All posts filed under “Addiction

Swoopo: Irrational escalation of commitment


Swoopo, a new kind of “entertainment shopping” auction site, takes Martin Shubik’s classic Dollar Auction game to a whole new, automated, mass participation level. It’s an example of the escalation of commitment, or a sunk cost fallacy, where we increase our commitment (in this case with real money) even though (in this case) most users’ positions are becoming less and less valuable.

Thee Cake Scraps has a good analysis of how this works:

It is a ‘auction’ site…sort of. Swoopo sells bids for $1. Each time you use a bid on an item the price is increased by $0.15 for that item. So here is an example:

Person A buys 5 bids from Swoopo for $5 total. Person A sees an auction for $1000 and places the first bid. The auction is now at $0.15. Person A now has a sunk cost of $1 (the cost of the bid they used). There is no way to get that dollar back, win or lose. If Person A wins they must pay the $0.15.

Person B also purchased $5 of bids. Person B sees the same auction and places the second bid. The auction price is now $0.30 (because each bid increases the cost by exactly 15 cents). Person B now has a sunk cost of $1. If Person B wins they must pay the $0.30. Swoopo now has $2 in the bank and the auction is at 30 cents.

This can happen with as many users as there are suckers to start accounts. Why are they suckers? Because everybody that does not have the top spot just loses the money they spent on bids. *Poof* Gone. If you think this sounds a little like gambling or a complete scam you are not alone. People get swept up into the auction and don’t want to get nothing for the money they spent on bids.

The key thing seems to be that some bidders will win items at lower than RRP, i.e. they get a good deal, but for every one of those, there are many, many others who have all paid for their bids (money going to Swoopo) and received nothing as a result. The house will always win.

Swoopo staff respond here and here (at Crunchgear).

As is obligatory with this blog, I need to ask: where else have systems been designed to use this behaviour-shaping technique? There must be many examples in auctions, games and gambling in general – but can the idea be applied to consumer products/services, using escalating commitment to shape user behaviour? Can this be applied to help users save energy, do more exercise, etc as opposed merely to extracting value from them with no benefit in return?

Learned down the gambling house

Fruit machine reelsMichael Shanks’ Ten Things class at Stanford – which looks like a brilliant application of anthropological and archaeological thinking to design and technology – generated a very interesting project by William Choi and Antoine Sindhu analysing the architectures of control (psychological and physical) designed into both slot machines, and casinos themselves.

Slot machines

From ‘The psychology of the slot machine‘:

[S]lot machines keep players engrossed through a psychological phenomenon known as operant conditioning. What psychologists call the “primary conditioning mechanism” is the inclusion of relatively small payouts in slot machine gameplay. These small payouts provide positive reinforcement to the player … the positive reinforcement provided by the small payouts causes people to continue repeating the behavior. The frequency of payouts is precisely fine-tuned and optimized—a payout rate that is any higher than absolutely necessary cuts down on the casino’s profits.

Slot machines do not stop with a single primary conditioning mechanism. Secondary mechanisms augment the excitement and incentive to continue playing. The most important of these is the inclusion of a system in the machine that yields a high frequency of “near misses,” or situations in which the player believes they have almost won. For example, the slot machine often displays two out of the three jackpot bars, a tremendously stimulating event which has greatly reinforced the player’s behavior at no cost to the casino.

The article compares the positive reinforcement effect in humans to that shown by B F Skinner‘s classic experiments with rats, where pressing a lever caused pellets to be dispensed, and where the mechanism was very quickly learned. Skinner’s work on behaviour shaping [PDF link] is of great relevance to my forthcoming PhD research, since it’s effectively about ‘teaching’ (or ‘guiding’) the subject (which could be a rat, pigeon or end-user) towards a different set of behaviour, rather than actual coercion. This continuum between persuasion and outright control will, I suspect, be an important part of the research, although as a number of readers have pointed out in the comments here over the last couple of years, persuasion can be as much about control (in a psychological sense) as code or physical product or environmental architecture are in the world outside our minds.

Casino design

We’ve looked briefly before at casino layouts and tricks, inspired by a piece on Signal vs Noise, but Choi and Sindhu’s ‘Analysis of casino design‘ goes into fascinating detail:

Casinos are generally designed so that patrons must walk through or at least around the periphery of several slot machine blocks to move around the casino, to maximize the customers’ exposure to the exciting sights and sounds of the slot machines, and especially of others winning on the machines … Casino planners know that slot players love to see and hear other people winning on nearby machines, because players hold it as evidence that money can be made on the machines. Thus casinos are designed to have the loosest machines in prominent areas deep within the gambling floor. Areas such as the ends of long rows or near walkways or elevated sections are generally where loose machines are placed. As people walk through the gambling floor, the sights and sounds of people playing on these more liberal machines draw other customers deeper into the slot machine block, where the machines are tighter.

In general, table players do not like the noise of slot machines because they find it distracting … At the same time, however, spouses or partners of table players will often wile away time playing at a nearby slot machine. Thus casinos are planned such that there are slot machines lining walkways around tables. However, these slots are always tight. This cuts down on the noise and distraction to table players, and makes sense because the majority of players on these machines are playing spontaneously, with little expectation of winning. This demonstrates to what degree casino layouts are optimized—in this case, to the point that a complex system is implemented simply to clean up loose change from spontaneous players.

In most Las Vegas casinos, there is a noticeable lack of natural light and of clocks. The gambling floor is always located away from the main entrance out onto the street to minimize the gamblers’ exposure to the outside world … those who are simply walking around the casino are more inclined to start using a machine, because their perceptions of time are manipulated by the design of the casino.

Other features of the casino, including the music, carpeting, and even the air conditioning system, are manipulated to the casino’s advantage. Studies have shown that carpeting is often purposefully jarring to the eyes, which draws customers’ gaze upwards toward the machines on the gambling floor. Music is usually mild and soothing, and plays on a continuous loop rather than individual songs, contributing to a trance-like feeling of warmth and comfort in the gamblers.

Choi and Sindhu go on to discuss the use of coercive atmospherics (Douglas Rushkoff‘s term) – things such as extra oxygen or pheromones pumped into the air – tactics which clearly have been tried – and in retail environments as well as casinos. Although Hunter pointed out in a comment on the SvN post that extra oxygen is not / no longer widely used by the major casinos, the Commercaire website is no longer online (Wayback copy here – switch off images if you want to be able to read it!), and Commercaire’s manufacturers claim to have withdrawn their ‘controversial’ product, if the results claimed [PDF link] – 42% increase in casino revenues – are real, then one might suspect the company has simply changed the way it markets the product (as the ‘Spitting Image’ blog suggests here).


Karel Donk has some intriguing thoughts on ‘maximising the upside’ of life, by reducing dependence on other people, status and possessions, so that there is less to lose:

So one of the important things in life is to be as independent as possible and rely on very few things. After all, when it comes down to it, the only thing you can really and always depend on in life is yourself. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t want a lot of things in life. Want and have as much as you like, but require as little as possible. This is the simple rule you can use to guide you in making decisions about what you want to depend on in life.

Interestingly, he also hits on the ‘architectures of control’ issue, briefly:

Today’s world, and indeed for a very very long time now, is structured in such a way where people are directed, if not forced, to become dependent. Dependent on the system, or dependent on others. When you do enough research, you will find that this is all by design. I won’t go into details in this post, but certainly will in the future. For now it’s enough to note that this is by design. The reason why things are set up in this way is of course to be able to control people and limit their freedoms. When people depend on you, you can manipulate them into behaving the way you want. Because they depend on you, they have little choice but to go along with anything you say because they fear losing what they get from you. By definition if someone depends on someone else, or something else, that person has something to lose.

I’m looking forward to reading Karel’s future thoughts on this. Creating dependence, or at least creating a need/desire/requirement to consume more, is a fair characterisation of many architectures of control we’ve looked at on this site, from printer cartridge sneakiness to outright chemical addiction; whether a simple razor-blade model (you need to buy more of this, because it’s the only thing that fits) or something more sinister, Karel is right: the common thread is dependence.

To a large extent, I think this is why education is so important. If we understand the systems around us, technical, political and cultural, we are able to make (better) decisions for ourselves. If, however, we ‘leave it up to others who understand all that stuff’, we become dependent on them.

Limiting frequency of cigarette use

Nicostopper - image from Nicostopper - image from
Images from and Popgadget

Nicostopper is an electronic dispenser which holds up to 10 cigarettes, and releases them one at a time at programmed intervals, to help pace and restrict the smoker. The screen “will also flash “self-help” messages each time to make you feel guilty as well” (Popgadget). It’s styled fairly discreetly to look similar to a portable music player or phone – the resemblance is accentuated in the photo above right with the extended cigarette in the position of the aerial – presumably so the user will be more likely to feel at home using it in public and social situations.

This is an interesting product, attempting to affect a user’s behaviour to reduce consumption rather than increase it as with so many other architectures of control. Indeed, smoking could well be seen as a battle between two attempts to control/influence users’ behaviour, with vast sums spent on advertising and methods both to promote the practice, and to encourage smokers to give up. We’ve looked before at cigarettes as a parasitic lock-in method, especially in the context of increasing nicotine levels to compound addiction*.

Of course, a device such as Nicostopper does not stop the user asking a friend or someone else for a cigarette, nor indeed taking a full packet along in addition. The actual strength of control is fairly low. The user really must want to control his or her habit, and be determined to do so, otherwise there is no point in buying the device. Even the significant commitment shown by buying Nicostopper, and the expense of it, may help the user to take more control of the situation, and there’s also the factor that, as Uber Review puts it:

If that doesn’t stop you from smoking at least you will have $300 less to spend on smokes after you pay for the device.

I recently mentioned Lee Iacocca’s quote on rationalising major purchases – to the extent that spending $300 on a Nicostopper is a major purchase, this may increase its effectiveness, at least for the first few months, since the user feels guilty about spending $300 on the product, and is thus more committed actually to using it, even if only to justify it to friends and family. Like exercise bikes and home gym equipment abandoned a few months after Christmas, the Nicostopper may ultimately fail in a large percentage of users’ attempts to change their own behaviour, but will surely succeed in some cases.

Interestingly, Ross Anderson comments, at Popgadget:

I distinctly remember hearing, about 30 years ago, that the then Soviet ruler Leonid Brezhnev owned such a device that had been specially built to his specifications.

This is confirmed here by John Negroponte

He had a problem with his smoking. I remember he couldn’t control smoking either, he had a little machine, little cigarette box, with a timer on it that was only allowed to open every so many minutes, so that he wouldn’t smoke to many cigarettes.

…and also in this Time story from 1971:

Brezhnev customarily works late at the Kremlin, sometimes has difficulty sleeping without a sedative. To cut down on his smoking, he is trying a time-lock cigarette case (made in France, he thinks) which opens only after a preset number of minutes or hours has passed. “Yesterday,” Brezhnev told L’Humanité, “I smoked only 17 cigarettes.”

Of course, simply having a smaller standard cigarette case with space for only a few cigarettes might have much the same effect as devices with timers, etc. As with packaging/serving sizes, the quantity which we expect to consume can be affected by the way it’s presented. Maybe smaller cigarettes – getting a little bit smaller each year – would have a gradual effect of lessening dependence on the chemical content of the product, but not on the physical addiction to picking up a cigarette, lighting it, etc.

*As my brother commented, tobacco companies may increase the nicotine, but they don’t increase the tar: a parasite doesn’t want to kill its host.