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The psychology behind why sites like What Would I Say are so addictive

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The site What Would I Say has quickly risen to popularity since its creation during last weekend’s Princeton Hackathon. WWIS connects to your Facebook account and generates new status updates based on words and phrases you’ve used in the past. Some are pretty funny.

Some can seem like whimsical and oddly telling commentaries on one’s life.

But most are nonsensical, incomplete, or just not very amusing.

The virality of WWIS comes from a mixed effect of internet narcissism, nostalgia, and those funny, easily sharable times it got a status “right.” But contrary to what you might think, those aren’t what make it addictive. It’s the failures—the long interludes of garbage—that make you keep clicking. Psychologists have a name for this kind of unreliable fun: They call it “intermittent reward.”

The power of intermittent reward was first discovered by behaviorist B.F. Skinner during a lab experiment. He found that mice who weren’t given a reward every time they performed a task correctly not only did equally well, but would continue performing the task long after the reward had stopped all together.

A study published nearly 20 years ago also found that dopamine receptors—the neurotransmitter responsible for addiction—functioned at a higher level of activity during intermittent reward.

A site’s longevity is directly related to the type of “reward” it gives the user. Link aggregators like Reddit are addictive partly because they not only have intermittent reward (not all the links you click on will be of interest) but the types of rewards keep changing, which keeps the dopamine receptors firing.

Many of the strangest time-sucks on the internet have succeeded on this same principle. If Chatroulette, which connects you with a new random stranger via webcam every time you press a button, could guarantee a sighting worthy of a good night’s laugh each time, people would leave as soon as they got what they came for. StumbleUpon wouldn’t have caused so many all-night stumbling sessions if users found something great every time. What if the next click led you somewhere truly amazing? How can you quit now?

The fact that we don’t know when our next reward will come is what keeps us clicking on these sites. We can never quite get enough. If they were more consistent, we’d get our fix and be on to the next thing.

The way all three sites—WWIS, Chatroulette, and StumbleUpon—are designed, it would actually take more effort to close the window entirely than to just keep going. Their equivalent “next” buttons are in the same place from screen to screen, preventing the need for any thought or cursor movement to get you to your next potential fix.

What Would I Say became a success entirely by accident. Chatroulette was much the same. If site designers stopped trying to create sites that gave users what they want and engineered more failure into the mix, we’d end up with more internet addictions than we already have. As any startup entrepreneur will tell you, failure is sometimes central to success.

Tove Danovich is a journalist and the editor of Food Politic. Follow her on Twitter at @TKDanovich.

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