Simon Creasey

Streaks: is the motivational tool helpful or harmful?

Gamblers often find a winning run is more satisfying than the prize itself. Simon Creasey explores whether classroom reward schemes that tap into the same motivational triggers are a useful or harmful tool

 Streaks: is the motivational tool helpful or harmful?

Archie holds his red badge for achieving 30 consecutive days of “sitting quietly on the carpet when asked”, and eyes the chart on the interactive whiteboard. He reads that if he makes it to another 30 days of faultless, quiet sitting, he will receive the blue badge; 30 days after that, he will get to pick a prize from Mrs Anjit’s desk drawer.

Max nudges him in the ribs, trying to ask about the badge. But Archie looks forward, says nothing: he’s 30 days in, he’s not going to mess this up now. It’s not even the prize that is the main thing motivating him – right now, he just wants to keep this streak going. Nothing will stand in his way.

Such is the power of streak psychology.

A streak is essentially a consecutive run of successes. As the successes accumulate, material reward for any success combines with a psychological need not to break the streak – because you don’t want to have to build up the streak all over again, but also because the streak is motivating in itself.

“When we are on a streak, especially an exceptional one, we tend to find it exciting,” says Jesse Walker, assistant professor of marketing at Ohio State University. “In a lot of cases, streaks challenge what we previously thought was possible in terms of human performance, which can lead to feelings of awe. These feelings are pleasurable, and so we want to see streaks continue.”

Adam Alter, professor of marketing at NYU Stern School of Business and author of Irresistible: the rise of addictive technology and the business of keeping us hooked, says that “streaks by definition get longer as we sustain them, which means that allowing them to end has greater costs the longer they’ve existed”.

“The sting of allowing them to end – the loss you experience at their demise – is more acute the longer they’re extended,” he adds.

The appeal of such a tool in a school is clear: adherence to rules in return for very small material reward and an eventual motivational shift to behave, in a bid to maintain the streak. What’s not to like?

Path to addiction

Certainly, streak psychology can be put to good use. For example, you could use streaks to “gamify” tasks that would otherwise be mundane or unappealing (such as school behaviour routines), says Jackie Silverman, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Delaware. “We find that if you present people with incentives that encourage consecutive behaviours – whether that be increasing levels of payment for consecutive work tasks, or badges or notifications that highlight streaks in a positive way – people engage in that behaviour more than when they receive other types of incentives or no notifications at all.”

However, streaks also have a dark side. Silverman wrote her dissertation on how streaks can motivate behaviour. She thinks they are a powerful motivational tool that are neither inherently good nor bad but, like any tool, can be used in contexts that prompt negative outcomes. Streaks are used extensively in gaming, gambling and social media, and can lead to addiction.

“We are seeing a lot of companies highlighting streaks to their users to boost engagement in many different contexts, especially in the digital domain,” she explains. “How good or bad a streak is comes down to that context: is it good for people to be doing that streak-contributing behaviour over and over or might there be negative consequences because of it?”

Silverman’s research has shown that if you highlight a streak, it “can be detrimental when people eventually break their streaks; they are even less likely to keep doing that behaviour when they have a broken streak, and highlighting that fact through notifications, badges or reduced incentives just makes that worse”.

Alter adds that one of the big dangers with streaks is that they can inspire obsessive behaviour. “People who run every day for months and then years will run through major injuries to sustain a streak,” he notes. “Teens who use Snapchat will share their passwords with friends when they go on vacation so they can continue sending snaps while they’re travelling – Snapchat has a streak-counting function, which rises for each day two people send a Snap, or message, back and forth. Clearly this isn’t about wellbeing, and often streak-chasing undermines wellbeing when the behaviour is continued in the face of physical or psychological costs.”

So should schools stay clear of streak psychology or is it all about sensible usage? Some schools may have streak-like behavioural systems in place already; others will use point or reward systems that closely resemble streak psychology. Should they stop?

Alter says that, as with any tool that “compels people to act”, streaks could potentially be used to encourage healthy behaviours and he believes they could be effectively used by schools.

“You could incentivise completing homework or some other continuous aspect of the learning process by rewarding students when they hit certain streak targets,” he suggests.

Streak psychology could also potentially be applied to things such as attendance records, adds Alter.

However, he has a warning, too: “The downside is that you take what should be an intrinsically rewarding experience – learning – and lace it with the extrinsic rewards that come from reaching a streak. It might work well for reluctant learners, but it may undermine a love for learning in motivated students.”

Silverman fears the fallout from students breaking a streak is something schools that should consider carefully. However, she says some interventions could help to mitigate such negative effects. “For example, my research shows that allowing people to repair their streaks – such as by engaging in a specific behaviour to ‘fill in’ the break – helps people feel motivated again,” she says.

“So a student who forgets to hand in an assignment on time, thus breaking their streak, could complete an extra credit assignment to repair their streak and get back on track.”

But would all children be able to have an equal opportunity if a streak system was adopted? Leyla Gambell, assistant head for inclusion at a mainstream primary in North Kent, is not convinced they would. “I’d be concerned at the pressure placed on children to keep up a streak,” she says. “If you are considering, for instance, attendance, children don’t always have control over whether they attend school or not. In today’s society, in our heightened state of anxiety, I wonder if there is a place for such a coercive, addictive tool.”

It’s that addictive nature that will unsettle many teachers – even those using systems similar to a streak who may not have fully thought through the psychology that underpins it. The streak effect is alluring – it promises a relatively low-cost, low-effort way of influencing behaviour that the science shows works and that can be positive. But at what cost?

Simon Creasey is a freelance journalist

This article originally appeared in the 20 November 2020 issue under the headline “The psychology of streaks: clever play or too dicey?”

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