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Why App Badges Are for Suckers

In fifth grade, I received a giraffe sticker for being the most outstanding student one particular week. I was 10 years old, and for reasons I can no longer comprehend, receiving that sticker was the equivalent of having a bronze statue built in my honor. I was young and naive—but if you’re old enough to drive for Uber, what’s your excuse?

Last week, The New York Times ran a fascinating article by Noam Scheiber about the many ways Uber tries to manipulate its drivers through behavioral science. One of the tricks they use to keep drivers driving involves gamification. Drivers earn certain (meaningless) badges if they meet performance benchmarks. These badges include “Above and Beyond” (denoted on the app by a cartoon of a rocket blasting off), “Excellent Service” (marked by a picture of a sparkling diamond) and “Entertaining Drive” (a pair of Groucho Marx glasses with a nose and eyebrows).

Scott Weber, who was interviewed for the article, “practically gushed when asked about the badges he’s earned while driving. ‘I’ve got currently 12 excellent-service and nine great-conversation badges,’ he said in an interview in early March. ‘It tells me where I’m at.’”

But hasn’t anyone told him that those badges are worthless?

Weber isn’t the only person who’s been suckered by the allure, such as it is, of meaningless app badges. Uber is one of many apps that offer gamification features to draw in users. Apps like Waze, Foursquare and Nike Plus offer a similar bevy of, “Nice job! Here’s a trophy you can’t even hold” rewards for users.

One reason people may be seduced by the badges in apps is that they were once Boy Scouts and have been conditioned from an early age to associate bullshit badges with achievement. But at least an Eagle badge is a pin that you can wear on your uniform for the world to see. These badges are about as useful as a condom with holes punched in it.

Still, the psychology behind gamification makes sense. The more goals you achieve, the more dopamine your brain releases and the easier it is to stay motivated. Gamification tries to tap into this by offering you rewards for the completion of small goals.

“…People have an inherent need to accomplish tasks and providing them with individual performance information (i.e., points as feedback) may facilitate the fulfillment of this need,” writes Elisa de Mekler of the University of Basel in a study about “disassembling gamification.”

But goals aside, these badges are dumb. If you’re still collecting them, maybe it’s time to consider taking up a new hobby. I hear stamps are making a comeback.