I noticed that I didn't sleep yesterday for no reason and spent the whole night to answer questions in one of the communities in here. Why did I do this? I still come here every hour and check if someone chooses my answer or asks me something. There is a vague feeling. I'm like people who are on Instagram or Snapchat all day. I'm trying to understand what the reasons are behind this.

As far as I know, there are two general types of user here. People who seek help and people who want to help others. The motivation for the first group is obviously urgency of finding an answer for their question. However, the second group doesn't need to bother. They got no problems. What are the psychological factors that make those people help others and contribute to the community?

I know the reputation system has a big impact, but I think giving points and badges are not enough. I believe there are some powerful gamification elements such as unlocking privileges. What actually keeps people here? Is the model of StackExchange, which is depended on reputation points, sustainable? If all reputations were reset today, would people still come here to answer questions? Or there is something more, I don't see?


4 Answers 4


The short answer is that anyone who gives you a short answer should be treated with suspicion. ;-p

The StackExchange was founded in 2008, and has seen a lot of changes since that time. That has provided the science community with little time to study the phenomenon in much detail. As such, there are many many theories, but little consensus, and no comprehensive model in place.

There are several related articles on Wikipedia - one thing I can recommend for now, is to keep an eye on them. Wikipedia tends to be updated with new evidence-based findings over time, so as knowledge progresses, it will likely be featured there:

Speaking of Wikipedia, it is clear that points and badges are not necessary to motivate contributions, as many crowdsourcing systems succeed without them. Presumably, social psychology (eg, recognition, identity) plays a big role, as does intrinsic motivation (eg, ideology, curiosity).

However, what would happen if such extrinsic rewards were removed is a question about a controversial phenomenon called the overjustification effect:

... gamification refers to the application of game design elements to non-game contexts ... by providing symbolic rewards such as points, badges, or virtual currency. However, a number of academics and other critics have expressed concern that these rewards may backfire via the overjustification effect. ... these critics of gamification express concerns that gamified contexts ... might provide expected rewards for activities ... and therefore reduce intrinsic interest in those activities.

That is, if this effect is real and applicable to the StackExchange, then there is a danger that initially intrinsically motivated contributors might become dependent on the extrinsic rewards over time. Complicated.

In reality, like any product or service on the market, StackExchange is subject to market forces, corporate decisions may be influenced by motivational models as well as user feedback, but are often made for other reasons, and therefore its sustainability is not easy to predict. It is likely the case that the underlying motivational model is multi-faceted, with each aspect of the system contributing to (or detracting from) its success, interacting in a multitude of different ways with individual user attributes, and changing over time.


Short answer
The Stack Exchange model is based on gamification. Gamified environments typically deploy incremental rewards that tap into the brain's reward system, making these applications addictive, in a quite literal sense. In addition, reputation increases come with incremental gain of moderator abilities, which give a sense of power.

The Stack Exchange environment is definitely a matter of gamification. But as you already indicate yourself, there's more to it than just reputation increase. It's the privileges and moderation tools that become incrementally available when you are climbing the ladder. These tools give users the ability to exert influence, and eventually they even allow changing the content of the site, without much restrictions.

Gamification is used in a lot of applications. Basically it taps into the reward system. The reward of providing a good answer is the incremental increase in reputation and badges. What's even better, more rep comes with step-wise increases in moderator tools on the SE network, which basically corresponds to empowerment on the site. Now all these things are powerful motivators. Neyman (2017) gives a catching account of this phenomenon:

Closely tied to variable rewards, "gamification" is defined in the tech industry as the process of using game mechanics to reward the completion of tasks. Academically, "gamification" has been defined as "a process of enhancing services with (motivational) affordances in order to invoke gameful experiences and further behavioral outcomes." Experts recommend implementing rewards in small, frequent bits so that the user of an app feels a sense of achievement. They also recommend "sharing loops" that integrate rewards with the users social network by allowing the user to share their accomplishments

Sounds eerily familiar, doesn't it?

The Stack exchange gamified environment does exactly this: the reputation increase is highly incremental. Reputation increase will give you a sense of accomplishment. With that, the reward centers will release dopamine system, as has been associated with gamified paradigms (Janssen et al., 2017). Dopamine makes you feel good (see for a review Arias-Carrión et al., (2010)). Eventually you want more and more and you might even be craving it (the constant checking out whether you have gained some reputation), akin to addiction. It's know that social media in general, such as the likes on FB comes with shots of dopamine in the reward system. Exactly this mechanism is the reason people becom eaddicted to drugs like cocaine, heroin, meth, which are all powerful dopamine releasing agents (Diana, 2011). But also alcohol, tobacco, gambling and sex release dopamine in the reward center and are therefore potentially addictive. I think that gamified activities fall into the same class of dopamine-releasing activities.

Why am I answering your question right now? Why not another one? Because I want that bounty, and the associated dopamine rush. Why did I just stop revising my paper to answer this question? Procrastination, yes, but even more importantly, it will yield a reward on the short term. The reward system is a highly ancient structure, part of our 'lizard brain'. It is highly sensitive to rewards on the short term, bypassing, even short-circuiting our cortical inhibitions that strive to achieve bigger goals that will sustain rewards and happiness on the long run.

Lastly, and already shortly hinted at, also in your post, is that reputation increases come with incremental gain of moderation tools. The ability to downvote and close questions give a sense of power, a sense of you controlling this site. An infamous study showing people's lust for power comes from the Stanford Experiment.

In this experiment, an experimental “jail” was set up in the basement of at Stanford University. The prisoners were a group of study subjects, the other half were assigned the role of guards. All subjects were males. The guards tuned from good to evil when the experiment evolved. In the end, they started punishing the prisoners, by denying them food among other quite distressing acts of bruatlity. The prisoners were even (sexually) humiliated and victimized. A lively account is given in the New Scientist (Perry, 2018). What it shows is that people love to be able to exert power over their peers. This in turn, no doubt, will also be fed by the reward system.

- Arias-Carrión et al., Int Arch Med (2010); 3: 24
- Diana, Front Psychiatry, (2011)
- Janssen et al., Pediatric Physical Therapy (2017); 29(1): 95-99
- Neyman, A Survey of Addictive Software Design (2017)


This should be a comment, not an answer. But because of the formatting I put it here.

My speculation: gamification/social acceptance + altruism + curiosity + flow.

  • Gamification/social acceptance: you need to prove to folks in this site that you do know stuffs
  • Altruism: you once had this question before, so you can related this to yourself. Or you know you have some keywords that help, and you feel that it doesn't take much time to say
  • Curiosity: the question is interesting, and you want to see it unfold
  • Flow: once you are in a flow, it's hard to break it. Once an idea pops in your mind, you need to finish it.

Except the first one, all the last ones are intrinsic motivations.

Take this very answer as an example. At first it was just a small comment to the question:

My speculation: gamification + altruism + exploration

Then I felt like "exploration" was not a good word, so I replaced it with "curiosity". Then I added another sentence.

My speculation: gamification + altruism + curiosity. Except the first one, the last two ones are intrinsic motivations.

But I still felt my answer was incomplete, so I had to elaborate more. So we are here.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "you need to prove to folks in this site that you do know stuffs" has nothing to do with gamification. Social acceptance, yes. I don't think this answer is altogether wrong and mentions some things I would also think of, but as you state, it is really more of a comment at the moment. $\endgroup$
    – Steven Jeuris
    May 2, 2020 at 15:38
  • $\begingroup$ @StevenJeuris I was thinking of the reputation. Isn't that with more reputation, I gain more trust from the community and system? $\endgroup$
    – Ooker
    May 2, 2020 at 18:06
  • $\begingroup$ @Ooker I think it is ego satisfaction. Having knowledge alone isn't enough, so you want to show off people, but in the end you actually prove it to yourself. Gamification only makes the process fun. $\endgroup$ May 2, 2020 at 23:42
  • $\begingroup$ @StevenJeuris — I think identity is key, here. Many of us strongly identify as having expertise, and seeing others upvote one's contribution strengthens that. E.g., I've seen bitter fights on Quora over answers. I participated in a few, when I was answering habitually — which was indeed quite addictive. Stewie — Ego vs. Identity: I'm sure there's some interesting commentary on the overlap. I think ego might too laden with Freud? I haven't seen as used much in recent literature. $\endgroup$
    – MrRedwood
    May 5, 2020 at 21:18

I'll try to answer from the second side, wanting to help others. This, as it were, involves a certain amount of "helping oneself."

1) There is a desire to teach, or help others understand what you know. At some level, many people feel the world would be better off, if there were less "ignorance." SE provides a chance for you to educate one, or "many" other people on a topic of your choice.

2) In seeking to help others, I clarify issues/problems for myself. I (hopefully) come away with a better understanding of the question and answer for myself.

3) I get to test my knowledge against that of others with similar interests. Other people will point out things that my answers have overlooked. Queries about my answers from others may force me to "dig deeper" and come to a new level of understanding. And the "reputation" system is a rough measure of how much you have achieved, both in absolute terms, and relative to others.

  • $\begingroup$ this answer should be a comment, not an answer though $\endgroup$
    – Ooker
    Jul 28, 2020 at 8:39

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