RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
When the leaks about the NSA first came out, it made a lot of us think about our technology habits, how often we send emails, what we send in those emails, how we use the Internet. Many people joke that they're addicted to their phones, tweeting without restraint or posting on Facebook during holiday dinners, but there may be something to the idea of addiction.
It turns out many of the most popular technologies of our time tap into a powerful reward mechanism in our brains. NPR's Steve Henn reports.
STEVE HENN, BYLINE: A couple of weeks ago I got a pitch from Uber. The company makes an app that lets you hire a town car pretty much from anywhere using your mobile phone. But every once in a while when you open up Uber's app, you're greeted with a service that's a surprise.
TRAVIS KALANICK: We've done on-demand Texas barbecue. We've done Uber chopper, and we've done on-demand roses.
HENN: Travis Kalanick is Uber's co-founder and CEO. Last Friday, the surprise was ice cream.
KALANICK: You know, it's not our core business; it's not what we do normally. It's just fun.
HENN: Kalanick says traffic to Uber skyrockets after one of these stunts. And the thing is, you never know when to expect them so it pays to check Uber's app, to click, and then click again, and again. And something about that reminded me of a very old, very famous psychology experiment. Nora Volkow is head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
NORA VOLKOW: Well, this has been known for a very, very long time, that an unexpected reward has much more power than one that is regular in driving behavior.
HENN: More than 60 years ago, the famous American psychologist B.F. Skinner demonstrated that variable unpredictable rewards could create obsessive behavior in lab rats. Now, this isn't exactly what Uber had in mind, according to Kalanick.
KALANICK: We are not like mad scientists trying to figure out like unexpected reward systems that Skinner predicated in theories decades ago; that's not us.
HENN: Still, random unpredictable reward structures are built, sometimes unintentionally, into many of the technologies we use every day. Rewards in video games are designed to be surprising, and even the ping of an incoming email contains the possibility of unanticipated pleasure. Even tweets and Facebook posts offer unpredictable rewards.
Think about it. Do you know ahead of time which tweets will be retweeted or which posts on Facebook will attract likes? Some, including Volkow, think all of this could be driving compulsive behaviors in some people. Random rewards, even virtual ones, can release dopamine in the human brain.
VOLKOW: Writing a blog that then becomes viral that will then hook you to want to repeat that act, that specific experimental story has not been done. But equivalents have actually shown that people playing a video game, and when that individual got a point, dopamine got activated, an unexpected reward.
HENN: And that could be a powerful tool if you were trying to build an addictive product.
RAMIN SHOKRIZADE: Well, you want to disarm the consumer.
HENN: Ramin Shokrizade began his career studying neuroscience. Now he designs video games. He says many designers use tricks to distract consumers from the company's ultimate goal, which is to get them to spend money.
SHOKRIZADE: Make everything colorful. Make the sounds are always really splendid in their use of the dings and explosions; in all it just makes you think that you're in a circus or a fairground or something that reminds you of your childhood and it helps delay your ability to attempt the potentially more nefarious actions that are occurring in the game.
HENN: Most mobile and social games make money by selling virtual goods. These games are free when you start, and in the beginning, random rewards built into these games offer you a quick dopamine fix. You play. Sometimes you succeed. And when you do, you feel great. So the gamers become addicted?
The research is far from conclusive, but Shokrizade says having watched hundreds of thousands of online gamers, he's convinced some people feel compelled to keep playing.
SHOKRIZADE: And then as they progress through the game, the game changes such that the difficulty becomes very high and they're being offered all this help which will cost some money, and before they may not even realize it, they are now playing a money game.
HENN: For a chance to win those random rewards built into these games, you have to spend money. And slowly what began as a game of skill becomes really just a disguised version of a slot machine where the only way to win is to keep spending. Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.