Several months ago, I deleted the Facebook app from my phone. I like Facebook, but I really felt like I wast checking the app too often, nearly every time I picked up my phone.

The problem is that once the Facebook app was gone, I found myself checking Instagram. In just a day or two, I had completely replaced my Facebook habit with Instagram. In the end, i had to delete Instagram, too. But it’s not hard to guess what happened next. One by one I began deleting the apps that I checked too often on my phone: Twitter, YouTube, Quora, even LinkedIn. Eventually I ended up with a sparse home screen with just the bare essentials like Notes, Calendar, and Kindle.

My instinct was to CHECK something, anything, and there was always an app to fill the void. What strange force compelled me to keep checking?! When I look back at the graveyard of apps I had removed, they all had the same thing in common: variable rewards.

Millions of people are checking, checking, checking their phones, driven by a powerful psychological concept, an internet distraction engine called variable rewards. Today I’m going to explain what variable rewards are and the 3 important steps you need to take to stop checking your phone.

Note: I’m going to take you through a detailed history of variable rewards, but if you’d rather skip to my tips you can just click here.

What Are Variable Rewards?

Let’s just start with a definition: Variable rewards are psychological benefits that we achieve at unpredictable intervals as a result of performing an action.

We’re all familiar with simple rewards systems because we interact with hundreds of them on a day to day basis. A simple reward equation might look like this:

If I do X, I receive Y.

If you exercise, you feel satisfaction. If you go to work, you get paid. But of course psychological rewards are even more subtle than that. For example, maybe a co-worker makes offensive jokes because the psychological reward is attention from colleagues. Psychological rewards can be very subtle, and unique to individuals and their circumstances. Many, if not most, of the psychological rewards that we experience are completely imperceptible to us. They just happen.

So what do we mean by “variable”? Variable, in this case, means unpredictable or with random frequency. In order to have variable rewards, we have to change the rewards equation slightly:

If I do X, I might receive Y.

Whereas the simple reward equation reflects causality, the variable rewards equation is overshadowed by a cloud of uncertainty. And this uncertainty makes all the difference.

The Discovery of Variable Rewards

The story of variable rewards begins at the now-famous Harvard pigeon lab around 1950. The lab conducted behavioral experiments on pigeons under the oversight of esteemed psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner, commonly known as B.F. Skinner. Skinner’s lesser know sidekick in the story is Charles Ferster, a young graduate student in the lab.

The Harvard pigeon lab was every bit of of the cozy but hectic quintessential scientific workshop you might imagine. Along with a flock of pigeons, there were drawers and cabinets of, in Ferster’s words, “springs, phosphor bronze, string, glue, bakelite, plexiglas, surplus relays, assortments of capacitors and resistors, cable clamps, lacing cord…and a host of the miscellany that seems to come in handy at odd times for unexpected uses.”

The setup was this: A sophisticated apparatus, consisting of electronic switches, motors and a phonograph, administered pellets to pigeons when they pecked on a disk. Another apparatus, consisting of a rotary switch and a typewriter mechanism, recorded the number of pecks. In all, the makeshift amalgamation of now-antiquated technology was truly impressive.

What Skinner wanted to know, and recorded with Ferster’s assistance, was how different types of rewards would affect the pigeons’ behavior. The actual reward—a food pellet—didn’t change; instead, the psychologists changed how often the pigeons received it.

When a pigeon pecked the disc and received a pellet, the reward was simple and predictable. And, because the reward was predictable, the pigeons only pecked when they were hungry. But Skinner and Ferster also recorded the fascinating change in pigeon behavior when the reward became variable: Not knowing when to expect the next reward, the pigeons pecked incessantly until they received it. The typically calm pigeons became feverish and unrelenting when the reward was no longer predictable.

Of course, humans react to variable rewards in the same way as pigeons. If the timing of our next reward is uncertain, we incessantly perform the action that will give us psychological satisfaction. The lesson from the Harvard pigeon lab is this: Variable rewards drive us crazy.

The Biology Behind Variable Rewards

For a deeper understanding of variable rewards, it’s useful to take a look at the actual physiology behind them; what is happening in our brains when we experience these rewards?

The research on the “rewards” center of our brains is closely tied to B.F. Skinner’s original research, and was conducted by James Olds and Peter Milner. For their experiments, they embedded electrodes in the brains of rats. When a rat pressed a lever, the electrode would deliver an electric stimulation.

Olds and Milner discovered that when the electrode was placed in a certain area of a rat’s brain, now considered the pleasure center, the rat would press the lever frequently for long periods of time. And by frequently, I mean 7500 times in just twelve hours!

Further research uncovered that the stimulation in the rat’s brains was due to the release of the chemical dopamine. Though you probably have a sense of what dopamine is, Bethany Bershire offers a thorough explanation:

“Dopamine is one of the chemical signals that pass information from one neuron to the next in the tiny spaces between them. When it is released from the first neuron, it floats into the space (the synapse) between the two neurons, and it bumps against receptors for it on the other side that then send a signal down the receiving neuron.”

If you want to get technical with all of the different parts of the brain, just Google “neuroscience and dopamine rewards.” Otherwise, it will suffice to know this: when we receive a reward, our brain releases dopamine and that changes the way we feel.

In a 2004 dopamine study, researchers at Vanderbilt University were actually able to measure levels of dopamine and to prove that dopamine significantly increased when people engaged in activities, like gambling, that offered unpredictable rewards.

Understanding the neuroscience behind variable rewards leaves us with an important takeaway: Different rewards can cause the same (or very similar) chemical reactions to occur in our brains, so variable rewards can be found all over the place.

Components of the Variable Reward

In order to identify variable rewards, it’s useful to breakdown the key components that make them work. Broadly speaking, there are 4 components of a variable reward: 1) Something Desirable, 2) Action, 3) Feedback, and 4) Variability. I’ll review each briefly here:

  1. Something Desirable: For most of the apps on our phones, the thing we desire is distraction. Most services offer slightly different desirable content to distract us. If you’re on YouTube, you want to watch an entertaining video. If you’re on Facebook, you want to see something interesting that your friend posted.
  2. Action: We want the desirable thing, so we take action to get it. For most of the social media platforms that we think of today, the primary actions are logins and clicks. This is how web services measure engagement in their apps, and this is how we earn the desirable thing.
  3. Feedback: After we take action, the app or website responds to our request. For example, when I login to Quora, the site responds with a feed of new questions and answers that I can read. Every action is logically tied to a result, or feedback, of some kind.
  4. Variability: If everything in the Facebook News feed had the same level of desirability, the feed would no longer be as compelling. Most of the online variable rewards we encounter are fueled by user-generated content, which creates natural variance in the desirability of the content. Other forms of variable rewards, such as video games, are deliberately engineered to specific ratios of high-desirability to low-desirability content. The important thing to remember is that variability is essential, because it elicits persistent action.

Where Are the Variable Rewards?

In the Information Age, we encounter dozens of variable rewards feeds and often on a daily basis. We’ve already discussed many different services that rely on variable rewards but I’ll make a longer list here, and try to categorize them so trends are more apparent.

How to Stop Checking Your Phone

There’s one clear giveaway that an app on your phone is using psychological variable rewards to lure you in: You feel like you need to “check” it in case you missed something. When you tell yourself, “I’m just going to check Instagram while I wait in line…” that’s a surefire sign of variable rewards. In my own life, I’ve identified three specific strategies to eliminate cell phone distraction.

1) Turn off notifications.

An important part of the habit cycle is the “trigger” that starts or re-starts the cycle. This is something that Nir Eyal discusses extensively in his book Hooked, and Charles Duhigg also addressed in his book The Power of Habit. As long as you have notification enabled for every app on your phone, you’ll have an unlimited supply of reasons to check it. I’ve removed every notification from my phone except for SMS texting so that I don’t deal with the many social networks demanding my attention.

2) Eliminate the variability of the rewards.

You may not need to remove all variable rewards from your phone; it may be enough to reduce or eliminate the variability. Remember, when the pigeons received a reward on a set schedule, they no longer felt compelled to check incessantly. We, of course, are more sophisticated than pigeons, but reducing variability will help nonetheless.

For example, you might a news digest like The Skimm. Unlike most news apps, which offer a constant stream of news stories for you to distract yourself, the The Skimm gives you a set number of stories to read. You read your stories, then you’re done—the variability is significantly reduced.

Another fantastic example is a service called Batched Inbox, which aggregates your email and delivers it at a set time. Instead of checking your email periodically throughout the day, you can eliminate variability by setting specific times that you want to receive your mail.

3) Eliminate the reward altogether.

One way to go about doing this is to delete any app that you check a little too frequently. Like I mentioned at the beginning of the essay, I deleted some apps from my phone specifically for this reason. For example, I noticed that I would default to watching YouTube videos when I was bored, so I deleted the app altogether from my phone. Note that I didn’t delete my entire profile—I still use YouTube on my computer—but now it can’t follow me around in my pocket.

I think it’s important to point out that most of our favorite services have tons of useful features, so sometimes we can still find them useful without the specific feature that creates the variable rewards. For example, I love using Instagram’s filters and it’s a great way for me to share photos of my kids with friends and family. So I decided to keep those features, while removing the “rewards”—I unfollowed everyone. Now when I open the app, I only see my own photos. Without a variety of new photos from my friends to act as a reward, I hardly check the app, but I can still use it to share photos.

Another excellent example of this is Facebook News Feed Eradictator, which is a Chrome plugin that removes your news feed when you login to Facebook on your computer. You can still search for your friends or message to see how they’re doing, but you won’t see the compelling rewards to fuel your distraction.

To Sum Things Up

The more you know about variable rewards, the more you’ll identify the many instances of variable rewards there are in your life. If you disregard them, you may find yourself mindlessly guided from one behavior to the next, subconciously chasing small psychological rewards. But if you take a deliberate approach, you can find simple ways to enjoy your favorite apps and technology on your own terms.

Max Ogles

Hi, I'm Max Ogles. I'm a behavior designer, entrepreneur, and writer focused on psychology, technology, and business. Read My Full Bio