Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

The Cure for Addiction


Only recently, while researching, I was reminded of something I’d learned long ago, in fact, a very basic finding of psychology. It’s simply this: the natural tendency of creatures to become addicted though random, that is variable, reinforcement. Here’s a summation from Wikipedia: “The variable ratio schedule produces both the highest rate of responding and the greatest resistance to extinction (for example, the behavior of gamblers at slot machines).”


I wonder how much of our behavior—even if not overtly addictive—is determined by random reinforcement? Certainly, it would seem sex is, especially throughout our evolution. This is why I believe we’re built for addiction. If there’s one constant about sex, in humans, it’s its inconsistency. It is the perfect activity to become addictive through random reinforcement. One might even wonder if we were hardwired for random reinforcement so that the drive for sex would be successful for our survival.


Sex, of course, is a big deal. So is drug addiction. Yet, it’s likely that the most common addiction (in terms of the total number of events per day per person) is—wait for it—email!


The big distinction between regular mail and email is that regular mail is delivered daily, i.e., on a schedule. Email’s most outstanding feature is not that it’s nearly instantaneous but that it’s continuous—arriving 24/7 in varying amounts and varying time gaps. It has no schedule. But there’s nothing that says your response to either regular or electronic mail must be direct, i.e., an immediate reaction to its delivery. Just because email is continually arriving at your inbox, doesn’t mean you have to react continually. First, you don’t need to be aware of its arrival. Next, you can impose your own schedule for reading and responding. The same is true for regular mail: just because it arrives every day, doesn’t mean you have to read/respond to it every day. In fact, I get my regular mail twice a week, sometimes once. And my email? Once, maybe twice a day. My time, my schedule.


But the real question here is: Now that I’ve told you why you’re addicted and how to avoid addiction, will you take action? Or maybe you’re one of those people who believes advice is worth what you pay for it and not, in fact, what you make of it. In that case, send me money and you can be cured.

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