Skinner & the art of motivation

Today I’ve had something of a penny drop/light bulb going on moment. After yesterday’s blogging, I was thinking a bit more about examples of “gamification” from the physical, rather than digital domain – here’s one from Sweden that my dad reminded me of, for example – and also mulling on a comment from @eekygeeky that he disliked the term Gamification, and somewhat jokingly suggested instead Skinnerfication.

BF Skinner was an academic with an unhealthy interest in pigeons. By studying them, and other rat-like creatures (like rats), he was able to make a fairly significant observation: that it seems that it is better to change behaviour by rewarding when subjects do the things you want them to, rather than punishing them when they do the things you don’t.

One of my biggest challenges as a parent is that I know this, and yet I hear myself far too often beginning sentences to my two-year-old with the word “Don’t”. “Don’t repeatedly smash your brother’s face into the cooker door” – that kind of thing. What I should be doing is saying is “Can you come over here to do some drawing” – telling someone what you want them to do (and rewarding them when they do it) is way more impactful than the opposite.

So what was my light bulb moment? Well, that this positive reinforcement makes the biggest difference between consumer-focused, motivational software applications, and non-motivational, process or organisation-focused, more traditional software applications. Does the software you use tell you what it is that it wants you to do, and reward you accordingly, or just bark insults when you have failed a la “Unexpected item in the bagging area!”?

I’d welcome thoughts from any HCI/UX specialists as to whether the work of Skinner and others has been influential in the design principals underlying good user experience design. I can’t believe that it would happen by chance. I’m also going to start collecting good examples of Skinnerfication, so do drop me a line if you see any great examples of positive reinforcement, either in software or elsewhere (those smiley faces that pop up at roadsides if you are on or below the speed limit are another one…)

This penny drop moment also, I think,  gives me a language to explore these principals without the gimmicky-ness of Gamification. Which is a nice thing. A gold star for me for that, then.

7 thoughts on “Skinner & the art of motivation

  1. This idea has definitely been brought up in many of our game designs. Someone on the team always wants to punish the user for failures (lose half your money when you die), or for failing to play the game “the way it is supposed to be played” (stop mashing the buttons!). Thankfully, they always get silenced and we try to find a way for positive ways of tutoring.

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