The need for variable reward – or why Arsenal fans are eternally disappointed

Somewhat perversely, part of the inherent attraction of watching sport is that the result can be worse then expected: we enjoy it more when our team wins if we have also experienced them unexpectedly lose.

This is why part of the joy of football has been removed for Arsenal fans, as there is no variability to their overall results. At the end of every season they qualify for the Champions League and then get knocked out in the last 16, and every season it becomes less exciting for their fans.

In contrast, Liverpool fans are desperate to qualify for the Champions League at all, as it represents a new reward. It has now reached the point where many Arsenal fans would rather finish outside the Champions League, and get a new manager, even if it risks a Manchester United-style freefall. The variable nature of the reward would be better, even if it involves more finishes outside the top four.

At the heart of this is a powerful cognitive factor captured by a behaviourist called B.F. Skinner in the 1950s. Skinner found that mice that received the same treat every time they pulled a leaver would become less compulsively addicted than mice who sometimes received a treat and sometimes didn’t. And the pattern of that first experiment holds true for us. As humans we become compulsively addicted when the reward isn’t guaranteed.

The dopamine in our brains isn’t designed to reward us for our efforts, but to encourage us to continue searching by stimulating a semi-stressful response, which we all desire. This is illustrated by the fact we desperately hope our team won’t concede from a 2-1 scoreline in the final 10 minutes. We are addicted to the stress, not the victory. The addiction to this stress-like state drove us to capture more food and find more mates, rather than purely bask in the glory of our last conquest.

This cognitive quirk can apply to nearly all areas of our lives. We are more likely to get addicted to Tinder if our dates, or one night stands, are sometimes bad – as they often can be. We like to bake tricky desserts like souffle because it’s not guaranteed to rise. Facebook is inherently more addictive because of the fact that sometimes when we open the app, we don’t see an interesting news story or photos from a fun night out, but we see a photo of our ex with their much more attractive partner, or images of our friends finishing that mount Everest climb we always told ourselves we would do.

This cognitive aspect of human behaviour can be used by companies and brands. One example is if a company wants its employees to fill in their time sheets on time: they should vary when and whether they offer a reward, rather than offer a consistent reward; though this logic doesn’t necessarily scale up to only occasionally paying people's salaries.

For brands with high purchase frequencies, it also raises the interesting point that only promising and delivering a good personal experience could actually make your brand less addictive.

Consumers will try a new chocolate bar that may be good or bad, rather than stick to the same one that delivers the same consistent reward. Or they will tire of a brand’s content if it is continually good, and never takes any risks. Finally, subscription services that continually offer end of year bonuses, consistent in their Arsenal-like regularity, will find this maintains customer loyalty less than a rewards bonus that offers larger occasional and more surprising rewards.

William Hanmer-Lloyd is the behavioural planning director at Total Media

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