Golf is an addictive sport. As anyone who plays the game can attest, it occupies waking thoughts and creeps into dreams. It is too hard, too time consuming and too expensive, but we keep going back for more.
Golf is addictive, and I think I know why:
In psychology, there is something called a “variable ratio schedule” of reinforcement. With this, a subject is taught to perform a behavior with rewards that appear at unpredictable times.
In labs, rats are taught that pushing a certain lever rewards them with a treat. The catch is that the lever does not pay out every time. Rats subjected to this variable ratio schedule push their levers rapidly and continuously, hoping against hope that the next time they push it, the promised treat will appear.
As it turns out, this sort of reinforcement schedule is very effective and hard to break. B.F. Skinner found that pigeons will peck a lever as many as 150,000 times without a reward on a variable reinforcement schedule.
Variable ratio schedules are sometimes called the “gambler’s schedule.” Slot machines work on this principle. Gambling addicts feed tokens continuously into a slot machine, hoping that the next pull of the lever will result in a reward. Most of the time, nothing happens. Their behavior is sustained, however, with small rewards and on the rare occasion, a big payout.
Golf is a lot like a slot machine. Remember the old golfer’s joke: “I hate this game. I hate this game. I hate this game. Great Shot! I love this game!” Or the aphorism that “One good shot is all it takes to bring you back.”
We get frustrated with our swings, and angry at the course. Then we hit that perfect shot and fall in love with golf all over again.
That one perfect shot, unpredictable and occasional, is a reinforcement delivered on a variable ratio schedule. We might get two good ones in a row, or go most of a round without producing anything noteworthy. The quest for that one perfect shot, however, is enough to keep us going—and returning.
Just as a gambler keeps pulling the lever of the one armed bandit, or tossing a pair of dice, so too does the golfer keep swinging.