Variable Ratio Reinforcement: Gambling for Healthy Habits

10 Apr

via Photocase

In our last post, we discussed some of the best ways to influence our behavior for the better. One of these techniques, Changing the Reward, deals with altering the habit’s consequences. This can be done through punishments or rewards, all seeking to trick the brain into enjoying the activity further. Today’s post will deal with making positive reinforcement as effective as possible.

When behavioral psychologists study the effects of consequences on routines, they have to consider the details of the relationship. Do you reward yourself after a certain amount of time, or after you perform the routine a specific number of times? Do you have to make sure it’s exactly the same every time, or is some variation okay? While they found a near infinite number of these “reinforcement schedules,” they decided they can be classified into four major categories. These can be shown on a 2×2 matrix, with one axis reflecting whether the reward is based on an amount of time or a number of performances, and the other representing whether the reward is absolutely certain or not.

Schedule Matrix

If we look at these four possibilities, we can start to see where natural patterns in our lives fall in these categories. Fixed Interval is the most common: whenever we see an hourly pay rate, we see a certain reward based on an amount of time. Whenever a salesman is given a commission for every nth sale, a Fixed Ratio schedule is at work. Variable Interval is the least common, and even less useful: perhaps when a son is given a pay rate for mowing the lawn, and the time is approximated, this schedule is at work. However, the real strength lies in the bottom-left quadrant, an area not found in nature, except for one place: gambling.

The Magic of the Variable Ratio

Variable Ratio schedules are the most successful possible. It refers to when you may have to perform an activity once, maybe six times, before the reward comes. This category is the most powerful reinforcement schedule in the matrix. When the routine to be performed implies the payment of money, governments make it illegal due to the ease with which the one who controls the rewards can keep the money coming. This schedule can even be addictive in its nature; gambling addiction is one of the most common, and most aren’t even aware that they have them.

The real question is, how can we use this schedule to reinforce our desired habits, or discourage unhealthy ones? The other schedules are already used, with the exception of Variable Interval. Sometimes we decide that after an hour of studying, we can go to a movie; after three conversations with a drifting client, we can buy a treat. But if we remain in the Fixed area of the matrix, we give up the power that lies in the lower left. How can gambling be applied? I would like to propose a solution, utilizing a new system for rewarding the good and punishing the bad: The D20 System.


The D20 System

A d20 is a die with twenty sides. While normally used for games such as Dungeons and Dragons, it can be a powerful tool, easily found online or in local gaming stores. Here are the basics for the D20 System:

  1. List the behaviors you want to alter, either by encouraging or discouraging them.
  2. Assign each a number: the lower the number, the easier it is for you to perform a goal. A 3-Goal is a goal you have less trouble with than a 7-Goal.
  3. Find two things: a reward, and an activity you enjoy that you already do.
  4. Whenever you perform a Behavior of Interest, roll the die. If you roll below the number you’ve chosen, do one of two things: if you want to encourage the behavior, give yourself the reward: if you want to discourage the behavior, deny yourself the activity you enjoy as a gentle punishment.
  5. Weekly, review your goals and their rank. If you’re now having an easier time with one of your 9-Goals, move it to a 6-Goal. If you’re having problems with a 2-Goal, make it a 5-Goal. The idea is to eventually wean yourself off of the d20 for goals you no longer need to manipulate.

This system can provide some of the strongest motivation for changing your behaviors. There are only two extra considerations required to help it work. First, resist the temptation to reroll the d20. The entire point is to provide a link between the activity and the variable hope for reward. If you really want that reward, do another one of your Goals, perhaps one with a higher rank to increase your chances.

Premack’s Principle

The next consideration is that of choosing reinforcements. We may have difficulty choosing: “There’s nothing I really want to do that’s actually feasible for a frequent reward.” There is, however, a principle in behavioral psychology, Premack’s Principle, which can open your mind. Simply put, it says that any activity you’d rather be doing can be a reward. If you’re studying, and you find yourself in a twisted way wanting to do dishes as a means of escape, that can be a reward. Anything can be a reward, so long as it’s more desirable than what you’re trying to reinforce.

A reward? Maybe! via

In sum, the D20 System can be one of the best tools you can use to motivate yourself. Make it into a game, and your life has just become a powerful, productive casino! Hope you enjoy it, Changemakers: thanks for reading!

How else can we reinforce good habits?


The Science of Habits and Changing Them

9 Apr

via Keeper of the Home

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

No matter how noble or successful a single action proves to be, it will always be infinitely more so if it becomes a habit. Most actions are only useful as habits: one jogging run does next to nothing for us, just as once brushing our teeth is generally worthless. Cultivating good habits is an important part of learning to be an effective individual. On the other hand, many habits we already have are time-, energy-, and health-draining; these habits we try to cut off or change. Much of life is consumed with our own internal battles between good and bad habits. It’s incredibly important, especially for Changemakers, to learn how habits work and how to influence them, so as to tip the battle in our favor.

The generally accepted model of habits and their formation comes from behavioral psychology. This is the Antecedent-Process-Consequence model, a simple cause-and-effect flowchart that’s driven the theories behind much of cognitive and behavioral theories today.

Behavioral Model

Charles Duhigg, author of the bestseller, “The Power of Habit,” simplified this terminology to the Cue-Routine-Reward model.

Charles Duhigg Model

The idea is simple: first, a stimulus, or cue, occurs. This can be anything from entering a room, meeting a person, or getting stressed over money. Once the brain is aware of the cue, it immediately triggers an urge to follow through with a process, or routine, like smoking a cigarette or surfing the web. This routine triggers some sort of reward, which, if it’s good enough, will tell the brain that this routine is a good one, and to keep linking it with the cue. For example, if you surf the web when you’re stressed about money, you may become more relaxed. This tells your brain that you become more relaxed when you surf the web, and so it remembers to do it again.

Whether your goal is to encourage a good habit or destroy a bad one, knowing this cycle and understanding how to change it is a powerful tool. This model suggests three separate ways to deal with habits, each based on changing one of these elements. This post will proceed from least to most effective, and will hopefully give Changemakers the tools they need to live a happier, more productive life.

Changing the Cue

One of the least-discussed methods of changing behavior is that of dealing with the trigger that causes it. Behavioral psychology calls this practice “stimulus control,” and suggests many helpful techniques for influencing this part of the habit model. The simplest example of stimulus control is simply avoiding the stimulus: if you simply have to smoke every time you see a pack on your counter, make sure there aren’t any there! However, this usually doesn’t solve the problem completely, as most stimuli can’t be completely avoided. Desensitization involves repeatedly exposing yourself to steadily greater levels of the stimulus without performing the routine, so your brain disassociates it with the cue. Sensitization is the opposite: establishing a different link in your brain between a cue and an undesirable response. One extreme example I’ve heard used is linking the drinking of wine with vomiting, ensuring that the brain stays as far away from liquor as possible. While it’s not the most effective, Changing the Cue is still an impressive technique that can greatly augment the effectiveness of others.

Changing the Reward

The reward is where the majority of behavioral psychology focuses. An example of reward manipulation is the now-classic example of Pavlov’s dogs, who, having been provided with a repetitive reward each time a bell was rung, began expecting the reward when the bell was heard. Many programs exist, including the current trend of “gamification,” which seek to either provide incentives for good behavior or punish bad practices. Most incentive programs in companies work this way, as well. Examples of applying Changing the Reward to your personal lives include rewarding yourself with half an hour of web-surfing when you exercise well, or snapping a rubber band against your wrist whenever you behave inappropriately.

Changing the Routine

Changing the Routine is, in general, the most effective of the three techniques, and is the one which Charles Duhigg himself detailed most in his book. The idea of Changing the Routine involves finding a routine that can be performed when the cue happens, and gives the same reward. Most behavioral psychologists call this “substitution,” as it substitutes a healthy habit for a bad one while keeping the other variables the same. A classic example would include smokers switching to fruit or sunflower seeds each time they wanted a smoke (or perhaps more effectively, using nicotine gum). While finding a successful replacement for the old routine can be difficult, as the rewards for most routines differ by just enough to be ineffective, if one is found, it can prove to be the single most effective and least mentally traumatic way to both end bad habits and encourage good ones.

As a Changemaker, we seek to change the world in important, meaningful ways. In order to do so, however, we must first change the ineffective parts of ourselves. These techniques represent some of the best ways to do so. Take these and use them to make yourself a better Changemaker, and a better person.

Please comment below:

What habits do you want to change or start?

A Chance to Talk Together

8 Apr

I’m so glad to see that there are some Changemakers out there! I hope you all have been enjoying the Observations made so far, even though there haven’t been many yet!

I would love to get to know you a little better. Please comment below in response to the following questions, and we can start talking!

What change would you like to see in the world?

What change would you like to see in your life?

What would you like from Observations to help you do that?

I would love for this to be a blog where we all talk and contribute, learning from each other as we grow closer. Please comment!

No-Post Sabbath

7 Apr

The Sabbath: a time to Study, Ponder, and Pray

This is my first Sunday on Observations, and I think it’s time that I institute and explain a new rule. Sunday, or the Sabbath in Judeo-Christian traditions, is a time not only to relax, but to grow closer to our Lord (or the Deity of your choice).

As part of this, from now on, I’m not going to be posting any Observations on Sunday. Feel free to discuss on the comments, but I won’t even be going online if possible.

Enjoy your Sabbath!

The Real Meaning of Social Entrepreneurship And How To Promote It In Your Classroom

7 Apr

This is a fantastic analysis of the deeper social factors behind social innovation. Read, enjoy, and comment!

Classroom Aid

social entrepreneurship

“Social entrepreneurs don’t just pursue a social end, they pursue that end in a fundamentally communal way.” –Sally Osberg, Skoll Foundation

In a not-so-distant past, college degrees were the safety nets that led to job security. Now those nets are riddled with holes, sagged down by the weight of so many recipients. And unless young professionals have something new to offer, awarding them some leverage back into the net, they slip between the seams into the greatest hole of all: unemployment.

Because of this new development, the term “entrepreneur” has moved beyond the walls of the business school and into many secondary classrooms across the world. It now has a much broader definition, welcoming anyone— in any field— who plants a seed of change and directs its growth. The definition includes serial entrepreneurs, lifestyle entrepreneurs, family entrepreneurs, creative entrepreneurs, extreme entrepreneurs, non-profit entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs, and others.

Regardless of which…

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Hearing the Word

7 Apr

It’s a wonderful time for the LDS Church! Twice a year, the General Authorities of our Church, those authorized to receive revelations from the Lord just like the Prophets of Old, speak to us again in the General Conferences. The last session, it was announced that the Church’s missionary forces would be allowed to serve earlier, fantastic news for those waiting to serve Him.

It’s been a wonderful, spiritual time for everyone. I hope we’ll all be able to have prayers answered, and get a little closer to Him who loves us!

Mental Escapes

6 Apr

The Simple Dollar, a blog for understanding financial matters, recently published a post on the ways we escape what we don’t really want to deal with. The author, Trent Hamm, details how he abruptly began spending massive amounts of time reading and playing video games, only to realize he was actually avoiding the thought of ominous, growing pain in his lower back.

One of the ways we cheat our way through living is through mental escapes. It’s one of the ways that our lizard brain tries to protect us. However, quickly identifying mental escapes, discovering what we’re avoiding, and dealing with the problem is vital to both our emotional health and our personal productivity.

How do you avoid what you don’t want to do?

Getting Settled

6 Apr

Well, this process has been fun, changemakers; I think I’m finally settled on this particular theme and layout.

Among the features we’ve settled on:

  • Recent comments
  • Category pages
  • Subscribe via Email
  • Subscribe to individual Categories’ RSS

I’m particularly happy about the category RSS feeds; this took some doing on my part.

So on to the storytelling part; my girlfriend’s cousin is here, a personable individual just returned from his tour in Afghanistan. I’d like to thank both him and all the other soldiers for giving their service. We’re all grateful!

There’s very little storytelling here; mostly this is just an update on Observations’ setup. The rest is an invitation for discussion:

What change do you want to see in the world?

Leaders and the Networked Organization

6 Apr

Lately, I’ve been reading Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age, a book detailing the effects of the Internet revolution on social activism. The author, Allison Fine, explains that the increased connectivity brought about by the digital revolution has not only empowered previously marginalized groups, but has changed the nature of practical organization structure and employee/customer engagement. The capacity to build and leverage networks has become one of the most powerful skills in the modern world.

Allison Fine isn’t the first to suggest that networks have become the new expressions of power today. A network-centric trend has started and gained momentum through the 21st century, professing that networks, and organizations centered around them, are far more effective. Mrs. Fine explains that the Department of Defense has adopted a network-centric structure below the initial department heads. John Husband, on his blog, refers to this transition from a traditional, top-down power structure to a networked, distributed power structure as moving from “hierarchy to wirearchy.”


To facilitate this change, Mrs. Fine supports the creation of, maintenance of, and continued interaction with a community centered around the organization. The community would be given as much information as possible, in line with the growing push towards organizational transparency. Their opinions would also be vitally important to organization decisions, and the organization would respect and, when possible, use their considerable power.

This sounds lovely, but where would this leave the role of the leader? Mrs. Fine addresses this, and suggests that the leader’s new role is that of facilitating the community’s organization. This can be done through four separate functions: listening, leveraging, knowing how and when to make decisions, and being curious.


According to a recent study by the Harvard Business Review, serial entrepreneurs, while strong in several key skills, are usually lacking in empathy. Honestly listening to the opinions, perspectives, and feelings of others, is far more important in today’s age than before. One of the best paradigms for listening comes from an Ashoka series on developing empathy. They suggest that one of the best words to describe healthy listening is the verb, absorb. When leaders focus on “absorbing” all the emotions and ideas placed before them, they’ll be better equipped to facilitate healthy interaction.


Good network leaders respect and utilize the power inherent in social networks. Mrs. Fine compares social networks to the ideal power grid: instead of weakening as they spread and are used, networks grow stronger. Understanding this and using it can help organizations conduct market research, raise funds, or petition a lawmaker.

Knowing How and When to Make a Decision

There will be times when, instead of leaving the decision to the network, it will be wiser to make a decision yourself. John Adams, one of America’s founding fathers and the principle author of the Constitution, stated in his Federalist Papers that one of the purposes behind the structure of the US government was to protect against when the masses were actually wrong. Leaders will have to use their authority when what the majority wants is either in conflict, taking too long for practical action, or is actually headed in a harmful direction.

Being Curious

Curiosity can be one of the greatest boons of a leader. If the head of an organization is intensely curious about current events in the world, organization, and network, he will be in a better place to facilitate helpful, honest, conscious communication.

While the change may take significant effort, the results reaped will far exceed any cost. Ceding our pretended authority as leaders will grant tremendous power and resources to the organization. I look forward to implementing these practices in my own efforts later in life!

Welcome, All!

5 Apr

Hello, Changemakers! I’m very pleased to welcome you to my new blog, “Observations of a Changemaker.” If you would allow me, this will be my introductory post to explain the layout, for all interested.


Observations is a gathering place for those people interested in the latest in business management or social change. Also posted here are observations from my personal life, including stories and thoughts on spirituality. Feel free to subscribe to the RSS Feed, which I believe WordPress will support. Everything will be organized into categories for your convenience; most posts will belong in more than one. My first categories are detailed below:

Business and Management

Here, I will post the latest findings and theories regarding business structure, strategy, and management. Currently, some of the best trends include networked structures and “wirearchies,” empowering employees and team-based contributions, and customer and employee relations in the connected age.


Important to every individual, especially to today’s businessman or changemaker, is the science of everyday tricks and paradigms to aid productivity. With the many demands modern culture gives us, it can be a powerful advantage to accomplish even slightly more than the competition.

Social Change

The heartbeat of this blog, this category holds the newest trends and research concerning international development and aid. Impact investment, microfinance, and other innovations and their effectiveness will be the bulk of this category.


I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, colloquially called the Mormons. My relationship with the Lord has been a defining and beautiful part of my life, and I hope to post some observations about what I’ve learned here.


This is where I put the stories and observations from my personal life. This section rarely will serve a higher purpose other than being a public journal, but it’s unlikely it’ll be posted in as much as the other categories.


Here, I will be planting seeds for comment discussion. I would love to talk with you all, and here, I ask questions and, more rarely, make requests, looking for information and original perspectives.

In Sum

I really look forward to talking with you all, and with sharing some of what I’ve learned with everyone! Use the categories to look at what you’re interested in; I hope to have something for everyone!

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