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The Psychology of Surfing - Explained

Updated: Jun 30, 2023

Why is surfing so addictive? Here's our attempt to understand the psychology behind this beautiful sport.

What is Stoke?

Before we jump into the reasoning, let's take a minute to understand the feeling of 'stoke'.

It is common surfer talk- 'I'm so stoked'. What this humble 5-letter word holds within is a very deep, coveted state of being.

Surfers surf to attain a state of flow. A beautiful state of being where one is fully present, where time ceases to exist, where the self disappears. Flow is the state of ultimate human performance. It comes with every wave the surfer rides. Be it for a second or for a minute. It is one of the most precious states of being.

And stoke is what follows after. Stoke is the afterglow of flow. A state of intoxication that occurs after a long ride or after a powerful session of surfing. A state of blissful tiredness, where the mind is blank and the heart is full.

Psychology and Behaviour Reinforcement-

Reward and punishment have long been used to influence behaviour. But behavioural psychologists have taken it one level deeper by studying patterns of reinforcement. They have identified 4 different schedules of reinforcement, each working in its own way.

1. Fixed Interval-

A reinforcement is given after a fixed time has elapsed. Eg- a salary is issued at the end of every month.

This pattern is best for teaching a new behaviour.

2. Variable Interval-

A reinforcement is given after an unpredictable passage of time. Eg- the teacher taking surprise tests. This influences the students to continue studying as they do not know when the next test will happen.

This type of reinforcement works best for habit formation.

3. Fixed Ratio-

A reinforcement is delivered after a fixed number of attempts. Eg- An insurance agent sells 10 policies, and gets his commission.

People who follows this style usually take a break after the reinforcement is delivered, before they start the cycle of work again.

4. Variable Ratio-

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A reinforcement is delivered after a random number of attempts. Eg- a slot machine in a casino will give a reward after a random number of lever pulls.

This style of reinforcement is the most addictive of the lot. One feels that the next attempt could lead to success, and they keep pushing for one more attempt. Even after achieving success, they feel they may be on a lucky streak and continue to perform the behaviour even after.

Reinforcement & Surfing-

Surfing witnesses the deadly mix of Variable Interval & Variable Ratio styles of reinforcement, making it both habit-forming and addictive.

Variable Interval & Surfing-

When a really good wave will come, no one knows. Hence surfers are always sitting on the edge of their boards, hawk-eyed at the horizon, ready in case the next wave is the perfect wave. Hence this variable interval schedule induces a habit. The surfer sits for a long time everyday, she shows up in the ocean day after day. You never know which could be the best surf day. A habit is formed.

Variable Ratio & Surfing-

Once a good wave comes, the surfer's attempt at riding it falls under Variable Ratio reinforcement. Some rides she could slip and fall, some there may be a drop in, some the wave closes out and she is left unsatisfied. But then there will be one wave which will be the perfect 10 on 10 ride, delivering stoke with extra cheese on top. And that's when we've got the surfer hooked.

What's more, after riding the perfect wave, it's fully possible that the next wave is also perfect. So instead of the behaviour decreasing, the stoke-filled surfer will paddle back to the line up strongly, full of passion, ready to take on the next wave and make it the best wave of the day, or even life.


If you meet a good surfer, there is a very high chance that she is addicted. It's no surprise, since two powerful styles of reinforcement are at play here. And the reinforcement offered is none less than the ultimate state of flow and its intoxicating afterglow of stoke.

The best wave of your life is still out there. This is the optimistic philosophy that most surfers paddle out with every single day, for every single wave. Now we perhaps know why :)

Want to experience this state for yourself? Check out AdventurePlay's surf programmes. Caution- it can be addictive, as you now know already : )


About Author-

Nitisha Sethia, Master's in Psychology, is an outdoor sport practitioner and founder of AdventurePlay. Ex-McKinsey & Co. and IIM Ahmedabad, Nitisha left her corporate job to follow her passion in the outdoors.

Adventure Play is a one-stop platform to discover & learn new outdoor sports.

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