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Why are in-app streaks so spellbinding? Psychology professors explain compulsion they create.

My 15-year-old daughter recently attended our church’s summer camp, which included a “phone fast,” meaning she had to leave her cell phone at home.

Before her departure she came to me and insisted: “You have to keep my streaks going while I’m at camp.”

For the uninitiated, a streak is a facet of an app on your cell phone that counts the number of consecutive days you have logged in and used said app, a running tally that increases every day you engage.

My daughter’s streaks on Duolingo, Brilliant and her Bible app run anywhere from 200 days to roughly two years, a feat so extraordinary that she was willing to provide unfettered access to her cell phone for a week just so my husband and I could keep her streaks alive. (Side note: we do have software installed on her phone that monitors and protects from a variety of harmful Internet smut).

At any rate, I am pleased to report my daughter came home from camp with her streaks duly intact, thank you very much. But lest I be a hypocrite, full disclosure: I have streaks with some family members on Snapchat that are nearing three years.

On one level, I feel it’s ridiculous and almost a burden. Yet why do I and so many others play along?

I reached out to several psychology professors for insight into this odd compulsion, and their answers were both illuminating and somewhat expected: it feels good.

“A streak creates the illusion of meaningfulness, almost of achievement,” said psychologist Roy Baumeister, professor emeritus at Florida State University and president of the International Positive Psychology Association.

“Ending it requires starting over, which feels like a loss, even though nothing is really at stake,” Baumeister said via email to The Fix. “It’s a bit like the influence technique that says this deal expires very soon so you need to grab it. Even if you don’t really want it, you fear to lose the option.”

Rutgers University psychology Professor Lee Jussim pointed out that “The Guinness Book of World Records” has been around for decades because “people love the ‘most’ or longest or biggest of almost anything.”

The longer one keeps a streak going, the “cooler and more satisfying it gets,” and it almost becomes a “shame to break one,” he said via email.

“Skip one day, and you lose the whole streak, at least in the sense that you’d have to start all over,” Jussim said. “So once they get going, streaks have a sort of psychological momentum: ‘I’ve come this far, I do not want to stop now!'”

The incentive behinds streaks “borrows from a concept called gamification,” said Stetson University psychology Professor Christopher Ferguson in an email to The College Fix.

Basically, “if you can make a game of things, people will be more engaged with them and find them exciting,” Ferguson said.

Many apps, such as Duolingo, “actually make a competition out of something that isn’t normally a competition (i.e., learning a language).”

“People are competitive by nature, and also status-seeking by nature, so gamification tends to increase engagement using strategies related to (usually good-natured) competition (gamification is usually against harsher competition), the granting of visible rewards, status markers, etc., but also keeping things fresh and engaging,” Ferguson said.

The concept predates the cell phone, he added, such as how some food and wine festivals let people collect stickers for each vendor they visit.

“The stickers give you no value at all other than the pride of having collected them, yet encourages you to spend more at the various venders,” he said. “It makes a game out of the activity and people naturally like games you can ‘win.’ Restaurants and other businesses also basically do something similar with ‘rewards programs.'”

The question then becomes, for us app users stuck with high streaks that grow by the day, when will we cut ourselves off from this dopamine? In our home, at least, I wonder if it will take a long power outage.

MORE: Psychology professors warn: Earlier smartphone use linked to worse adult mental health

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About the Author
Fix Editor
Jennifer Kabbany is editor-in-chief of The College Fix.