August 30, 2022 – Wordle is a fun game that brings me joy and satisfaction every day.
Unless it’s a stupid waste of time. Like the day my streak ended, six games under 100. I just didn’t see the point in a stupid word puzzle that contributes nothing to the common good.
I’m serious. i have better things to do But I still play it, every day.
It’s not just me Ask Jackie Silverman, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Delaware who studies “the judgments and consequences of repeated behavior.”
She’s a streak expert. And that’s a hot topic right now – the proof is on your phone. “Strings are just so common in people’s lives,” she says.
A streak is one of the most obvious and addictive ways for a company to lure us back to their website. Apps like Snapchat and Duolingo (the language learning company) use strip grooming like a boss, and Wordle is no slouch.
But streaks can also be helpful and healthy, for example for people who are trying to get in shape or lose weight. “Strings can serve as a tangible indication of progress,” says Dr. Kaitlin Woolley, Cornell University marketing professor specializing in goal pursuit and motivation.
Of course, there are apps just for creating and tracking streaks: Habitify, Streakster, Streaks, Loop, Productive, and so on. Their obvious purpose is to encourage healthy habits. “Streaks give a sense of momentum, which is motivating,” says Woolley. “People feel like they’re on the road to success and that makes it psychologically easier to keep going.”
Silverman says streaks can help throughout life—in education (attendance, test scores, books read) and in the workplace (e.g., showing up on time or attending every meeting). Factories, she notes, proudly display signs showing how many days they’ve run accident-free.
In fact, the lure of a perfect streak runs deep in the human psyche. How can we use that to help ourselves without getting completely derailed when a streak inevitably ends?
The Rush of Reward
“People find streaks inherently valuable and motivating,” says Silverman, who has the receipts. together with dr Alixandra Barasch of the University of Colorado, she authored a study entitled On or Off Track: How (Broken) Streaks Affect Consumer Decisions, which was published in June Consumer Research Journal.
What they found was that when people tell them—and remind them—that they have a streak, they’re much more likely to keep the streak. Logging and tracking add fuel to that obsessive fire, she says: “Highlighting those streaks with logs and technology has tremendous impact.” (Even old-fashioned tick marks on your wall calendar can work, she says, although feedback from others generally carries more weight .)
In their experiments – word games, number games, exercise programs – they found that people were so intent on keeping a vein alive that they would rather keep playing than switch to something they enjoy more.
When their winning streak ended, they agreed to watch an advertisement if told it would “fix” their winning streak.
Duolingo knows this. It allows a customer to freeze their streak by using their virtual currency (‘gems’ and ‘lingots’ earned by completing lessons) to buy a ‘streak freeze’ if they know that he will miss a day.
Snapchat has countless teens who are into Snapstreaks, meaning you’ve exchanged Snaps with someone on consecutive days. A “fire” icon will appear with a number representing the days the Snapstreak is running.
The sadness of one young user can be felt on the “I lost my Snapstreak” page on Snapchat Support: “If you’ve lost your Snapstreak and you know you can snap (not chat) back and forth within the 24-hour window sent, please let us know.”
The power of symbols
Fires, ticks, coins, lingots — they’re all part of the psychological game, says Silverman. “People really appreciate icons and feedback on what they’ve done,” she says. Sometimes the urge to acquire icons becomes more important than what motivated her to start the series in the first place, she says.
Jordan Etkin, PhD, marketing professor at Duke University, says that icons “act almost like money when it comes to being an external reinforcer. It feels like currency, like you accumulate some credit, some value.”
For me, it was the numbers on my Wordle stats page all heading towards 100: games played, win percentage, current streak, max streak. It would look gorgeous. The stats and the Guess Distribution bar chart popped into my head like a judge’s assessment of my language skills.
That’s way too emotional a reaction to a few pixels, isn’t it? But the whole thing is emotional, including this sinking feeling when my streak ended. I was down, down, despondent.
There’s another “de,” Silverman told me – dejectedly. It was true: I had no interest in playing the next day (although I did) and the next time I lost a game I cared a lot less. Even absent-mindedly skipped a day and shrugged it off.
When a streak breaks, Silverman says, “It’s particularly demotivating because people interpret that as a failure to score.”
I felt like a failure after bragging to friends about how close I was to a 100 game streak.
This is another reason we like streaks: it’s a way of showing off. Etkin says sharing results is a form of status signaling: “You feel like you look good to others.”
Caught! (For the record, I only shared my accomplishments and failures with those closest to me. My wife was amused.)
But while a paused streak feels like your progress has been “reset to zero,” it helps to remember that it hasn’t, Woolley says. “Just the specific aspect that people are tracking has been reset.” Breaking your daily walk streak will keep your fitness level.
“That depressed aspect inspired our project,” says Silverman. She and her husband, a craft beer lover, were at a brewery with friends, including Barasch, an associate professor of marketing. Her husband remarked that, as was his usual practice, he had failed to register a beer he had tasted the previous weekend. His logging streak was on hiatus, so he had less interest in logging the beer of the day. “That’s strange,” Silverman and Barasch said to each other, and years later their work was the result.
How streaks can help
Speaking of drinking, Silverman notes that one of the most well-known and valuable uses of the streak mentality is among members of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. You deserve medallions that mark milestones of sobriety.
When they relapse, “it’s pretty disheartening for them to go back to where they were,” she says. The supportive mentality of the organizations is impressive, she emphasizes: “They support each other and say: ‘No, you’ve earned this chip. You made this series. You’ve done it once and you can do it again. But just because you relapsed doesn’t mean it’s all over.”
Silverman says an encouraging approach can help reduce demotivation on a broken streak, “which would be really nice if marketers tried to incorporate that as well.”
Don’t hold your breath. Silverman says some friends who know about her research are now coping better with streaks. “They feel manipulated.” But, she quickly adds, Streaks are “mostly there to help you. I don’t think that’s a problem and I still indulge in streaks.” COVID-19 has disrupted her 150-week training streak, and in fact she’s less motivated since then. “I need to start a new streak.”
Streaks are an attractive measure of progress, and therefore meaningful, says Adam Alter, PhD, professor of marketing at New York University and author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addiction Technology and the Business of Getting Us Addicted. As a streak gets longer, “it makes more sense to keep it alive. Put these elements together and you have a powerful recipe for reinforcement and reward.”
For her part, Silverman remains hopeful that her research “can help spark new ideas about how people can stay engaged and happy.”
One thing is constant: streaks mean money. The New York Times bought Wordle from its developer Josh Wardle last fall for more than $1 million. In its Q1 2022 earnings statement, the company said, “Wordle brought an unprecedented tens of millions of new users to the Times.” The company posted its best-ever quarter for new subscribers to its games division. Digital subscription revenue increased 26%.
When Josh Wardle sold the game to the TimesHe told fans, “I’m working with them to make sure your wins and streaks are maintained.”
He gets it.