We are a species that depend on one another. Scientists theorize humans have specially adapted neurons that help us feel what others feel, providing evidence that we survive through our empathy for others. We’re meant to be part of a tribe and our brains seek out rewards that make us feel accepted, important, attractive, and included.
Many of our institutions and industries are built around this need for social reinforcement. From civic and religious groups to spectator sports, the need to feel social connectedness informs our values and drives much of how we spend our time. Communication technology in particular has given rise to a long history of companies that have provided better ways of delivering what I call, “rewards of the tribe.”
However, it’s not only the reward we seek. Variability also keeps us engaged. From the telegraph to email, products that connect us are highly valued, but those that invoke an element of surprise are even more so. Recently, the explosion of Web technologies that cater to our insatiable search for validation provide clear examples of the tremendous appeal of the promise of social reward.
The endless search for rewards of the tribe, and the variability that often comes with it, are key components of the Web’s largest technical question and answer site, Stack Overflow. As with other user-generated sites like Quora, Wikipedia, and YouTube, all of Stack Overflow’s content is created voluntarily by its members. In Stack Overflow’s case, over 5,000 questions are posted and answered daily, all of which cost nothing to view. Many of these answers take hours to complete and require a high degree of technical expertise.
Despite having to take time away from their work and family lives to add new content to the site, some users are so enamored answering questions that the site’s creators had to put usage limitations in place for fear of creating exploitive addictions. Jeff Atwood, a co-founder of the company, told me about a man with a full-time job and an autistic child at home who frequently reached the maximum allowable time on the system despite his many other seemingly more important commitments.
The question of course is “why?” Why do so many people voluntarily spend so much time creating free content on sites like Stack Overflow when they could spend their time elsewhere? According to Atwood, part of the reason is the “social reward of doing something other people find important.”
To make the reward more tangible, the company implemented a points system with an elaborate mechanism for earning certain rights on the site. Users in the top tiers of accrued points literally run the site. Top contributors have editing privileges and can even ban other users. However, collecting points is not just another game mechanic, the points confer special value.
“What makes the points valuable,” Atwood says, “is that they are earned as a proxy of the value created for other users. They embody peer status.” The points system on Stack Overflow is an example of a variable reward of the tribe. Contributors are uncertain of how many points they will accrue by answering a question. The only way to find out is to write the best possible response and hope the community values your contribution.
Points give people real power on the site, but that status is only attained through a meritocratic process that determines who is most valued by the community. The search for rewards of the tribe is driven by status given not from an arbitrary algorithm intended to control the user, but from other users of the site. The distinction is critically important. Reputational status conferred by the community has real value, while badges or points given by a machine have only temporary benefits.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of status. In fact, some scientists believe our lives depend on it. Research suggests that social status may be the most important factor affecting how long we live. Robert Sapolski’s research shows that when it comes to our evolutionary cousins, primates, status is synonymous with longevity. Sapolski observed that higher status monkeys have lower baseline stress hormone levels and live healthier, longer lives.
Further research shows that levels of dopamine in the human brain increase when our perception of our own status increases. In another study, researchers concluded that the feeling of increased status is similar to that of winning a monetary jackpot. In contrast, social rejection and the perception of a loss of status, was shown to activate the same areas of the brain associated with physical pain.
Utilizing the human need to feel included has another added virtue. Sites that leverage rewards of the tribe benefit from what Albert Bandura called “social learning theory.” Bandura studied the power of modeling and ascribed special powers to our ability to learn from others. In particular, Bandura showed that people who observe someone rewarded for a particular behavior are more likely to alter their own beliefs and subsequent actions.
Notably, Bandura also showed that this technique works particularly well when people observe the behavior of people most like themselves or slightly more experienced. This is exactly the kind of targeted demographic and interest-level segmentation that social media companies like Facebook and industry-specific sites like Stack Overflow selectively display.
Another example of the potential of social learning theory and rewards of the tribe, can be found in the case of Riot Games, makers of the popular video game League of Legends. The game’s 2009 release quickly proved the company had found a highly successful business model, but it also had a big problem. Its game had a nasty reputation for having an, “unforgiving—even abusive—community.” A leading industry publication mocked the company writing, “League of Legends has become well known for at least two things: proving the power of the free-to-play model in the West, and a vicious player community.”
Lead producer Travis George was fearful the game’s reputation was hurting its appeal and stifling growth. “Nobody wants to play a game with somebody who’s mean.” George was quoted as saying. To change player behavior, Riot Games formed a working committee George called, “the PB&J Team, which stands for Player Behavior and Justice Team.” The team included two PhDs, one a cognitive neuroscientist and the other a behavioral psychologist. The group employed concepts similar to Bandura’s and built a variable social reward mechanism into the game.
The system was designed to curtail bad behavior by allowing players to report users for “unsportsmanlike” conduct. Offending players were judged by their peers in a “Tribunal,” which company President Marc Merrill is quoted as saying helps players, “recognize that there are consequences to their actions.” Referrals to the Tribunal are made public and the company emphasizes that, offenders lose games!” making them social outcasts others avoid playing with.
To reinforce teamwork and helpfulness, the company also instituted a rewards system called “Honor” to “identify … pillars of the community.” Honor points became viewable to others players and were awarded or revoked by members of the player’s own, or opposing team. Since implementation in late 2012, Riot Games has reported a dramatic reduction in adverse behavior and a noticeable increase in helpful actions.
By making social rewards explicit through up-votes, honor points, likes, and follows, companies can put tribe-conferred status on display and model the behavior needed to attain those rewards. By fulfilling these innate human desires with variable rewards mechanics, companies can create social experiences users find enriching and irresistible.
Editor’s Note: Nir Eyal writes about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business at NirAndFar.com. Follow him on Twitter @nireyal.
 Marmot, M. (2004). The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects our Health and Longevity. New York, NY: Time Books, Henry Holt and Company, LLC
 Sapolski, R.M. (2002). A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons.
 Izumo, K., Saito, D., Sadato, N. (2008). Processing of Social and Monetary Rewards in the Human Striatum. Neuron, 58(2), 284-294.
 Eisenberger, N. i., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt, An fMRi study of social exclusion. Science, 302, 290-292.
 A. Bandura, Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1986).