Behavioural science principles: provide feedback

Published by Tony Bartholomew on

Behavioural science principles: provide feedback and rewards

Table of contents

Why do it to yourself?

I have a love/hate relationship with dating apps. Having been single on and off for a number of years, there have been times when they have been the route to meeting some really interesting new people. At other times, they have been an energy-sapping reminder of how hard it can be to meet someone you really click with.

But what has surprised me most about dating apps is how, without some careful self-monitoring, they can become extremely addictive: scrolling through profiles, the confidence boost of receiving “likes”, the thrill of getting a match, the agonising wait for them to write back.

And it’s not cool to get addicted. That’s when I tend to delete the app.

close up of someone using a dating app on their phone

How am I doing?

What’s at play here? What’s going on in my brain that brings about these feelings of dependency?

As is often the case when you work at BAD, I soon realised the answers could be found in behavioural science insights – insights that are fundamental to many types of app design, not just dating apps. One of these insights goes like this:

We should give people feedback on their performance as they go.
Why? Feedback allows people to determine if they should re-evaluate their understanding or behaviour. (Hattie & Timperley, 2007)

We all instinctively know it’s good to feed back. It feels like we’re wired that way. Saying to people “you’re doing well – do more of this” makes them feel great. It’s something we talked about recently in another BAD blog and is a key part of employee engagement that we discuss with our customers.

When I’m on the dating app, and someone tells me they like my pictures, or think my profile is funny – or even just write to say hi and ask if I want to chat – it can feel amazing. There’s a sense of recognition, of validation, of reward. And rewarding users is at the very heart of good dating app design.

Am I losing my edge?

But hang on a minute. Behavioural science insights also state this:

We balance rewards with losses. We highlight what people stand to lose and play with the feeling of loss in games.

Why? We typically dislike losses much more strongly than we like gains, an effect called “loss aversion”. (Kahneman & Tversky, 1990, Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Cambridge University Press)

Loss aversion is powerful stuff. Research has found that this cognitive bias explains why the pain of losing is psychologically twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining. We play with this concept a lot here at BAD in our digital learning solutions, especially when it comes to strategic messaging and more gamified activities.

Put simply, it appears that as humans, we prefer not losing that £20 to finding that £20 on the floor.

This can feel counter-intuitive until you reflect, with honesty, on your own behaviour. When it came to the dating app, the particular one I was using played with this concept by only allowing a match between two people to last for 24 hours – and for heterosexual relationships, if the woman does not write within that time period, the match is lost forever (unsure how that plays out for same sex relationships). However, the man has the opportunity to extend the match for another 24 hours if he chooses to.

This is a clever play on aversion to loss – if I liked someone, we’d matched, but it didn’t look like they were going to message me, and if the time was running out, I would be tempted to hit the “Extend the time” button. And when it worked, the feeling of reward probably was stronger as I’d salvaged something I thought I was going to lose.

That is a clever bit of design.

However, no clever design can account for when someone on a dating app writes to you for a while and you’re close to arranging a real-life meet up but then suddenly they delete the app and disappear. 

Of course, they’re the people you often remember most. Behavioural science is annoyingly right about our minds being so affected by loss.

close up of person using laptop and abstract digital 'likes' icons

Where is my mind?

So what is happening in our brains with all this? Are we simply slaves to the dopamine hits that the dating apps are playing on?

To some extent yes, we are. We thrive on recognition, and dopamine is the chemical our brains use as a reward response. When it comes to being on dating apps, seeing the Likes mount up and the Matches taking place means receiving recognition and reward in much larger, more concentrated amounts than you would likely receive on any number of nights out in social settings. That is a heady amount of dopamine hits. No wonder it becomes hard to put the phone down.

Loss aversion is a little more complex, and a result of many factors, such as individual neurological makeup, your socioeconomic status and your cultural background. However, research has shown that particular areas of the brain are involved. For example, neuroscientists have seen that the amygdala – an area of the brain that handles fear – and the insula area, which reacts to disgust, work together and light up when an individual responds to loss. Indeed, the higher the prospect of loss, the more it becomes activated especially compared to an equivalent gain. (Hendricks, K. 2018, September 14) 

Which all starts to make me think that when I’ve used dating apps, I’ve been nothing more than a lovesick automaton being played with by a designer puppet master who knows their way around neuroscience.

Who’s in control?

Of course, we’re not automatons. We’re humans and we have choice. I am not really a slave to dating apps, or to dopamine – at least not all the time, anyway. There is also gin.

Despite enjoying the feedback and the rewards, and the thrill of averting loss, I use these apps sporadically. The truth is that very often, not very much at all happens when you’re on a dating app for a while. If the right people are not on there at the same time as you, then likes and matches are highly unlikely.

Another behavioural science insight talks about having a…

“… choice of reward for good performance. We value rewards we choose ourselves more than rewards chosen for us.” (Cockburn et al., 2014).

And that’s the thing. The mystery of human existence is that we do have choice – it comes from somewhere within us, despite our brain chemistry, our social background, our cultural context.

The dating app is merely a conduit – a very clever one that wants to keep you there. But in the end, it is down to me and the person I’ve matched with to decide whether we want to reward ourselves with an actual date.

It’s also up to me whether I keep going back to the app, or delete it.

I just need to decide on what I’ve got to lose.

If you’d like to explore with us how behavioural science insights can help you use feedback and rewards effectively in your digital learning solutions, please contact us here at BAD.

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