Popular online games like FarmVille use powerful reward systems to get players to spend real-world money on virtual items.
Many of the most popular technologies of our time tap into powerful reward mechanisms in our brains. And while most researchers stop short of calling video games and modern tech addictive, there's evidence that these technologies alter how our brains work and change how we behave.
Research has even demonstrated that gamers will get a boost of dopamine when they play.
Many techies and marketers are tapping, sometimes unintentionally, into decades of neuroscience research to make their products as addictive and profitable as possible.
A couple of weeks ago I got a pitch from Uber, the creators of the car service app of the same name. Every once in a while when you open the Uber app, you are greeted with a surprise, and the company will offer an unexpected service.
"We've done pedicabs in Austin," says Travis Kalanick, Uber's co-founder and CEO, "[and] we've done on-demand Texas barbecue. We've done Uber chopper and we've done on-demand roses on Valentine's Day."
Last Friday, the surprise was on-demand ice cream.
"It's not our core business; it's not what we do normally," Kalanick says. "It's just fun."
The thing about these PR stunts is that customers love them. Traffic to Uber skyrocketed Friday. The other thing is that you never know when to expect these little rewards, so it pays to check Uber's app and click, and then click again.
And something about that reminded me of a very old, very famous psychology experiment known as the Skinner Box.
"An unexpected reward has much more power than one that is regular in driving behavior," says Nora Volkow, the head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "This has been known for a very long time."
More than 60 years ago, the famous American psychologist B.F. Skinner demonstrated that unpredictable rewards created obsessive behavior in lab rats. The rats would click and click and click again on a bar, hoping to trigger a random reward.
"We are not mad scientists trying to figure out unexpected reward systems that Skinner predicated in theories decades ago; that's not us," Uber's Kalanick says.
Still, random reward structures are built, sometimes unintentionally, into many of the technologies we use everyday.
Even responses to tweets or Facebook posts offer unpredictable rewards. Just talking about ourselves triggers reward mechanisms in our brains. When people pay attention to what we say, it feels even better.
But think about it: Do you know ahead of time which tweets will be retweeted or which posts on Facebook will attract likes? You don't. So it's a bit of a crap shoot, but when a post takes off, it feels great.
Rewards in video games are designed to be intentionally surprising. Even the ping of an incoming email contains the hope of unanticipated pleasure.
Some think all of this could be driving compulsive behaviors in people that can resemble Skinner's rats in a box. Over the past decades, researchers have realized much of this reward-seeking behavior is driven by dopamine.
"Writing a blog that then becomes viral will then hook you to want to repeat that act — that specific experimental story has not been done," Volkow says. "But equivalents have actually [been] shown. The first one was many years ago in which they had people playing a video game, and when individuals got a point, dopamine got activated — an unexpected reward."
Volkow and others have studied how the human brain releases dopamine in anticipation of a variety of rewards, from sex to food to cocaine.
We even get a bit of dopamine when we talk about ourselves, which might help explain Facebook's global popularity.
Dopamine is the brain's way of rewarding behaviors that helped humans survive. It's released when we eat or have sex or learn, but Volkow and others have shown that when it's manipulated with drugs, the dopamine response in our brains plays an important role in addiction.
While it is far too soon to say that video games or other types of technology are truly addictive, there is evidence that avid gamers, for example, process these kinds of neurochemical rewards differently.
Volkow says when she sees stories about people spending real money for imaginary or virtual products in games like FarmVille, she's reminded of research that used dopamine to manipulate rats through a complex maze.
"They actually wanted rats to be able to act like little spies, like little robot spies," Volkow says. "You could put a [recorder] in the rat and the rat just has to go where you want it to go and record the conversations that are happening."
Volkow says they designed the rats basically by manipulating, with electrodes, these dopamine reward systems.
When the animals headed in the right direction, they received the sensation of pleasure. Rats with with these electrodes wired into their brains and connected via a wireless backpack climbed ladders, navigated through complex mazes and would do almost anything the researchers wanted them to do.
"There was nothing in it for the rat except the sensation of reward," Volkow says.
Ramin Shokrizade says a well-designed video game works in a very similar way. "I think that analogy translates completely to humans," Shokrizade says.
Shokrizade studied neuroscience before switching careers, and now he helps video game companies monetize their games.
"I would say my primary job when I am creating a monetization model for a game is to do exactly the same thing to humans," he says.
Shokrizade believes that the rush of pleasure games provide can be addictive. And he says some game designers have made a fortune by creating games that slowly encourage players to pay for that rush of pleasure.