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Intermittent variable reward (IVR) informs us that behavior reinforced intermittently (as opposed to consistently) is the most difficult to alter or unlearn. Intermittent rewards beat predictable rewards - this helps explain why animal training is so effective and why slot machines are so addictive. IVR has also been linked to the "stickyness" of sites like Twitter and Facebook.

It occurs to me that SO may be sucessful in part because it applies IVR in its voting, reputation, and answer prioritization model. While this helps to create a vibrant and engaged community, it may also be harmful, in that it further amplifies an environment of constant disruption and interruptions.

I'm curious what other people think about this... and about how to balance the benefits vs. harms of participating in an engaging yet addictive online community.

I'm curious about:

  • How people manage impulse to constantly check, review new questions?
  • How often people find themselves distracted by SO when they should be otherwise occupied?
  • Has anyone experienced SO withdrawal after not visiting the site for some time?
  • Has anyone been harmed in their professional or personal lives from SO "addiction"?
  • How can an online site like SO continue providing value while managing the potentially negative consequences of psychological conditioning?
  • Is there even an ethical obligation for sites to influence how its community chooses to interact. For example, the 200RP daily cap indirectly influences how much time community members spend answering questions (since the rep reward phases out).
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You can manage the impulse to constantly check and review new questions? –  Michael Todd May 14 '10 at 16:11
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How would any of us know if anyone has experienced SO withdrawal after not visiting the site for some time? ;) –  Bill the Lizard May 14 '10 at 16:46
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@Bill -- I think I've avoided visiting the site for an entire afternoon once. :-) –  tvanfosson May 14 '10 at 16:56
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@tvanfosson: I'm going to need you to post emergency medical contact information in your profile in case you ever decide to try that again. You need to be more careful! –  Bill the Lizard May 14 '10 at 17:04
    
@Bill, if they tell you? I have suffer withdrawal if I know I'm going to be out of pocket for more than a couple of days. There are more dangerous things to be addicted to. –  IAbstract May 14 '10 at 21:49

1 Answer 1

How people manage impulse to constantly check, review new questions?

Generally, I don't manage the impulse. I just do it whenever I feel like it. However, I do not feel the urge to check SO when I'm away from my computer.

How often people find themselves distracted by SO when they should be otherwise occupied?

Daily

Has anyone experienced SO withdrawal after not visiting the site for some time?

not me

Has anyone been harmed in their professional or personal lives from SO "addiction"?

Probably not yet

How can an online site like SO continue providing value while managing the potentially negative consequences of psychological conditioning?

This will not be a popular answer, but one answer might be to cap reputation and replace it with a fuzzy description a la "Slashdot". Keep the badges, though, as they are typically not earned every day (at least not by me)

Is there even an ethical obligation for sites to influence how its community chooses to interact. For example, the 200RP daily cap indirectly influences how much time community members spend answering questions (since the rep reward phases out).

I've never come even close to hitting that rep cap. It seems like I spend a lot of my time dealing either with in-house developed libraries and with some new MS libraries that aren't widely discussed on SO.

Someone else mentioned "Variable Reward" in response to one of my questions ( What aspects of psychology does Stack Overflow take advantage of? ) and it really spooked me. It made me realize just how easy people (and I am a person) are to manipulate.

Now that I've given a good answer, I hope I get some rep for this... The thing that really spooks me about this is that not only does SO addict users with "Variable Reward", but the "Variable Reward" offered is has no intrinsic value outside of the site.

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Also, for an excellent critique of how Facebook works, see "You Have 0 Facebook Friends" on "South Park" (Can stream for free from southparkstudios.com) –  Rising Star Jul 14 '10 at 16:05

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