Modern Times | B.F. Skinner Likes Your F.B. Status
Modern Times, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Thursday, February 2, 2012 15:37 - 5 Comments
By Corin Faife
In search of the fix
Forgive me, but I’ll start with a circuitous preamble. It’s relevant, so stick with it. The end point, to which we will steer lazily, is that social media condition us into pathological reward-seeking behaviours, in the same way that laboratory pigeons peck at a switch for food.
Now that your interest is piqued, a digression.
Distant though it seems, I remember well the first session of my psychology A-level. “You each have on your desk a small foil package,” said my thin, bespectacled teacher. “I’d like you all to unwrap it carefully. Inside, you will find a small portion of sherbet. We’re all going to watch a short video, and whenever you hear the word ‘psychology’ mentioned, I would like you to dip your finger into the sherbet, and place a small dab onto your tongue.”
The video commenced. Dutifully we sucked away at the white powder, which tasted unmistakeably of sherbet and thus was not, as I had hoped, finely ground cocaine. The video described the work of a psychologist named Ivan Pavlov, who, we learned, had conducted an experiment on dogs. Inside his laboratory, Pavlov would ring a bell every time he presented the dogs with food. The dogs formed a strong association between the two stimuli, bell and food, to the point that finally just ringing the bell was enough to cause them to salivate.
With our sherbet supplies exhausted, the video came to an end. At the front of the class, the teacher prepared the grand reveal. “Whilst watching this video, you have all been applying conditioning to yourselves. Your brain has begun to link the word ‘psychology’ to the sweet taste of sherbet. A positive association has developed, which I hope will keep you favourably disposed towards the subject throughout the term.”
The conclusion was tenuous, but I was floored by his élan. And this was my introduction to the process of conditioning.
Most of the things I learned during those classes are now lost in the mists of time, but an understanding of the principles of conditioning has been a valuable tool on many occasions since then. In the following instance, we are concerned not so much with the work of Pavlov but of his intellectual successor, Burrhus Frederic Skinner, creator of the model of operant conditioning.
But wait – we’re all denizens of the 21st century here. Let’s not bandy words when Youtube can set the scene:
Parenthetically, note that the man has the face of some ungodly Chomsky-Warhol hybrid. Then, listen to his words. “The main thing is what we call schedules of reinforcement […] There are a very large number of schedules and they have their special effects. And there is a good example of how you can move from the pigeon to the human case, because one of the schedules which is very effective with rats or pigeons is the variable ratio schedule, and that is at the heart of all gambling devices.”
Professor Skinner, after diligently imprisoning and starving countless pigeons, found that the most effective way to condition a behaviour into your test subject is to provide the reward after a variable ratio of responses: first, the pigeon must peck once to receive a food pellet. After that, three times, then seven times, five times, twice, thrice, once again, and so-on in a random or quasi-random pattern. The important thing is that the response should not be reinforced every time, or at regular intervals.
And so to Facebook.
For a pigeon, a small wooden box is an acceptable living environment; for humans, this is not usually so. Nevertheless, we still spend a huge amount of time sitting in front of small, glowing boxes, endlessly tapping away at keys. Sometimes we tap at these keys to accomplish important tasks, like writing novels or emailing Noam Chomsky. Sometimes, we tap the keys to achieve unimportant tasks, like searching for pictures of animals in hats.
I have a chronic problem with tapping the keys F-A-C-E-B-O-O-K or T-W-I-T-T-E-R when I should be writing a masterpiece or emailing Chomsky instead. In this I am not alone. Sometimes it is a choice, but other times it is an insistent urge, like an itch under the skin or the craving for a cigarette. Behaviour that feels like a compulsion, and overrides the logic that says, ‘there are a million other things you should be doing right now’.
Logging into your account provides not just distraction, but a quantified reward: the small, illuminated number under the notification globe or message box. It is a signifier which says, ‘Behold, I am loved! As I sit alone at my overcrowded, under-cleaned desk, someone, somewhere, wants to communicate with me.’ What better way to reinforce our behaviour than through the thrill of communication? The essence of sociality presented to us in sum: 2 new friends, 1 message, 5 notifications.
But Facebook and our five hundred friends are fickle: they will not, nay, cannot reward us according to any fixed schedule. The notification is distributed according to chance: Work a little. Log on. Two messages. Log off. Work. Log on. One message. Log off. Sleep. Log on. Nothing. Continue ad infinitum.
Checking your account, be it Facebook, Twitter, Hotmail, etc., gives an intermittent reward. And the very fact that a reward is not given every time increases frequency of checking and produces compulsive behaviour.
Even now, as I type, Facebook is open in a window behind Microsoft Word. Aware of the irony, I can only manage about 5 minutes of writing at a stretch before I give in to the temptation to switch windows and sneak a glimpse. A chat window is open. It bleeps. I thrill. Work stops.
The problem is, I admit, one of discipline, but also of conditioning.
To compound matters, intermittently reinforced behaviour is strongly resistant to extinction – the process of breaking out of the habit. If a pigeon is rewarded intermittently, it will continue pecking for a long time after the reward is no longer produced. And just because you had no new mail when you checked 10 minutes ago, doesn’t mean you’re not going to check again now, just in case.
This is why, if you are addicted to social media, you are not just weak willed. Console yourself by realising that you are instead a pigeon, in a box, pecking at a lever interminably. I don’t know how to solve this, but using Skinner’s method, you could try to create a fixed log in schedule – say, once every half hour – and stick to it. Fixed reward systems still shape behaviour, but are less likely to create pathological addictions.
But as they say, ‘Physician, heal thyself.’
And on that note, today’s lesson concludes.
Oh, I almost forgot: @0corin. Tweet at me. I need the reward.
NB: Those familiar with principles of operant conditioning might point out that checking email or Facebook is a hybrid of Variable Ratio and Variable Interval reinforcement. I am aware of this. Unfortunately, real life has an annoying tendency to introduce confounding variables. So it goes.
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