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The Compliance Recipe, Part 3: Intermittent Rewards

This one is long, but if I may toot my own horn, it’s so damn good and important that I suggest you take the time and read it all.

This is the final part of a 3-part series. Part 1 is here. And here’s part 2.

This series has been all about compliance, or getting people to do the shit you want. Earlier I discussed the first two parts of the three part formula: believable authority and Earn-Reward Method. Now for the third and most powerful element: intermittent rewards. Intermittent reward strategy is just some crazy ass shit. It’s probably the second most powerful motivator out there next to avoidance of death. And out of the three elements of compliance, it’s also the most manipulative.

You see, the first two steps in gaining compliance, which were believable authority and Earn-Reward method, can get great results on their own. But when you add in intermittent rewards, the compliance gets taken to higher, more extreme levels. It can escalate the compliance to obsessive, even self-destructive levels.

The simplest definition I can come up with for intermittent rewards would be “unpredictable random rewards in response to repeated behavior.” A perfect illustration would be gambling in general, and slot machines in particular. With a slot machine, you do the same behavior over and over again, put in a token and pull a lever, but you never know when you’ll actually be rewarded for this behavior. This creates an incentive to keep repeating the behavior, because you are chasing the reward, and you become convinced that if you just do it one more time, that may be the time you get the reward. All gambling works like this to a degree, which is what makes it such a compulsive addiction. Intermittent rewards also are used in dog training. B.F. Skinner is credited with pioneering the intermittent reward theory by his experiments with the operant conditioning chamber, better knowns as a Skinner Box.

The earn-reward method, which is where you make people earn every reward before you give it to them, is powerful enough in its own right, but the problem is that it’s predictable, and over time people even get desensitized to that eventually. Or they take the rewards for granted. Or they start figuring out ways to game the system. For example, say you are in an earn-reward system like an hourly job where you know the longer you work, the more reward you’ll gain. It’s an earn-reward scenario, but because the relationship between the behavior and the reward is so predictable and able to be manipulated, you may start doing things like working a half-day today and just making up for it by doing double the hours tomorrow. Or you may just do a lot of hours in two days and slacking off the rest of the week. You have no drive to be consistently excellent because you know you can just make up for it later by doing extra. You are complying, and that’s fine, but say your manager wants to make your compliance more self-motivated, compulsive and obsessive? He can throw in an intermittent reward. He can say at the beginning of the week “This week certain random hours of the week will be triple pay. Anyone who happens to be working during these hours will receive triple the usual pay rate for those hours. But I won’t reveal what those hours are beforehand or how many triple pay hours I’m giving.” What’s going to happen now? The hourly employee is going to do his or her best to be working every possible hour in hopes of hitting the jackpot and working that triple rate hour. Intermittent rewards are as addictive as crack; human nature makes them impossible to resist.

This NY Times article discusses intermittent rewards and describes their power well:

The makers of slot machines may rely on the lure of life-changing jackpots to attract customers, but the machines’ ability to hook so deeply into a player’s cerebral cortex derives from one of the more powerful human feedback mechanisms, a phenomenon behavioral scientists call infrequent random reinforcement, or ”intermittent reward.” Children whose parents consistently shower them with love and attention tend to take that devotion for granted. Those who know they’ll never be rewarded by their parents stop trying after a while. But those who are rewarded only intermittently — in the fashion of a slot machine — will often pursue positive outcomes with a persistent tenacity. ”That hard-wiring that nature gave us didn’t anticipate electronic gaming devices,” says Howard Shaffer, director of the division on addictions at Harvard Medical School and perhaps the country’s foremost authority on gambling disorders.

”The slot machine is brilliantly designed from a behavioral psychology perspective,” says Nancy Petry, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. ”The people who are making these machines are using all the behavioral techniques to increase the probability that the behavior of gambling will reoccur.” She refers to intermittent reward and ”second-order conditioning” — the lights and sounds that go off when a player wins, for example, or the two cherries in a row that convinces people they’re getting closer.

”No other form of gambling manipulates the human mind as beautifully as these machines,” concludes Petry, who has studied gambling treatments since 1998. ”I think that’s why that’s the most popular form of gambling with which people get into trouble.”

Anti-gambling activists refer to slots as ”the crack cocaine of gambling.” Though gambling’s loudest critics tend to be alarmists, the crack analogy may be apt. Just as crack addicts have frequently seemed to self-destruct much faster than those abusing powdered cocaine, there is abundant, albeit still largely anecdotal, evidence suggesting that the same is true of today’s computer-driven slot machines — video-based slots especially. Where social workers once found that the woes of a typical problem gambler tended to mount gradually — with a period of 20 or more years commonly passing between a first wager and a bottoming-out event like bankruptcy, divorce or even suicide — addiction cycles of a few years are, if not typical, commonplace among slots players.

Look back at your own life and think of the people you’ve known that you’ve been obsessed with pleasing, be it a parent, a boss or a lover. Chances are, you were an unwitting victim of intermittent rewards. The parent that one day is happy that you bring home an A, then another time they seem unimpressed with the same grade? Intemittent rewards. The boss that praises you for a job well done one day, then is unimpressed by the same behavior the next? Intermittent rewards. The lover whose response you can never predict? Intermittent rewards. Lottery scratch tickets? You get the picture. Anything where you repeat the same behavior over and over but don’t know what results to expect falls under this category. The intermittent reward system evokes a deep seated response in humans – to compete, to try to do better next time, to find a solution or a pattern to a seemingly unsolvable ‘puzzle’. We are driven to look for patterns in things and to try to solve unsolvable problems.

What’s really insiduous about the intermittent rewards method is the number of ways it can be disguised. The dog training and parenting examples are really obvious, but there are tons of examples of intermittent rewards in your life that you probably don’t recognize as such. For example, look at things like social networking sites and email accounts. You can log on to your email, Myspace or Facebook account over and over again and get a different result each time. A message from a cute stranger. A long lost friend reaching out to you. No new activity at all. A flood of good emails. A bunch of useless forwards. You pretty much don’t know what to expect each time you log on, which makes you check them compulsively. If you’re macking on myspace and sending messages to a bunch of hot chicks each day, you have no idea what results those efforts will yield day to day, so it becomes a compulsion. This article for example even makes a case of Twitter as an example of intermittent rewards. Even blogging has an intermittent reward element that makes it addictive. One day you can blog and have just a few hits and no links and comments. Another day you can blog and be linked by a huge website and get a ton of traffic and comments. Then the next day you do a blog post and you’re back to your usual traffic. The intermittent rewards motivate you to keep chasing.

Let’s compare intermittent rewards to the other ways to reward:

  1. Constant rewarding
  2. No rewarding
  3. Progressive rewarding
  4. Intermittent rewarding

The first two examples, constant rewarding and no rewarding, fail for similar reasons. If someone rewards you no matter what you do, you don’t take their praise seriously. If someone never rewards you no matter what you do, also you just stop taking their criticisms seriously. Either way, you lose motivation and stop trying. Progressive rewarding, where you increase rewards with demonstrated efforts, works much better, but it’s still predictable and loses effectiveness over time as people get desensitized. Intermittent rewards, on the other hand, takes the earn-reward method to the next level for the reasons described above.

Some more examples: Dating. Getting sex for women is a progressive reward system. The more interest or cooperation they show to a man, the more sex they will get. Getting sex for men is intermittent reward. They can do the same thing over and over again and get different results all the time. Getting sexual compliance from women becomes a puzzle for men, which is why it becomes an obsession for them. Since getting sex is predictable for women, it becomes less of a challenge for them and bores them. That’s why pimps turn the table by using the same technique on their prostitutes by using intermittent rewards on them and withholding sex from them and not giving them sex and rewards predictably. For women, finding relationships and commitment is a crapshoot and a lot harder to figure out than getting sex is. They can sleep with a guy on the first date and get a relationship, they can make another guy wait and wait for sex and he still dumps them anyway once they give in. These unpredictable, intermittent rewards are part of what keeps women more interested in chasing relationships than sex.

Another great example of intermittent rewards: American Idol judges. Paula Abdul is an example of constant rewarding. As a result, her praise is usually taken for granted. Randy is fair, he does progressive rewarding. His praise carries more weight, but it’s still predictable. You can usually watch a performance and tell by its quality whether his critique will be positive or negative. Then there’s Simon. People think Simon’s opinion carries the most weight because he’s the hardest judge to please , but that’s not it. If he was simply tougher to please, but still a practitioner of progressive rewarding, people would adjust to him and he’d become predictable. What he does is do intermittent rewards, where no matter how good a contestant does, you have no idea what he’ll say. He’s a genius at this. Sometimes someone will do the most incredible display of vocal pyrotechnics that will wow the first two judges and get the audience on his feet, and he’ll surprise everyone by bashing it for some obscure reason. On the flipside, he’ll occasionally surprise everyone by giving a positive review to a slightly above-average performance. This keeps the audience riveted to his opinions and the contestants constantly changing their approaches. He’s a puzzle. Singing the best is not always the key to the puzzle with him. And if you observe how he spaces his praise, tries to buck expectations and never likes to praise the same contestant too often, you can tell he calculates this. He’s a genius of intermittent rewards.

Intermittent rewards also explain a lot of bad behavior, like criminal tendencies. Your average 9 to 5 job is an example of progressive rewarding. Crime however is an intermittent reward system. You can constantly commit crimes, and you get a different result each time. It may not yield much reward most of the time, and may even lead to prison in some instances, but that occasional big reward you get will keep you returning to criminal behavior despite the risks of punishment. That’s why prison doesn’t always work as a deterrent.

When trying to use intermittent rewards to get compliance from people, though, you have to remember to pair it up with consistent punishment. When someone complies with you and gives you the behavior you want, you reward them randomly and intermittently. But when they don’t comply, you must punish them every time. Just as intermittent rewards can keep someone complying obsessively, intermittent punishment can keep someone misbehaving obsessively as well. Picture a kid who keeps putting his hand in the cookie jar, but only gets punished a fraction of the time. At that point, misbehaving becomes an acceptable risk and he’ll keep doing it. That’s a reason why criminality is such a hard compulsion to break: the rewards are intermittent, and so are the punishments. You only get arrested and locked up a fraction of the time. This makes it twice as hard to stop.

So in summary, in addition to establishing believable authority and practicing the Earn-Reward method, if you reward good behavior intermittently and punish bad behavior consistently, you will create an incredible level of compliance like you wouldn’t believe it. And even if you don’t want to create such compliance, at least knowing how this system works will help you prevent ever being a slave to someone’s approval again.

Share your thoughts in the comments section or shoot me an email.

Recommended Reading (dicussions of intermittent rewards and consistent punishing):

24 Responses to “The Compliance Recipe, Part 3: Intermittent Rewards”


  1. I have someone pulling the ‘intermittent reward’ stuff on me right now. This couldn’t have come at a better time – it’s really no fun being the so-called ‘rewardee’.

    I’d praise this post, but wouldn’t want to be predictable :-)

    china blue’s last blog post..Sexual Chocolate


  2. I?d praise this post, but wouldn?t want to be predictable

    Hahahahahaha! Best. Comment. Ever.


  3. So, for those of us who are just curious about real world examples, what are you (planning on) using these methods to do?


  4. Same thing I do every day….try to take over the world!


  5. i knew there was a reason i hate twitter.

    anyhow, good post.

    roissy’s last blog post..Funny ?Cause It?s (Kinda) True


  6. You know I’m going to use this when I buy a dog or get a girlfriend…. wait what?

    But for serious its a shame the games you have to play with some people to get them to act right.


  7. In all seriousness, the best value of this stuff to me isn’t so much to abuse it against other people but more to prevent yourself from falling into the manipulation traps yourself.

    T.’s last blog post..The Compliance Recipe, Part 3: Intermittent Rewards


  8. Well explained, T, well explained.

    dchero’s last blog post..Evolutionary Realities


  9. this also explains why children of manic depressive mothers, and wives/gf’s of men who oscillate between seriously abusive and seriously loving, become such obsessive pleasers.


  10. Good point Johnny Five. Same goes for men who have bipolar girlfriends/wives I believe. Could be wrong though.


  11. There is a Nerve personal essay written by a guy who dated a bipolar girl. He fell in love with her rather quickly, and she wasn’t the first bipolar girl he dated either. I had obsessive compulsions and bouts of depression when I was younger as well.

    The title of his article is accurate. Love is like a rollercoaster — I was riding it with shut eyes, and I wasn’t even aware that the ride would end. One moment I would feel like I was the happiest person in the world, like the first drag of an inexorably good drug, but when it was taken away, the withdrawal was terrible. I missed the extreme ups and extreme downs of the ride itself, and sought for years afterwards to return to that state.

    I can understand why some people “play the field” for years. They aren’t doing it so much to find the perfect mate, but to seek another hit of the love drug. It takes tremendous willpower to quit love, as strong, as alluring and as dangerous as any addictive substance known to man.


  12. It is easy for the weak to fall in love with bipolar people because bipolarism is basically operant conditioning taken to an extreme. By vacillating between rewards and punishments, the subject experiences dopamine rushes and subsequent withdrawals. And we all know that we desire something much more when it is taken away then when it is freely given to us. Extreme operant conditioning (bipolarism, gambling, drugs, alcohol) becomes an obsession when the subject begins – as they are inclined to given the absurd validations and retractions – to replace all other sources of satisfaction, aka dopamine stimulation, with the conditioning. I mean when a druggie gets so involved that they don’t feel satisfaction unless they are using, or when a person becomes obsessively involved with another.

    All around good post, I had to comment again. But I feel as though it would have been a cleaner analysis if you had made clean distinctions between positive and negative reinforcement, and positive and negative punishment.


  13. All around good post, I had to comment again. But I feel as though it would have been a cleaner analysis if you had made clean distinctions between positive and negative reinforcement, and positive and negative punishment.

    That’s a pretty good constructive criticism, man.


  14. This is by far the most amazing article I hvae ever read online.


  15. Since Psychology 101 in undergrad I have been fascinated with this deep motivator of human behavior (intermittent reward system). As an animal chiropractor whose practice is heavily dependent on neuroplasticity, I also use motivation to help animals in my practice. While chatting with a client about why the horses whose behaviors are so unpredictable, are the most compelling (even though more dangerous)it falls back to the intermittent reward system. I also got a flash of inspiration as to why I found it hard to let a toxic, albeit compelling, friendship go. The person was diagnosed as bipolar and…voila….intermittent reward! Knowing this is power and it also gives one the power to walk away from toxic, dangerous and otherwise useless situations. Thanks for posting this. I see by other folks’ posts I am not alone in understanding how our minds link onto situations which can be explained thusly.


  16. Interesting post, but there is one thing I’d argue with. Intermittent rewarding being the reason that men chase sex and women chase relationship is wrong reasoning. You’ve got the direction if the reasoning wrong. Men want sex and women want relationship for that’s what’s encoded (and also programmed by the society). That’s encoded evolutionary. Now the fact that we want these things makes us prone to fall to someone playing with intermittent rewarding. Since I want sex more, at least in most of the cases, than women who want me as much as I want them, they can easily play this card on me. Know since they want the relationship more I can, in theory, play games with this on them.

    Anyway, really good post. It helped me to understand, from another angle, how I had an obsession with a girl for the past year. She, while being my girlfriend, acted like a stupid bitch quite often. Actually I have realized it from the beginning (and didn’t want a relationship with her anyway), still it worked on me. Know I had other models and explanations (like psychological games, that are also pretty rewarding), but this one definitively explains a lot of things.


  17. Cool Hunter, you misunderstand me. I’m not saying intermittent rewards actually create the desire for sex in men any more than I’m saying slot machines and scratch tickets create the desire for money. I’m saying intermittent rewards determine the preferred methods people use for getting sex or any other reward.

    With intermittent rewards, whether it’s money, approval or sex, the desires for those rewards are already preexisting in people, as you point out. The intermittent rewards just determine how addicted you become to a specific source or ritual when trying to attain that reward.

    With regards to sex, yes men have a genetic drive to get sex with a high variety of women thanks to evolution. However, they could just get prostitutes, and they’d get, pun intended, more bang for their buck. Over the long run serial prostitutes would probably pay off with more sex per dollar spent than the crapshoot of paying for serial dates, where one day you spend a lot of money and get sex yet the next few dates you may spend a lot of money and end up with no sex. Not to mention the money you spend going out in order to meet new women in the first place. Yet men persist with the puzzle of figuring out how to get casual sex from women through dating when there are far easier avenues for it.

    Men could also get as obsessed with the easygoing attractive girl over the one who creates drama, but in my own life and those of people I’ve known, I always find it’s the drama queen rollercoaster girl that creates the most obsessions.

    As far as women chasing relationships over sex, you’re totally right that it’s a lot more complicated. That’s why I said it’s only “part” of the reason. There’s also cultural conditioning, evolutionary reasons, etc. I do think intermittent rewards plays a big role in the types of relationships they crave though. For example women may be genetically predisposed to crave relationships, but very few who have gotten a taste of the Western style of dating, which is intermittent reward-based, would prefer an arranged marriage, even if it was to a wealthy, handsome suitor.

    I think it also explains why when faced with a nice guy who would be eternally devoted to them, they’ll still go for the challenge of taming the bad boy jerk.


  18. Very interesting ideas. The thing I like most about the idea of intermittent rewards is that it can be applied across your life, from work to personal life, to athletics, etc. But are there areas where it wouldnt be right to use this type of manipulative behavior? It seems kind of cold to always think like that and essentially control people.


  19. Johnny, so far as manipulating people goes, the real reason I present these posts is in the hope that someone will either use them benignly, such as setting up employee performance incentives at work, or defensively, to recognize when someone is using this to manipulate them. Unfortunately these pieces of information are psychological weapons much like a gun is a physical one and once they’re out there it’s hard to control how they’re used by people who obtain them. But I do share the same concerns you do about principles like this being misused by people. At the same time, such a person was probably already an emotional terrorist before arriving here anyway.


  20. The information is presented very well, thank you. However, it has been ‘out there’ for a long time! I do think it is very valuable to help victims to recognize abuse and abusive behavior. Many victims don’t recognize the manipulations and don’t know how it happens. It is very valuable to see this information presented in such an easy read.

    Thanks!