Have you ever bought a lottery ticket or at least, been tempted to buy one? Your rational mind understands that the odds of winning are slim, but that tingling of hope inside says, "Somebody inevitably wins. What if it's me this time?" You are not alone. In fact, the odds of winning a lottery are stacked clearly against you because our brains like gambling and prompt so many to buy those lottery tickets.
The uncertainty of the reward is what keeps the brain interested. When the brain is busy predicting if we win or lose, it produces more of the neuromodulator dopamine, which is responsible for focused attention and more pleasurable experience. That explains how people can spend hours pulling a lever of a slot machine. Imagine what would happen if you were to get a regular salary for pulling the same lever but no chance of a random win. You'd be bored to death very soon. Random rewards keep the excitement alive but can also lead to gambling addictions.
Finance professor Peter Tufano of Harvard Business School used this behavior of dopamine neurons for the force of good when he created a pilot program called "Save to Win." Michigan residents now can invest as little as $25 into a one-year Save to Win Certificate of Deposit for a chance to win an annual grand prize of $100,000, plus monthly cash prizes varying up to $400. The goal, of course, is to encourage more people to save.
Here's something even more exciting. Our brains interpret near misses as wins, causing us to keep playing longer. In a recent fMRI study conducted by Luke Clark of the University of Cambridge, near misses activated the reward system of the volunteers who were playing a computerized slot machine in the same way as wins. The researchers saw a lot of activity in the striatum and the insula - areas involved in reinforcing behavior with positive feedback. Since people are generally not happy when they feel they were so close to winning but didn't, you may wonder about the reason for this odd behavior of the brain. The answer may be that such positive reinforcement after near misses encourages learning. The brain wants us to keep practicing the skill until we get better.
How could you use this reward system of the brain to help you build good habits faster? Here are a few things you can do:
Create a reward jar and fill it with pieces of paper with the descriptions of things you'd enjoy doing (your rewards), mixed with some blank papers. If you stay on track with your new habit, let's say, for a week, pull a piece of paper from the jar to see if you've got your lucky reward. Sometimes, you will, other times, you won't (if you get a blank paper), but that's exactly the point. If you brain knows that the reward is coming, it feels nice, for sure, but not so exciting after a while.
If you want to help others improve and grow, do random acts of kindness to encourage paying it forward, give unexpected gifts to celebrate accomplishments, express your gratitude by sending a thank-you note by snail mail (it is so rare these days that it would seem like a win to the recipient).
And remember that near misses are your opportunity to become better. Our dog trainer taught us to give our dog a treat every time the dog got a bit closer to the desired behavior. It's not just dogs that can learn new tricks with positive reinforcement. Encouragement goes a long way for people too.