we now know is that variability, a bit of mystery, spikes activity in the nucleus accumbens, and creates this desirous response, this wanting, this craving reflex.
And so in all sorts of products and services, offline and online, wherever we see products that capture our attention, that hold on to our focus and won't let go, you will find these variable rewards. And these have existed for a very, very long time. It's built into our DNA. It's what kept us chasing after prey. It's what makes romance fun. This bit of variability, this bit of the unknown is what makes us human. It helps us survive. It's also what makes many products and services so engaging.
And so fundamentally there are three types of variable rewards, and we see them all around us in all different kinds of products and services. All of these habit-forming technologies, these habit-forming products, have one or more of three types of variable rewards. What I call, rewards of the tribe, rewards of the hunt, and rewards of the self. Let me walk you through these three real quick. Rewards of the tribe are things that feel good, that have this element of mystery, this bit of uncertainty, but come from other people.
So the search for empathetic joy. If you've ever told someone a joke and you kind of can't wait to see if they got the joke, 'cause it feels good to make them feel good, to make them laugh, that's empathetic joy. Cooperation, competition. All of these things have this element of mystery, this element of variability, feel good, and come from other people. Best example I can think of online, of course, is social media. When you open up your Facebook app and you start scrolling through your feed, you're not sure what you're going to find, right? What videos might you see? What pictures did people take? What do the comments say? How many likes does something get? High degree of variability when it comes to engaging with a product like Facebook.
Next comes rewards of the hunt. Rewards of the hunt are all about the search for material possessions, or resources. So this comes from our primal search for food, shelter, clothing, this kind of base level need for material possessions. So that interestingly enough, it's also today about information. And in modern society, we translate getting these things, food, shelter, clothing, information, through money. So when many people think of variable rewards, the classic example is slot machines.
So what makes slot machines so habit-forming, if not for some people all out addictive, is this variability, this uncertainty. When I pull that slot machine, or play one of these games of chance, I'm not sure what I'm going to win. Do I win a jackpot? Do I lose my money? What's going to happen? There's uncertainty there, and that keeps us engaged. The same exact dynamic is seen online. When we think about the feed, have you wondered why is it the feed? Isn't everything today? Everything online, particularly when it comes to our mobile interfaces, seems to have this feed mechanic.
For example, LinkedIn. When I open up the LinkedIn app, maybe I'll see the first story on that app is not that interesting, the second's not that interesting, but maybe the third story is very interesting. And what do I have to do to get more of that interesting content? Well, of course, all I have to do is that simple action, that habit, of a scroll. And that scroll uses the exact same psychology as pulling on a slot machine. Both variable rewards of the hunt. Searching, and searching, and never done searching for that next bit of information.
So that's rewards of the tribe, rewards of the hunt. Finally, rewards of the self. Rewards of the self are all about the search for things that feel good, that have this element of variability, but don't come from other people, and aren't about the search for material or information rewards. These are things that feel good in and of themselves. They're intrinsically pleasurable. It's about the search for mastery, consistency, competency, and control. Best example I can think of online is gameplay. So when I play Angry Birds, or Candy Crush, or Pokemon GO, I'm not playing with other people, I'm not really winning anything in terms of material possessions, but there's something fun and exciting about getting to the next level, the next accomplishment, the next achievement, and that's what keeps people coming back.
And I know many of you, you're watching today and you don't play any of these games. We're very serious business people. Of course we don't play these games. But I bet you one game you do play every day that utilizes this dynamic is your email. That need to check that unread message. Or that notification on your home screen that you just have to clear away. Or finishing the to-dos on your to-do list. All of these things utilize the exact same psychology, the search for mastery, consistency, competency, and control.
So fundamentally, what does all this mean, these variable rewards? Well, fundamentally it means that what you have to figure out as someone who's building a habit-forming technology, is to figure out how to give people what they want, how to scratch their itch, and yet leave a bit of mystery, a bit of the unknown about what they might find the next time they engage with the product or service.