What is Intermittent Reinforcement?

This is some text inside of a div block.
November 11, 2022

Today, smartphones have given us a nearly unlimited supply of both positive and negative social stimuli. Every notification, whether it's a Whatsapp text, a DM on Instagram, or a Twitter notification, has the potential to be a positive social stimulus. 

Social media is a powerful tool for reinforcing desired behaviors, and when used correctly, they can be a great way to encourage people to repeat desired behaviors. One way that social media can do this is through the use of random reinforcement.

What’s random reinforcement?

Random reinforcement is a type of enhancement in which rewards are given randomly, without any pattern. This type of reinforcement can be used to encourage the desired behavior by increasing the likelihood of repeating this behavior.  

Thus, the power of random reinforcement lies in its ability to create a sense of anticipation and excitement. When users are randomly rewarded for their behavior, they never know when the next one will arrive. This can keep them coming back for more, as they wait for the next opportunity to receive the reinforcement. Likewise, this waiting situation can produce anxiety for the user as they continually anticipate the future and sometimes receive nothing in return for some time.

Why is social media a random reinforcement?

The use of random reinforcement has been shown to be effective in a variety of settings, including animal training and behavior modification. It has also been found to be effective in social media, with researchers in this area finding that randomly rewarding people for posting on a social media site led to an increase in the number of posts made.

In this way, social media is a type of random reinforcement because users are often rewarded with "likes", "comments" and "shares" for their posts, without any specific pattern. For example, when one refreshes one's inbox, sometimes, not always, there is a new message. You never know for sure when a new message (the reward) will come in, so the habit of checking all the time is reinforced. Same goes for getting new notifications or updates on social media.

This reinforcement also explains how one ends up wasting hours on their phone, as each reward gives a boost to the brain's pleasure centers that strengthen the behavior and keep the user going further down the rabbit hole.

How can we fix this?

Against the consequences of random reinforcement, one can decide to devote more time to living one's life and spend less time with one's smartphone. Therefore, here are some tips on how to make this happen:

  • Notice what triggers you: Self-check on your emotional and mental states that may be causing you to compulsively reach for your smartphone. Ask yourself these questions to identify what triggers you: “Am I feeling bored? Am I procrastinating about starting a difficult project or task? Am I avoiding an uncomfortable situation?”
  • Identify what provokes you: Researchers show that high-intensity emotions like anger or frustration can lead to distraction, so you need to pay attention to what situations or even people are triggering you the most.
  • Being self-aware: This will make you consider other ways to deal with the situations besides keeping your head down in your smartphone. The goal here is definitely not to eliminate your emotions, but find alternative ways to act that can better serve your purpose.
  • Create boundaries around technology: This will be the final step in releasing yourself from the cycle of smartphone obsession. Even if your job is related to checking your phone/email first thing in the morning, maybe try removing the social media apps that can distract you.

By creating these proactive guidelines that explicitly tell you when, why, how you will engage with your smartphone, you are accepting personal responsibility in taking priorities into life.

To conclude, some questions you may find useful that will help you identify whether these habits are leading you to success in life or holding you back:

  • Is this the best use of my time?
  • Am I missing out on something else by doing this?
  • How is this contributing to my goals?