Trapped By Rewards

Person opens the luxurious gate, and when stepping into the unknown beyond, a completely new world appears. A stunning view is sculptured as the grandiose hall is entered; a novel landscape composing an ocean of endless possibilities. As the scenery is parsed, thoughts of joy, excitement, and success flood Person’s mind and expectations. The whole body is filled with an eagerness, to just dive in.

Where to head first? Poker or roulette table? Maybe blackjack? A subtle impulse steers Person deeper into the possibilities, slowly meandering past the various game tables. Finally, a decision is made. Standing in front of the slot machines, the first steps of the thrilling journey towards success can now be taken. A game mode is chosen, Person inserts 100 coins and presses the start button – the gambling begins.

Slowly the pace of the rapidly spinning slots are coming to a halt; the first slot stops, second slot stops, and *DING DING* – the now flashing screen displays the number 300. “Wow, already a win. I will be rich in no time!” – Person thinks as the button once again is pressed. The slots again slows down, one after the other, and *DING DING* – but no win. No money this time. “Well, I cannot win every time” – with a smile on his face, Person continues. The first slot stops, second stops, and *DING DING* – on the center of the flashing screen, 20. “Hmm, still better than nothing” – the slots are already spinning… It goes on: *DING DING* – 30, *DING DING* – no money, *DING DING* – 50… until suddenly: “INSERT MORE COINS PLEASE” – is prompted on the screen. “Oh, already empty? Well, I can do 100 more. I won a lot of times and one time quite big!” – 100 more coins enter the machine and the process continues.

Time passes, more and more is consumed, and so the coins. The feelings of excitement, joy, and success, that once existed, are now only a vague memory of a not so far past. Replaced by the vicious feedback spiral of instant gratification. Although Person long ago realized the fact that the imaginations of becoming a millionaire will never come true, the gambling still continues – mindlessly inserting coin after coin and pushing that button, again and again… The ocean of seemingly infinite possibilities was nothing but a mirage. A gigantic whirlpool of deception – where all streams eventually meet and the traveler gets stuck forever…


I don’t know what you think, but at least in my head, a somewhat negative feel surrounds the mere concept of gambling. It is commonly known that gambling can be dangerous since not only the games but the whole environment of casinos are carefully designed to exploit the customers – to make them hooked and to incentivize them to unconsciously make bad decisions.

What might be less commonly known is that some of the exact same mechanisms and methods are being used in the technology we use every single day. Let us re-read the story again, some details may have forgone our attention:


Person opens the luxurious wrapping, and when powering the new device, a completely new world appears. A stunning view is sculptured as the elegant home screen is entered; a novel interface composing an ocean of endless possibilities. As the interface is parsed, thoughts of joy, excitement, and success, floods Peron’s mind and expectations. The whole body is filled with an eagerness, to just dive in.

Where to head first? Exploring the web? Maybe some interesting articles? A subtle impulse steers Person deeper into the possibilities, slowly meandering past the various sites and applications. Finally, a decision is made. App X, is launched, the first steps of the thrilling journey can now be taken. An account is created and Person uploads a post – the gambling begins.

In steady pace scrolling, browsing is a fact. *Bzzt Bzzt* – a notification shows up: “Your Friend has posted something actually interesting. “Wow, already a win. I can keep up with the cool things in my friends’ lives!” – Person thinks as the browsing is resumed. After some scrolling, *Bzzt Bzzt* – another notification shows up: “Here is a notification of crap. Nothing exciting. “Well, that was unnecessary” – with a smile on his face, Person continues the scrolling. Ten minutes, twenty minutes, and *Bzzt Bzzt* – on the flashing screen: Someone liked your post”. “Whey, cool!” – Person hits a dab and the browsing goes on: *Bzzt Bzzt*comment, *Bzzt Bzzt*like, *Bzzt Bzzt* crap, *Bzzt Bzzt* follower, *Bzzt Bzzt* crap… until suddenly: “Oh, already 1 hour? Time flies fast, but I can do 10 minutes more until the shift of the hour.” – and the process continues.

Time passes, more and more is consumed, and so the energy. The feelings of excitement, joy, and success that once existed, are now only a vague memory of a not so far past. Replaced by the vicious feedback spiral of instant gratification. Although Person long ago realized the fact that the imaginations of inner ambitions will never come true, the browsing still continues – mindlessly spending minute after minute browsing and scrolling… The ocean of seemingly infinite possibilities was nothing but a mirage. A gigantic whirlpool of deception – where all streams eventually meet and the traveler gets stuck forever…


The exact same story may be told with another context and it can dramatically change how it is perceived. In this case, the first version carries a stigma. Here in Sweden at least, casino activities are regulated by law, and to run a business a license is required[1] – because it is known to be addicting and may cause unhealthy behavior. The second version, however, portrays a scenario many consider to be somewhat normal nowadays. Nevertheless, in both scenarios, the same underlying mechanisms are in play.

First, although it may seem like Person ends up at the slot machines by chance, that is not the case. When Person gets that subtle impulse to steer deeper into the possibilities – it is because the casino wants it. Casinos are deliberately designed to incentivize the customers to act in a specific manner. In the same way, when browsing apps or sites; everything is carefully designed to push our attention in certain directions. To make us click on particular videos – to make us end up at specific places. We, humans, always have the feeling of making conscious decisions according to our own will, but in reality, we live most of our lives on autopilot and simply follow the carrot in front of us[2, 3]. Instead, we are very good at coming up with rational causes of our decisions after they are already made[4].

So, it was planned all along that Person eventually would end up at the slot machines. In fact, the slot machine is one of the best money thieves and can form up to 70% of a casino’s revenue[5]. Yet, it seems very unintuitive how such primitive, solitary game machines can be the reason for such remarkable profits. How can these obviously rigged machines be so addicting?

As you can tell, the temptation of the huge jackpot is not the hook. Although Person realized that the machine was rigged the gambling still goes on and on. The jackpot is just the bait to attract the prey. The real hook is the feeling of getting into a flow state of mind with a never-ending loop of instant feedback[4]. Maybe you noticed, the same *DING* sound is given regardless of the outcome of the game. That is one trick to condition our brain, to hijack our reward system by giving the feeling of a secure, fast, instant reward. An eventual reward is certain, while the exact value of the reward is uncertain. This leaves an element of surprise which also acts as a hook. By establishing an instant feedback loop we enter a state of flow. A state where we neither need to think nor put any effort, but still get rewarded whilst the time flies. It is a private zone disconnected from the rest of the world.

Slot machines everywhere

In the second version of the story, App X, is used as an example, but I am sure you are familiar with tons of other apps that easily can be applied as a substitute. If you start to look around, there are slot machines everywhere, nested inside multiple layers of our digital society. Let us imagine this digital world as a three-layered cake of sweet, delicious addictiveness:

On the bottom layer, we have the foundation, the physical devices such as phones or tablets; and if we examine the notification system itself, we can discover that it contains the sweet taste of uncertainty. All notifications come with a vibration plus a sound, no matter the source. Some notifications are of actual relevance to you, but you cannot distinguish if the next one will be. That leads us to addictively check all notifications as soon as they arrive – in the first post we already discussed how damaging that can be for our attention span.

Then we have all the delicious filling in the middle layer. The cake is stuffed with loads of programs and apps. Many of them are fundamentally designed to hook you, exactly like a slot machine, Tinder is an obvious example – enter the zone of endless swiping and hopefully get rewarded with a match. Furthermore, games like Candy Crush for instance. Games without an ending; an infinite number of levels but without a continuously increasing difficulty. It puts you into this state of flow by letting you complete level after level and get rewarded without the need of adding more effort.

Finally, the topping – and we all know that one can never get put too much of that. Most of the software consist of a compound of multiple functionalities and each part can of course be decorated with an extra dash of the irresistible taste of slot machine. For instance, infinite scrolling or autoplay can be sprinkled almost anywhere in any app to induce the instant feedback loop. You never know the exact value of the next content you browse: episode, video, post, game level, etc… so it always makes you want – “Just a little more”…

So, What’s The Gist!?

In a previous post: The World Is Conquered By Stealing Sweets From Children, we discuss manipulation and deception. This post intends to give one example of how it can be conducted.

Stories and narratives are some of the most powerful tools to influence the world and our lives[6]. But the same stories can be molded in many different ways to make sure they align with specific values and desires. It is all a matter of framing – which stories are told and which are not. Stories of gambling frighten us while stories of everyday technology are seen as normal – although they are the same, only the framing differs.

Slot machines are the most dangerous and addicting games residing in a casino. Still, we allow private slot machines to live in our pockets. Often, the so-called communication devices, instead of helping us to reach outwards to explore the endless possibilities the world offers – it turns us inwards, to our private zones of instant feedback loops in solitude.

~ and the traveler gets stuck forever…

Written by Anton


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6 thoughts on “Trapped By Rewards

      1. It’s just a token of appreciation bloggers circulate among themselves in the blogosphere. Now that I have nominated you, you can choose to accept or reject it. If you decide to go ahead with it, you get to tag bloggers for the same tag who you think have inspired you (provided you follow the rules). I hope that made it clear! You can read some random award or tag posts for more clarification!

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      2. I more than grateful of your nomination. However, I think I would prefer to not post anything else than the “Gist”-posts. But if you want, I can still answer your questions. (:

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