Have you ever played a slot machine at a casino? I’ll admit, there’s definitely an addictive feeling to pressing the lever (or button) to make the wheel spin around and watching with anticipation as they slow to a stop. C’mon! MATCH! Mama needs a new pair of shoes!
Which is honestly ridiculous, because I most certainly do not need a new pair of shoes, nor do I really want them. But it’s the heat of the moment, the thrill of chance. Luckily, I place limits on my spending when playing the slots, because I’d probably be broke without them.
But why am I prone to addiction for slot machines? Am I a gambling addict? No. Because the schedule of reinforcement is completely random, my behavior of pressing the lever to spin the wheel is resistant to extinction. My reinforcement I am hoping to catch? The jackpot.
It’s the jackpot which gets players to come back for more. Never knowing when they’ll hit it, the players keep going and going, like the energizer bunny.
Jackpots are something of a difficult topic among animal professionals. Some trainers adore them, and believe they truly help an animal learn a new behavior. Others believe the jackpot method has absolutely no effect on behavior change.
For me, I loved using jackpots when I was training a brand new behavior, especially with dolphins. I remember a specific time I was training a young dolphin a side breach. He kept arching his side and not hitting the water quite right for the dramatic splash I wanted. But one day, with the help of a colleague, she encouraged me to use some behavior momentum. After a few easy high bows, she sent Gage on his way to me across the pool. I was just at the edge of a deep part of the pool with the target pole extended out. With the momentum of the bows and the speed he maintained on his way over to me, Gage shot out of the water, touched the target pole, and followed it precisely in the perfect body position as I brought the target back towards the water. The result was such an intense splash, people far behind me shrieked as they got sprayed with salt water.
Seeing his body in the correct position, I blew my whistle, his bridge to connect what he had just done to getting reinforcement a moment later. When he returned, I emptied his bucket into his mouth (not all at once, bottlenose dolphins are killer whales, after all), and ended his session. Rarely did I ever give such a large portion of food portioned out for training in one go. It was a jackpot, a surprise to Gage in return for something extraordinary he did.
The very next day, I practiced the side breach with Gage again. Having had success with the bows and then the breach, I repeated the sequence from yesterday. As soon as I gave him the signal to perform a breach after the bows, I swear I saw a lightbulb turn on over his head. He knew EXACTLY what to do. Gage tore off to deeper water to gain momentum and then hurled himself out of the water, arcing his body again in a perfect position to create a tremendous splash. That was it. Gage finally had the idea and the completed behavior criteria of a side breach.
But critics will say it wasn’t the jackpot which turned on the lightbulb. They say Gage would have had that same epiphany without the massive reinforcement the day before. And in my years of experience, I have had instances where either what I felt was a jackpot did absolutely nothing to progress behavior, or when I missed a chance to give a jackpot because I wasn’t fully prepared, and the behavior progressed regardless. I’m not saying the critics are right, but I agree there isn’t a lot of data supporting the principle of a jackpot.
Making Your Accomplishments a BIG DEAL
Besides it not being a well-documented principle of operant conditioning, jackpots are not an easy practice in fitness. First off, the idea behind a jackpot is that it comes as a surprise. It is unexpected. If you are following your program on your own, this is a little difficult to manage. Not impossible, but very difficult. These jackpots tend to be what fitness professionals call “non-scale victories”. It’s the moment you try on a new pair of pants and discover you have gone down a size. Or the moment you pick up the bar weighing more than you do in a perfect deadlift- more than you ever dreamed of lifting. Maybe it’s the doctor visit where they tell you your health is the best they’ve seen in years, and all your tests came back with ideal numbers everywhere.
These not-so-micro-wins will not just make your day. They will motivate you in ways nothing else can. It is the epitome of positive reinforcement. They come when you least expect it, but you have to put in the work to make it happen.
There are other ways you can experience a jackpot. If you have a partner, they may surprise you with a day off all your chores, to celebrate all the hard work you have put in to bettering your life. It could be a co-worker seeing you for the first time since you started on your journey, and they commenting how fabulous you look. You can even give yourself something similar to a jackpot (although it won’t come as a surprise). When you hit a huge milestone, go all out and splurge on a big-ticket reinforcement item. Treat yourself to a concert, or even a vacation. Make a huge gesture to celebrate your accomplishments.
Critics may say a jackpot doesn’t affect motivation. But who knows? It may affect yours, just when you need it most to help you amp up your progress and take your fitness to the next level.