Your Drug is a Heartbreaker



A while back, I remember feeling pressured to download Clash of Clans. It’s a freemium game on your phone where you try and level up your army and base. I never wanted to download it, but after enough people said I needed to join to play with them, I relented.

Up until then I felt pretty great. I was productive and ate healthy and slept early. Within one week though, I was completely wrecked.

Let me explain Clash of Clans a little bit. So in order to level up in the game, you need to attack another player’s base to steal their loot. A lot of the times though, their bases wouldn’t be worth attacking as they either don’t have any loot or it’s too well defended. So what happens is you end up hitting the “next” button to find an easy base with the loot you want.

I remember one night before going to sleep I hit the “next” button and found a jackpot: weak defense full of gold and elixers. After I attacked it, I was able to use the loot to upgrade my base and army. I went to sleep feeling good.

What I didn’t realize though, was that that was the moment I became totally hooked. I woke up at 3am kept hitting “next” until I found another jackpot. I never went back to sleep. I commuted to work, ate lunch, and spent the afternoon hitting “next.” While I was doing this, I could literally feel the addiction mechanisms being triggered in my head. It felt tingly.

I’m mostly back to normal now, but I’ve always wondered how I got so hooked. It wasn’t until I read this article about “Intermittent Variable Rewards” that I finally understood. So, apparently, random rewards are a powerful addiction mechanism. The article describes the process by citing a finding from Karen Pryor:

“A dolphin rewarded with a fishy treat every six jumps will soon become lackadaisical about the five in-between ones; reward it at random, however, and it’ll jump vigorously, never knowing which jump will bring fish. This is why slot machines are so addictive, and why we click compulsively on email and Twitter – not because we know we’ll be rewarded with interesting messages, but because we might be.”

In another article by my favorite online publication, Aeon Magazine, they pull from an even older study by BF Skinner:

“Skinner trained his birds to earn food by tapping the Plexiglas. In some scenarios, the pigeons got food every time they pecked. In other arrangements, Skinner set timed intervals between each reward. After the pigeon got food, the system stopped dispensing treats for, say, 60 seconds. Once that period had elapsed, if the bird pecked, it got another payday. The pigeons never quite mastered the timing, but they got close. Skinner would randomly vary the intervals between food availability. One time there’d be food available again in 60 seconds. The next, it might be after five seconds, or 50 seconds, or 200 seconds. Under these unstable conditions, the pigeons went nuts. They’d peck and peck. One pigeon hit the Plexiglas 2.5 times per second for 16 hours. Another tapped 87,000 times over the course of 14 hours, getting a reward less than 1 percent of the time.”

Clash of Clans turned me into that crazy pigeon! Damn! Naturally, after finding this out, I became curious about what other areas this mechanism touches.

A few months ago, there was an episode on This American Life called “What’s Going On In There?”

In the first segment, there was a teenage girl who met an older guy that later became her first boyfriend. He was all of the things she wanted: charming, funny, smart, made her feel safe, made her feel like she was the only person in the world. Here’s what she said:

“He also made you feel like you were special, like you were wanted. He was actually putting some effort into it. He would text you back. He would pick you up from the school. He didn’t even try to kiss you the first time you hung out. The poems, the song, the rap he made on Facebook”

Then he started disapproving of her going to school. And before she knew it, she was in an abusive relationship.

“He was verbally abusive way before he became physically abusive. He talked to me so nasty that I could feel it. The bruises clear up, but the words stick with you, and they change how you act. He would tell me, you’re boring, you’re awkward, you’re the weirdest of the weird. You’ll never fit in anywhere.”

She tried to leave him after he got physically abusive.

“After that happened, he and I didn’t talk for a week. Then he showed up in my school. He had this really sad face on. He brought me a burger. He doesn’t know how to say sorry. So I guess the whole act was kind of like an apology. We walked around the neighborhood for a couple of hours.

He played one of those toy vending machine games with the arm and he got me a baby blanket with a dog head and tail. It wasn’t much, but the look on his face was just so sad that, I don’t know. It convinced me to go back.

He was overly nice at first– extra big smiles, longer kisses. But then he started talking about how you got to put your girl in her place.”

It was on and off, but it was always turned back.

“I know that in a lot of ways, he’s a really bad person. But I know that he could be a good person. No one’s all bad.”

When asked why she stayed in this abusive relationship, she said:

“I mean, I do, and I don’t understand the answer because it doesn’t make sense why being happy 5% of the time makes you stay. I don’t know”

I think that 5% is really all it takes. There are probably other reasons, I’m sure, but putting up with an abusive relationship where she doesn’t know what to expect just for that 5% of the time he was charming and nice sounds a lot like what happened to that dolphin or those pigeons. Maybe she was addicted?


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