Study suggests groundbreaking framework for preditctable customer engagement

Updated: Apr 17, 2020

A recent addiction study by the University of Michigan has meaningful implications for building stronger customer relationships.

The study, led by Alex B. Kawa, was administered by the University of Michigan's Department of Psychology (Biopsychology Program) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Entitled, "Incentive and dopamine sensitization produced by intermittent but not long access cocaine self-administration," Kawa and his associates published their findings in the European Journal of Neuroscience in Spring 2019.

Introduction & Theoretical Propositions

The experiment-- which involved the self-administered injection of cocaine in rodents-- sought to determine how usage patterns influenced addictive behavior.

More specifically, researchers wanted to determine if intermittent access (IntA) to cocaine created a stronger dopamine (DA) response-- and thus, stronger addictive behavior-- when compared to sustained, or long access (LgA) to the reward.

In other words, would it be easier for lab rats to become addicted to a reward if it is only available at certain times?

In previous studies, researchers had consistently demonstrated that persistent use of a drug leads to tolerance-- a condition wherein a user requires an increasingly larger dose of a reward to experience a similar effect. That's because sustained exposure to drugs, such as cocaine, frequently leads to a reduction in the number of receptor sites on neurons.

Yet, fewer studies had examined whether the opposite effect could take place when exposed to cocaine doses. Could exposure to smaller doses or cocaine, on a more infrequent basis, lead to an increase in the number of receptors on neurons? Such phenomenon--known as upregulation--causes sensitization, which acts in the opposite fashion of tolerance.

Method & Results

Kawa and the researchers chose 50 male Sprague-Dawley rats as the study participants. Once the rats acclimated to the laboratory, the researchers surgically inserted intravenous catheters so cocaine could be delivered to the participants. After surgery, researchers placed the participants in the test chamber.

The test chamber was designed with two nose poke ports near the bottom of the device. One port, known as the active port, activated an exterior pump that administered an infusion of cocaine hydrochloride (dissolved in saline) when the rat inserted its nose into the port. The inactive port did not activate the pump. When a dosage was administered, a red cue light was activated for a period of 20 seconds following the nose poke.

Researchers began by gathering baseline measurements to describe each participant's motivation to pursue self-administration. Using a behavioral economic framework, Kawa and his colleagues mapped a relationship between price (in this case, effort to obtain the reward) and quantity consumed for each participant.

Then, they partitioned the participants into three experimental groups:

  • LimA: participants completed three final sessions and received no more doses of cocaine

  • IntA: participants had the ability to self-administer every 30 minutes for a period of five minutes

  • LgA: participants had unrestricted access to the drug

Rats participated in 25 self-administration sessions according to the criteria established above. Afterward, Kawa and the researchers inserted a microdialysis cannula near the nucleus accumbens in the participants' brains to measure neurotransmitter levels in response to further self-administration. The nucleus accumbens comprise a small portion of the brain near the hypothalamus and are a critical component of the dopamine reward pathway.

Participants completed a final round of testing with the cannula inserted in order for researchers to gather data on the dopamine response to cocaine.

Results & Discussion

There were several key findings in Kawa's study:

  1. LgA participants, on average, consumed more cocaine than the other groups

  2. LgA and IntA treatments resulted in differing motivation to pursue the drug

  3. IntA resulted in sensitization and increased dopamine overflow

  4. IntA participants responded to cues better than LgA participants

  5. IntA produced stronger addiction-like behavior than LgA

Perhaps the most critical finding in this research was that intermittent access to cocaine led to stronger addiction when compared to unrestricted access, LgA.

Kawa and the researchers explain:

"IntA self‐administration results in much less total cocaine consumption than LgA. Yet as reported here, IntA also produced escalation of intake and was more effective than LgA in increasing motivation for cocaine and in producing cue‐induced reinstatement of cocaine‐seeking behavior" (2019).

Put differently, rat participants that were only able to consume cocaine at certain times logically consumed less cocaine than rats with prolonged access to the reward. Yet, despite consuming less cocaine, IntA participants demonstrated significantly higher motivation for pursuing the drug, especially when cued.

One explanation might be that interrupted access to the reward led to the sensitization-- an increase in the number of receptors on the neurons in the dopaminergic reward pathway. Consequently, the increase in sensitivity led to a greater incentive for the IntA participants to pursue the drug, consistent with the so-called incentive-sensitization addiction hypothesis (Berridge & Robinson, 2016; Robinson & Berridge, 1993).

This phenomenon could also be related to addiction-like behavior in gambling. Since the odds of receiving a financial reward in any casino game are exceedingly rare, many gamblers compulsively bet because they think they'll win the next round-- an anticipatory fallacy. The anticipation of the reward seems to be a major explanation for the motivation behind compulsive gambling.

In a sense, uncertainty and anticipation appear to drive compulsive behavior.

Marketing Implications

While the findings of this addiction study are consistent with many contemporary studies, there is still limited (but growing) evidence to support a new schema for addiction. Nevertheless, recent reward neuroscience studies leave thought-provoking implications for marketing psychology and strategy.

Bedrock Associates is one of the first marketing consulting firms to apply this reward neuroscience academic research to marketing strategy. It's part of the firm's two-pronged approach, which relies on psychological principles and high-value data to help organizations craft sophisticated marketing strategy and infrastructure.

It is important to emphasize that Bedrock is not suggesting these strategies be used to create addictive behavior in consumers. However, we think these insights can be employed ethically to influence behavior in a mutually-beneficial fashion.

First and foremost, we see applications of the incentive-sensitization addiction hypothesis in creating predictable customer engagement.

When applied correctly, these psychological insights could potentially result in increased customer retention and higher revenue per customer.

Insight #1: Deliver promotions and other rewards on an infrequent and less predictable basis to create consistent, repeat customer engagement.

This insight is derived from the basic premise of the Kawa study. By modeling an IntA promotion schedule in marketing, we can influence consumer motivation and increase the likelihood of repeat sales.

In practice, this could mean delivering email marketing offers on a less frequent, or less predictable schedule so that customers aren't able to predict when the next reward will occur. Similarly, it could also mean limiting the time an offer is valid.

The overall objective is to increase customer motivation by removing the element of routine and predictability and replacing it with scarcity.

Insight #2: Intermittent promotion schedules require smaller incentives and permit greater margins.

According to Kawa's findings, the IntA experimental group required less cocaine despite having a strong addiction. This seems to imply that, all else equal, rewards delivered on an intermittent schedule do not need to be as enticing when compared to rewards provided on a less restricted basis.

As such, one implication could be that businesses can offer smaller discounts to customers when paired with the intermittent schedule and still experience consistent repeat sales. Consequently, businesses could enjoy a higher margin without sacrificing sales volume.

The intuition makes sense: imagine receiving a coupon catalog for an upscale grocery store with excellent produce. If the store only sent the catalog once a quarter, you'd probably be willing to purchase produce even if the discount were only 10-15%. By contrast, if the grocer sent the catalog every week, you'd likely require a steeper discount in order to become enticed.

Insight #3: Intermittent promotion schedules make cues more salient.

Cues are sensory inputs that elicit an interest in pursuing a reward. For the rodents, the cue was the red light inside the testing chamber that was paired with the cocaine infusion. For someone with a gambling problem, it could be the sound of a slot machine-- or even a casino billboard.

Classical conditioning tells us that when exposed to certain cues, it can motivate someone to act on an addictive behavior. Oftentimes, cues are as potent as the reward itself. Perhaps a gambler hears the sound of a slot machine in a movie and suddenly feels compelled to make a trip to the nearby casino.

What we learned from the Kawa study is that participants exposed to the IntA schedule tended to respond to cues more predictably when compared to other groups.

This could indicate that marketing cues-- such as photos and sounds-- could trigger certain customers to take actions, especially when an intermittent promotion schedule is used.

Insight #4: Neuroscience and psychological principles can make your marketing strategy far more competitive.

Understanding human behavior and thought processes is absolutely critical to crafting a marketing strategy that attracts and retains customers. Yet, only certain businesses possess the internal knowledge to effectively apply these insights.

Bedrock is passionate about how psychology and market research can be paired to deliver incredible results. Our careful analysis of academic research and $100,000+ in market research tools enable us to provide the expertise that our competitors frequently overlook.

If you'd like to learn more about how your firm can use psychological principles to get better at marketing, book a free, no-obligation Discovery Call today.

It's a 20-minute time investment that could absolutely change your life.

Book a Discovery Call


Berridge, K. C., & Robinson, T. E. (2016). Liking, wanting, and the incentive‐sensitization theory of addiction. American Psychologist, 71, 670–679.

Kawa AB, Valenta AC, Kennedy RT, Robinson TE. Incentive and dopamine sensitization produced by intermittent but not long access cocaine self‐administration. Eur J Neurosci. 2019;50:2663–2682.

Robinson, T. E., & Berridge, K. C. (1993). The neural basis of drug craving: An incentive‐sensitization theory of ad- diction. Brain Research Reviews, 18, 247–291. https://doi. org/10.1016/0165-0173(93)90013-P

The conclusions relating to marketing insights are the opinions of Bedrock Associates. These opinions should not be construed as direct findings of the University of Michigan's Department of Psychology, nor have they been formally endorsed by the institution. Furthermore, the suggestions included in this article do not constitute a formal client relationship. Bedrock Associates and its affiliates are not responsible for any outcomes if you chose to incorporate the insights.

24 views0 comments

A Michigan-based Company

Ann Arbor, MI 48104


  • White LinkedIn Icon
  • White Facebook Icon
  • White Twitter Icon
Begin the conversation

© 2020 by Modern Mind Technology, LLC.