Column: Are You a Closet Contest Enterer?

Are You a Closet Contest Enterer?
Column by TOM GARRISON

Are you one of those? You know, a person who partakes in that guilty pleasure—a contest enterer?

Will you admit it in polite society? Probably not. When the topic raises its ugly head at a cocktail party, you are the one to steer the conversation to something safe, something like the latest Kardashian sighting.

Anything to divert attention from your hidden pleasure.

Ashamed of this aspect of your behavior? Don’t be. You are simply another victim in a society of victims—the victim of what behavioral psychologists call intermittent reinforcement.

What is intermittent reinforcement? Let’s use the favorite example of behavioral psychologists, the rat. Under continuous reinforcement, the rat taps a bar and a food pellet is dispensed each time the bar is hit.

Stop giving the food and the behavior, hitting the bar, is fairly quickly extinguished.

However, if the rat receives food only inconsistently, or intermittently, after tapping the bar his bar hitting behavior can last a very long time.

Why? Because he was conditioned to not expect a reward after each bar hit—he only occasionally gets food. It could take scores of bar taps before he realizes that this is not just an extremely long dry spell, but is the end of food rewards.

While we are not rats, we exhibit the same behavior under conditions of intermittent reinforcement. You know that the odds of winning the big prize in a contest are generally worse than the probability of getting hit by a meteorite.

But, if you keep at it most people occasionally win some minor prize, which is an intermittent reinforcement. If you never won anything over a long time span, the behavior would most likely extinguish.

Accompanying intermittent reinforcement in driving contest enterers is the idea of gaining something for nothing—a force to which many humans succumb.

Those who avoid entering contests rightly deny this force by pointing out that contest enterers do not get something for free even if they win a prize; they have invested time in their endeavor.

These non-enterers haughtily disrespect contest enterers for the time “wasted” on such a silly pursuit. They would have us believe their free time is spent inventing a cure for cancer or emulating the life of Mother Theresa.

In reality, they are more likely to spend their free time lying on the couch watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rockford Files reruns.

Other than being a victim of this insidious conditioning and wanting something for (almost) nothing, does your little secret cause any great harm?

Like many things, done in moderation, contest entering is a harmless diversion. The Internet age has spawned a plethora of online contests. It costs nothing except the 30 minutes a day spent entering your favorites. No big deal and your family shower you with praise upon winning even a minor prize.

I believe regular contest enterers (we need not discuss those dilettantes who only occasionally enter a contest) share a valuable common trait—optimism. Why spend any time entering contests if you do not believe you will win? Winning is not a matter of if but when.

Want to know a secret? I too am a closet contest enterer. Like the rat pressing the bar for a food pellet, I’m hooked by intermittent reinforcement and the idea of obtaining some goodies for (almost) nothing. The rat and I keep hoping for a big payoff.

Alas, so far all we manage to obtain for our efforts are food pellets for the rat and some really cool ashtrays for me.

Editor’s note: Tom Garrison is now retired and enjoying life in beautiful St. George, Utah with his wife Deb and two cats. His latest book, Why We Left the Left: Personal Stories of Leftists/Liberals Who Evolved to Embrace Libertarianism, is now available as an ebook at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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