Whether Wordle, Snapchat or Duolingo, sometimes it's all about keeping your streak. Here's why.

The streak
The thrill of the streak: What's behind it? (Photo Illustration: Victoria Ellis for Yahoo News; photos by Getty Images)

The word “streak,” depending on your perspective, can bring a variety of images to mind: a lucky night at the blackjack table, that new stripe of blue in your teenager’s hair — maybe even the 1970s craze of sprinting through public events in the buff.

But for many, a streak means one thing and one thing only: how long you can consistently log activity through an app, be it a game like Wordle, a language-learning program like Duolingo, a social-media platform like Snapchat or an exercise or meditation tracker like Future or Headspace.

Not breaking that streak, actually, can become more important than the activity itself. It’s led to the creation of apps with one main purpose — tracking streaks for any task you can think of — and to people going to great lengths to keep their streak unbroken.

"It seems like a lot of platforms have caught on to the idea that embedding other sources of benefit to consumers from that repeated engagement — whether it's levels or badges or highlighting streaks — works to encourage engagement," Jackie Silverman, a professor of marketing psychology at the University of Delaware, tells Yahoo Life, noting that such apps that log streaks are diverse, and can be for tasks that range from Bible reading to banking.

Consumers are here for it, as Silverman found recently through her extensive research on the topic — a collection of studies, "On or Off Track: How (Broken) Streaks Affect Consumer Decisions," published in April in the Journal of Consumer Research. Among the findings: Streaks were a main source of motivation. Participants were more likely to engage in the behavior, whether step counting or word-game playing, on days when a streak was unbroken. And 59% of participants reported that they had “gone out of their way” to maintain their streaks on an app. Unsurprisingly, consumers seem "quite proud of and motivated by incredibly long streaks and are especially devastated when they are broken."

“There’s always someone out there who loves their streaks and will do anything for them,” Silverman says. That includes resorting to even "unpleasant or costly" things — whether it's paying extra fees to reinstate the app when you break the streak (as with Duolingo) or just going to extraordinary measures to not break it in the first place, as with the man in her pilot study who reported he once did his seven-minute workout in the back of a bar during a night of drinking so as to maintain his exercise streak.

So what is it about keeping the streak going that's so compelling to so many?

Goals, positive reinforcement, peer pressure

"People view keeping these streaks going as a goal, and there’s lots and lots of psychology work about how goals really change what we do," and why "goal failure is extremely aversive and discouraging," Silverman explains. That includes a 2020 study that found setting attainable goals can improve overall happiness, and another, from 2019, finding that we receive a dopamine spike when we set a goal and when we are close to achieving one.

"One potential reason for the focus on the streak is that, psychologically, losses loom larger than gains, so when there is a streak we may feel like we have something to 'lose,'" Marina Milyavskaya, professor of psychology at Carleton University, in Ontario, Canada, tells Yahoo Life. She heads research at the university's Goal Pursuit and Self-Regulation Lab. "More is at stake, so as a goal it may become perceived as more valuable/important," she says.

Other motivators, says Silverman, include seeing evidence that you're keeping a streak going, which is "a form of feedback and reinforcement ... we’ve all been conditioned to like." It's also "really positive feedback that you’re on track to something," she adds.

Then there's the idea that "people like to collect things," and a streak, which is, essentially, a collection of daily achievements, "can be rewarding to people," she says. That, combined with the "continuous loop" of people talking about their streaks and the practice being emphasized by platforms, Silverman notes, reinforces the idea in society that "streaks mean something."

The downsides

But beware — it may take over your attention in a way that becomes too intense, as streaks are also "insidious by nature," Adam Alter, a professor of marketing at New York University's Stern School of Business and author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, told the Cut in 2019.

"The issue is that they tip into negative territory when they inspire obsessions," he explained. “A streak that gets you to take 10,000 steps every day is good until you have a stress injury, and push through it because you don’t want to abandon the streak."

As Milyavskaya adds, "In terms of what’s healthy vs. unhealthy, as with any goal it’s maladaptive to stubbornly pursue a goal that is no longer meaningful. So, as with any goal, it’s good to pause to consider, Why am I doing this?"