Performance and Addiction: an afterthought

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After writing my post last week about the way the intermittent responses you get as a performer play a key role in creating the desire to repeat the experience, I had a penny-drop moment about that whole psychological dynamic. We’re used to thinking about it in terms of its problem dimension – those addictions that get in the way of life, such as gambling or computer Solitaire.

But it struck me that these problems aren’t the norm for this kind of operant conditioning, merely some unfortunate side-effects. The difficulty isn’t the psychological effect of intermittent reinforcement, it’s when it occurs in overly simple contexts in which you have little control over the outcomes.

Let me explain.

Many of the activities, such as hunting, or gathering, that our ancestors faced when they were evolving into the successful species we have become are complex, and take place in circumstances that are never fully replicable. They integrate a wide range of skills, from the observational, to the cognitive, to the physical (strength, stamina, speed, motor control), to the interpersonal.

They’re not the kinds of tasks you can learn in an afternoon and just repeat the actions for guaranteed results, because the outcome depends on other people, other creatures, and the conditions in your environment. So mastery involves not only control over the actions you can practise by yourself, but also the capacity to adjust them in the light of observing and interpreting a wide range of other variables. And much of this is done in the kind of holistic, intuitive thinking that can integrate lots of different factors simultaneously, rather than the conscious, analytical thinking that is great for generating explicit knowledge, but can only deal with one or two things at a time.

In this context, the typical responses of operant conditioning make perfect sense. If something never works, you’re sensible to abandon it as soon as that becomes apparent. If something always works, that’s great, but once you’ve got that sorted reliably, you don’t need to keep practising to get better at it.

But if something only works sometimes, that’s telling you that there are pieces to the puzzle you’ve not yet figured out. You need to keep working at it to integrate, make sense of, adjust to more of the factors at play in a complex activity. Because many of them are not under your control, you will never nail things completely, but the deeper you get into the activity, the more nuanced and successful you will become. We usually call this learning by experience, and it is deeply satisfying.

In our modern world, some people still get this kind of satisfaction from activities our prehistoric forebears would recognise, but many of us find it instead in the complexities of the arts or sports or indeed motorcycle maintenance. Activities where you are in dialogue with people, events, materials beyond yourself, and the rewards of success come to those who are attentive to these outside factors as they exercise their own skills.

So, the addictive quality of intermittent reinforcement is central to the development of expertise. The burning desire to keep at it in the face of inconsistent success is essential for mastery.

The problems only emerge when the thing that gives an intermittent response isn’t actually complex, just random. Like a slot machine, for instance – probably the most efficient method ever invented for exploiting this basic impulse. It doesn’t matter how long you play at a slot machine, you have no chance of improving your rate of winning. But the intermittency of success pushes those primal buttons that deludes us into feeling that if we just keep at we will come out victorious.

Computer solitaire is less destructive – not least because it comes free – but it still eats time. Some of the games do give back more than a slot machine, in that you can get better at them with practice, but it’s still a pretty mono-dimensional experience. The addictive quality of success/failure patterns is disproportionately strong for the mild cognitive flexibility you might gain from playing.

So the problem isn’t addiction per se. The problem is addiction to things with poor rewards for the time expended. The psychological response was evolved to enable us to become really really good at the things we consider worth doing. And you can tell which things society generally considers worth becoming compulsively addicted to doing as you’ll hear the condition described instead as ‘dedicated’.

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