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I do not want to offend anybody; I just figured out that some Stack Overflow characteristics are similar to gambling.

I read an interview once with a psychologist explaining why people lose their salaries and ruin their lives with slot machines. She said that the main reason is that unpredictable rewards form addiction. When you play you never know if you will win. And this unpredictability makes it so attractive.

I recently read another interview with a documentary writer that described how old people are robbed in "excursion tours". The bus stops at an anonymous small village, and they are moved to a pub for many hours until they buy crap for thousands of dollars. They know it, they experienced it, though they attend it again and again. And she described the organizer's psychological tricks including "prizes". Attendants usually get some small prize, but not everybody or every time. The film showed how this uncertainty influences people.

I can feel some addiction and withdrawal symptoms as well. It is tempting to build my reputation. But answering is like a contest – who will be faster? Who will write a better answer? But there is no straight rule that your work will be rewarded. The OP may leave his question without acceptance, he may choose the faster reply, the longer reply, the better answer, or even later AND worse answers. Or you may spend a lot of time chatting with him to identify his problem, but he accepts a similar answer from somebody else.

When such injustice happens, it makes me find another question that I am able to answer. The next time I must be successful. See? It is the same as in gambling – it is hard to stop when you are losing. I think that if all answers were automatically awarded, then SO would not be so attractive (or addictive).

What do you think?

UPDATE:

There might be one thing to improve in SO. People shall upvote good answers that were not awarded yet, so their authors will know that their work was not useless, and somebody appreciated it.

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I have read the "unpredictable rewards" theory before on meta. See for example this answer –  Martin Smith Mar 8 at 21:28
    
I think that if all answears were automatically awarded then SO would not be so attractive (or addictive). What do you mean by "automatically awarded"? (Do you mean that the highest voted answer after some amount of time gets accepted?)? I don't really understand the question or suggestion, in any case. –  David Robinson Mar 8 at 21:31
    
@MartinSmith yes, exactly, you described it in your linked asnwear perfectly. This is what I meant. –  Leos Literak Mar 8 at 21:34
    
@DavidRobinson Imagine that you would receive say 1 point for every answear automatically from system. If you can predict your reward then you cannot build your addiction. –  Leos Literak Mar 8 at 21:37
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@LeosLiterak: That sounds like a very poor system- bad answers would be rewarded exactly as much as good answers. Is your suggestion that SO should switch to that system? If so, why is making it less addictive an important goal? If not, what is the reason for thinking about it? –  David Robinson Mar 8 at 21:39
    
I do not propose anything. I wanted to know if people feel it similarly. –  Leos Literak Mar 8 at 21:41
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Thank you so much :) I am developing a loyalty and incentive programs to my department's employees (6k employees). This will give me some gooooooooood ideas to start with :) –  MeNoTalk Mar 8 at 21:46
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While you are criticizing the system, please check your own spelling and grammar. –  Brian J. Fink Mar 8 at 21:57
    
@brasofilo, my point exactly! –  Brian J. Fink Mar 8 at 21:59
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Paying attention to typos and making a big deal out of it, while leaving the main point of the question is silly. Perhaps the OP's native language is not English... let's discuss ideas not typos :) –  MeNoTalk Mar 8 at 22:01
    
@BrianJ.Fink Was your comment meant to me? Please read my first sentence - I did not want to criticize SO, I just described some points. And I am not native speaker. Did you think I am? Then my english is not such bad :-) –  Leos Literak Mar 8 at 22:02
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@BrianJ.Fink and brasofilo: there is an edit button that you can use to fix typos, comments are meant for other things :) –  MeNoTalk Mar 8 at 22:03
    
@MeNoTalk check my rep. I need at least 50 to edit someone else's post. –  Brian J. Fink Mar 8 at 22:05
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@LeosLiterak you have at least half a dozen mistakes left. –  Brian J. Fink Mar 8 at 22:07
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It appears @Nick has fixed the mistakes for you! –  Brian J. Fink Mar 8 at 22:21

6 Answers 6

While this is certainly true (and probably intentional) in this case it is addicting you to something which is (in reasonable doses) good for you. Thats because in this case there's something else to win besides rep points; heightened expertise and knowledge. I've learned a lot from being a part of stack exchange and that's worth a lot more than a few rep points. [No you can't have my rep points, they're mine! All mine!]

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and other wins like helping somebody (I built similar project 12 years ago for czech linux users). –  Leos Literak Mar 8 at 21:43

I think that if all answers were automatically awarded, then SO would not be so attractive (or addictive).

It would also not be so useful - which is really the best reason to not hand out points like candy...

Some Q&A and forum systems give you a score that goes up every time you post. It might not be called a score, but it's the number next to your name, so... It's your score. And so folks "win" by posting lots of stuff. The result is lots of noise.

We don't like noise here. Noise kills productivity. Noise is not useful.

The game part is a nice side bonus when it works, but let's try to remember that it's just that: a little game to keep us all entertained while we're doing something less immediately gratifying but far more important.

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Yes, I would say you are right in saying SO can be addicting (Actually, I had just been sitting on my front porch thinking about this.) However, unlike many other websites, SO has a very friendly atmosphere and contains upright users. And at least this "addiction" is better than many others out there. Gambling, as you pointed out, and also there are many video games that are very addicting and don't teach you very much, and even teach you wrong things. On SO, you are helping others and usually learning yourself. The desire for reputation also creates an atmosphere of competition, so users desire to "rise to the top" and by doing so they provide good, quality, content, and more knowledgeable users are also attracted (and the quality of the site increases even more).

Now as long as SO doesn't become so addicting as to ruin your life, I would say it is a perfectly fine thing to use. You're learning, helping others; so as long as it doesn't become the focus of your life, it's not really an "addiction". (Sports are almost completely competition driven, and they usually aren't considered an addiction; SO could almost be thought of as a "programmer's sport" if you wanted.)

If answers were automatically accepted (based on whatever criteria), people would figure out how to post poor answers to "tumbleweed" questions (for example), and have the answer automatically accepted. But as long as the OP has to accept the answer, answerers desire more to have their answer be the highest quality one.

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Not to trivialize your question, but... raspberry cordial is also addictive to some people. That doesn't mean we need to do anything about it.

But answering is like a contest – who will be faster? Who will write a better answer? But there is no straight rule that your work will be rewarded.

This not strictly like gambling because you have some control over the outcome. You can write a good thorough technical answer, keeping it concise and to the point. This sort of thing both increases your chances of getting up votes and of getting it marked as the answer.

Or you may spend a lot of time chatting with him to identify his problem, but he accepts a similar answer from somebody else....When such injustice happens, it makes me find another question that I am able to answer. The next time I must be successful.

This happens. A lot of people on SO have very few clues on how to programme, and even fewer clues on identifying the best answer, and care even less about the way Stack Overflow is supposed to work. When you target the low hanging fruit you will inevitably run into people like this. When I answer a question from a new user, I have no expectation of getting any "reward" whatsoever from the answer. You should adopt the same attitude.

You also need to stop chasing instant gratification and play the long game. You are not here to gain masses of rep in a very short time because in the real world the rep is worthless* - you can't exchange it for cash, girls are not impressed by it. As you build rep you also build your own knowledge in a myriad of ways - that is the real payback from this site.



*if you are lucky a potential employer may attach some value to it, but you should never assume it has any value at all.

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I think the idea behind the SO merit system is that when users prove themselves, they earn more privileges. I know how frustrating it can be to earn a rep in one community and be totally unrecognized in another; but the system is in place for a reason. I only concentrate on boards that I have knowledge in, ask questions when I need to, answer when I know the answer, and try not to make SO a life's pursuit.

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When you play you never know if you will win. And this unpredictability makes it so attractive.

This seems to be the thrust of your theory. Some other things that apply include:

  • eating wasabi peas
  • eating any food, actually
  • listening to new music
  • going on a date
  • going out for a walk and seeing a pretty flower
  • checking the weather
  • playing pretty much any video game ever, especially modern ones

Your problem is nicely summed up by Chris Wu via Farnam Street:

Like most good ideas, the Long Tail attaches to your mind and gets stuck there. Everything you take in—cult blogs, alternative music, festival films—starts looking like the Long Tail in action. But that’s also the problem. The Long Tail theory is so catchy it can overgrow its useful boundaries. Unfortunately, Anderson’s book exacerbates this problem. When you put it down, there’s one question you won’t be able to answer: When, exactly, doesn’t the Long Tail matter?

So yes, you made a connection. Good job, that's what learning is. But by itself it means nothing. Many things in life are analogizable to many other things; you must also tell when the analogy is useful enough to act on.

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