Stick ’em up! Why one-armed bandits make brilliant managers


Image courtesy of CHRISTIAN FERRARI.

Stick ’em up!

She was mesmerizing. She must have been there for hours, kind of glassy-eyed and vacant looking. We were having dinner at a hotel, and this restaurant was next to their gaming room. We were in and out over nearly three hours, and she didn’t move. No drinks, no food, just a repetitive, mechanical action as she fed credits and pulled the slot machine arm.

Occasionally, the machine cackled and jangled. I never saw her flinch, run around the room waving her arms or do pretty much of anything, except pull the one-armed bandit’s arm again, and again. Mesmerizing. And something all managers, teachers and parents should know.

The power of reinforcement MMPW6DM7BXM8

How could a machine get this woman to do this? Because the people who made it were, like you, students of human behavior, and they knew a thing or two about reinforcement. Particularly, they get Reinforcement Schedules.

Last time we talked about three general categories of reinforcement schedules, and matched them up with three phases of behavior, mentioning that to maintain a behavior, we need to implement partial reinforcement.

When we do this, we need to make a decision about when we reinforce, and when we don’t. There are two simple ways. We can reinforce based on how many occurrences we see of the behavior, or over a time period. This gives us two general categories of partial reinforcement.

Ratios and intervals

Thus, I might decide to reinforce every second, or third, or tenth time I see the behavior I’ve chosen. This is a Ratio decision. That is, one reinforcement after every three occurrences, or two, or ten etc.

Or, I might decide to reinforce for the first occurrence after a specific period of time has elapsed, let’s say 5 minutes. This is an Interval decision. Nothing is done during the 5 minutes but, once time is up, the next occurrence is immediately reinforced.

Make sure you’ve got those two. Each is then divided into two more, called Fixed and Variable. Fixed means that the schedule doesn’t change, whereas variable means that it does.

We end up therefore with 2 x 2, or four options, which we’ll explain briefly in turn.

  1. Fixed Interval Reinforcement Schedule
  2. Fixed Ratio Reinforcement Schedule
  3. Variable Interval Reinforcement Schedule
  4. Variable Ratio Reinforcement Schedule

Fixed Interval

I decide on a time interval, and it never changes. My paycheck comes once a week, same time each week.

Fixed Ratio

If parents threaten to spank their children only after the third time they’re naughty, it’s fixed ratio. Problem is, any smart kid knows that they can get away with it twice first!

Variable Interval

I check my employees’ work periodically, but on average twice a day. They don’t know when I’m coming, but they know I’m coming, so they work hard all the time, in case.

Variable Ratio

The reinforcement comes after varying occurrences of behavior. So after the third, then second, then seventh coin, the one-armed bandit gives me  a little pay out, two credits, then one, then six, and so on.

Understand how these guys have reinforcement schedules sorted and this woman was completely hooked? The reinforcement for her putting another coin in the slot is carefully balanced. Not too much that she wins all the time, not too little that she get’s frustrated and leaves. Just enough to be tantalising, and make you stay, because you might win on the next one… right?

So here’s the take home bit

Ratios are more effective than intervals, even though the rates of reinforcement may be equivalent.

Variable schedules outdo fixed schedules, and make behavior more durable.

In sum, variable ratio schedules are the most powerful, with stronger behaviors that are less prone to extinction. They work for managers, teachers and parents, and one-armed bandit manufacturers, who could teach us all a thing or two about managing behavior!

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Fixed Interval Reinforcement Schedule, Fixed Ratio Reinforcement Schedule, Variable Interval Reinforcement Schedule, Variable Ratio Reinforcement Schedule

How could you use it?

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MMPW6DM7BXM8

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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5 Responses to Stick ’em up! Why one-armed bandits make brilliant managers

  1. Awesome post Brendon – I love being refreshed in Classical and Operant Conditioning. They offer some tremendous incites into how humans behave. The slot machine example is a perfect illustration of how effective variable schedules can be. You never exactly know when the next big “win” is coming so you just keep repeating the behavior. Fascinating stuff.

    • Thanks! And this woman was incredible to watch. I don;t know that I’ve ever seen anything so robotic in a long time. I worked in alcohol and drug for a few years, and she was as hooked as any of the guys I worked with.

  2. Pingback: Eating together is good for you | Bite sized brains

  3. I really like reading an article that will make people think.
    Also, many thanks for allowing me to comment!

  4. Its like you read my mind! You appear to know
    so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something.
    I think that you can do with a few pics to drive the message home a bit,
    but instead of that, this is great blog. A great read.
    I’ll definitely be back.

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