Motivating though a Variable Schedule (or Why I Watch Bad TV)


In what appears to be my continuing series on why I can’t stop watching bad TV, I may have finally nailed my compulsion. At first, I diagnosed it as my inability to say no. Then, realizing that a lack of willpower may not be the complete answer, I attributed my television habits to sunk cost where I continued to spend time so as to justify the time already spent. Now, I’m going old school with some classic behavioral psychology.

In the 1930s, legendary Psychologist B.F. Skinner introduced the concept of operant conditioning where a person’s behavior changes according to consequences associated with that behavior. For those of you who don’t recall your Psych 101 course, reinforcements are presented to motivate people to repeat particular behaviors. It’s like watching Seinfeld—every episode has a worthwhile movement (reinforcement) that compels you want to watch more (repeated behavior).

But what about the television shows that don’t have such a frequent payoff? Skinner would attribute this to its variable schedule, where the response is rewarded after an unpredictable amount of time. Case in point, I recently had the unfortunate experience of binge watching an entire season of a show that did not deserve so much of my attention. The first episode was enthralling, the rest were not. Looking back, I was on a variable ratio 120 (VR-120) schedule. This means I received reinforcement an average of every 120 minutes. That’s right, the show kept me interested an average of once every other episode—sometimes it reinforced after 45 minutes, sometimes I had to wait 180 minutes. The key is that the timing was unpredictable.

Which Came First, the Chicken or the Email?

If this sounds ridiculous, you may be interested to know that offering reinforcements on a variable schedule of rewards is the most effective way to motivate others. Just consider your email habits. Typically, you don’t know when you are going to receive a message so you check your email randomly throughout the day. Every time you check your inbox, a new message acts as a reinforcer for continuing to check your email. This never-ending cycle of checking and sporadically receiving emails feeds your compulsive inbox scrutiny.

Our brains are wired to search for the next reward. A recent neurological study found that our dopamine system works not to provide us with rewards for our efforts, but to keep us searching by inducing a semi-stressful response. We are addicted to the anticipation that comes with the next reinforcer, but we are not satisfied with attaining said reinforcer. As a result, we remain susceptible to a variable schedule of reinforcements to propel us towards the next reward.

How You Can Use It

Variable schedules are more than just an explanation for why I watched the first two seasons of Blacklist (and, who are we kidding, will watch the third). It is a powerful leadership tool that will ensure your incentives have the maximum intended impact to encourage others to repeat desired behaviors. Want to try to it?

  • Mix up your schedule. When you conduct your regularly scheduled office laps, do them at different times throughout the day. Chances are good that your team will work at a fairly steady pace throughout the day since they won’t know when you are popping in.
  • Give sporadic praise. Instead of offering praise on a predictable schedule, use a three-variable ratio schedule (VR-3). When they exhibit a behavior that you’d like to encourage, first provide reinforcement after the first time, then four, then two, then five. The instances between reinforcement varies, but there remains an average of three.
  • Keep meeting agendas interesting. When people attend meetings, there’s typically one item they find especially engaging. At the onset of the meeting, provide a bullet-list of agenda items in no particular order. Then, discuss the items in an unanticipated sequence.

In a rare instance of advice, try to be more like a bad television show. Use a variable schedule of rewards to provide an engaging, inspiring experience. Maintain consistency through clear direction with a clear vision and clear expectations but employ a less predictable method of motivating others. It will more effectively get you the results you want and may help you pick better television shows for your Netflix queue.

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