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July 31, 2005

What do Golf, Startups, and Slots have in common?

They all conform to one of the fundamental rules of human behavior conditioning - provide random and variable rewards to reinforce repeated behavior. 

Ivan Pavlov in a series of seminal experiments in the 1900's established all of this and now the gambling industry uses the same principles to "hook" and "keep" people.  As Alan Krigman wrote in this post:

Nearly everybody knows of the experiments by Ivan Pavlov in the early 1900s. Pavlov started by ringing a bell and presenting food simultaneously. When he stopped offering the food, the dogs still salivated at the sound of the bell. Later, to keep the dogs responding to the bell, he reinforced the behavior by accompanying it with food at random, but frequently enough that the stimulus was not futile too often. B F Skinner extended this work during the 1930s using conditioning to train animals such as pigeons and rats to perform various tasks. Tom Creed, a psychology professor at the College of St Benedict at St John's University, says that slot machines utilize similar conditioning processes to produce player behavior characteristics desired by the casinos.

Like slots, Golf and Startups provide the same conditioning response (though the only good news is that unlike slots in which the odds are conditionally designed for you to lose, Golf and startups provide opportunities for truly skilled players to hit the jackpot).  How often is it that you play golf and go through 16 holes of hell but remember that one great shot in hole 17 in which you drive within 6 feet of the hole and one putt it for a birdie - in my case very often - and it is that one shot that makes you want to come out and play golf again. 

In Silicon Valley, startups have some of the same conditioning allure of the slots.  Slots are designed to be "loud" and "blaring" when there is a huge payout so that all the other players around the slot realize that someone has won and thus get reinforced that they could also win.  This motivates the other slot players to play more often.  The same thing happens with startups - think Google.  In Slots, the machines are designed to have many "close" outcomes to trick players into thinking that they almost hit the jackpot.  The same thing happens in startups (not by design but just by their nature) when the startup is close to being acquired or when they get a major deal.  Slots make periodic payouts that condition players to keep playing.  Startups get acquired or go public in quick enough time frames that they resemble "payouts" to the employees and thus motivate them to start or join another startup.

Now please don't mistake this post to mean that startups are a "con" like slots.  Far from it.  Startups offer a truly unique opportunity for people to pursue their vision to create fantastic products/services, delight customers and make everyone wealthy.  Unlike slots which are destructive for everyone (except the casinos of course), Startups actually benefit society.  I draw the parallel only to show why startups are addictive to some folks.  They share the same conditioning response with slots and golf.  Hopefully my wife now understands why I still play that god forsaken game of golf.   

Posted by Venky Ganesan at 06:17 PM in Current Affairs, ventures, Web/Tech | Permalink


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So too with fishing. This is not to say that skilled fisherman (and women) do not exist. It is just that you never know which cast is going to provide the exhilirating thrill of landing the big one. I once returned from a fishing trip with a 33 inch muskie. My wife did not seem to share my enthusiasm for this feat. She later explained that she realized that with that catch, I would be hooked on fishing for at least ten more years.

Come to think of it, the same applies to attending live sporting events. You never know when you are going to witness something amazing. But you have to witness something amazing every so often to keep your interest.

Posted by: Anthony Cerminaro | Aug 1, 2005 1:44:28 PM

hehe! yeah, our last startup definetely felt like a slot machine. dunno how many hours we spent sitting there and pressing that damn button.

good post! definetely makes me feel like an addict

i think it's interesting that startups fall within the insurance definition of gambling

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