Why does Google Pay scratch cards create the same level of ecstasy each time?

Last week after nearly six months of sitting at home, I finally went out to meet one of my school friends. While booking a cab, I saw various rewards that the company offered while paying through different modes. I instantly chose Google Pay. Later that evening, I had to pay my electricity bill, and I again decided on Google Pay over other applications. Now you may ask, what’s the big deal bro? All of us like some products better than others.

That’s the thing. I am not a fan of Google Pay. Product-wise, I like PhonePe better but still chose GPay more often for my transactions. Additionally, Gpay is one app where my engagement is higher compared to other payment applications. Now I admit it has inherent benefits like backing by a trusted brand, clean interface, and ease of transfer. But none of it can make me hook in that thing for long. And then it hits me – Scratch cards.

Remember the early days of its launch? Your friends were telling you to transfer money back and forth to earn some more Scratch Cards and then scratching them to see what they got. That dud feeling after getting a Better Luck Next Time but scratching it again with the same enthusiasm. Yeah, I am sure you know the feels.

Going back to the original question, Why does Google Pay scratch cards create the same ecstasy each time? Ask, Why PUBG was so addictive? or Why do we invariably check out mobile at every notification ding? or Why do we continuously check our social media accounts? The answer is same.

It is because of a chemical called Dopamine.

In plain parlance, Dopamine is a chemical responsible for sending a message of pleasure. Dopamine is the reason for the good feeling we get when we find something we are looking for or do something that needs to get done. It is responsible for the sense of satisfaction after we have finished an important goal, task, or a milestone of a larger goal.

The chemical functions as a biological reward system and make us a goal-oriented species. A hit of Dopamine is an incentive to progress. But when released in unchecked large quantity, it is highly addictive. We crave Dopamine. So as a company, you target the dopamine levels of the customer if you want to engage them more.

Now, there’s something cool about Dopamine. Our brain releases more Dopamine in anticipation of rewards than the rewards itself.

The Art of Variable Reward

Robert Sapolsky, in his experiment with monkeys, provided for the scientific basis for variable rewards and dopamine levels. He trained monkeys to press a lever 10 times as they are shown a light, post which they would be given food. (An experiment of classical conditioning )

Put simply; Dopamine gets released in anticipation of food as soon as the light comes on. The act of lever pressing is an action that is driven by dopamine release from the light signal. Monkeys are in anticipation of food once the level is pressed 10 times.

  • Case One: When the food is given 100% of the times after the lever is pressed 10 times

Image Source: Mahesh VV's piece here

  • Case Two: When the food is given 50% of the time after the lever is pressed 10 times, the dopamine levels are twice as much as case one

Image Source: Mahesh VV's piece here

  • Case Three: When the food is given 25% - 75% of the time after the lever is pressed 10 times, the Dopamine induced remains the same

Image Source: Mahesh VV's piece here


1. Dopamine goes up with the signal of the reward and not when the reward is given, meaning Dopamine is not about pleasure but the anticipation of pleasure.

2. The unpredictability of rewards increases anticipation, which is linked to higher levels of release of Dopamine.

  • Interesting to note here is that a 75% chance is a very large number; hence the unpredictability is low, leading to low anticipation

  • ·On the other hand, a low number, like 25% would mean that the anticipation of getting the reward also becomes low.

Against this backdrop of the study, now you might appreciate that we as humans also seek unpredictability. The chances of getting something big keeps us hooked. Google Pay is designed to keep that unpredictability high to keep the anticipation high (read the observations again). It is the same premise on which the gambling industry works.

From my personal experience, I can recall that in the early days, the chances of getting a successful scratch card was around 50-60%. And now it has decreased significantly, but by that time, a sizable market share was already captured by Google Pay. Currently, in the absence of direct monetary benefits, we see multiple partners that Google has, which give out their offers in scratch cards, something that PhonePe has also adopted off late.

One question

While researching for this piece, I got a chance to explore extensively about Dopamine. Although the ambit of today’s discussion doesn’t allow us to discuss it in detail, I would love to leave you with something that we were pondering over.

Sin acts like drinking alcohol or gambling, all release dopamine, and that’s why they become so addictive. As a society, we have taken conscious steps towards creating regulations on doing gambling or consumption of Alcohol. Our engagement over social media through the likes, comments, texts produces the same Dopamine and makes us addicted to it. But as a society, we haven't taken any steps for that. There is no age restriction on using Social media. One ding after another, we are getting our addictive hits all over the day on our cellphones. The modes might have changed, but we all are craving. Does this really bother you, or are two of us just thinking too much?