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B.F. Skinner Likes Your F.B. Status Modern Times

More than half a century ago, behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner conducted countless experiments in an attempt to condition the behaviour of pigeons. Corin Faife explores some uncomfortable parallels between Skinner's pigeons and today's Facebook and Twitter users.

Modern Times, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Thursday, February 2, 2012 15:37 - 5 Comments


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.

Corin Faife

Corin Faife is a writer and urbanist. His pseudorandom musings can be found at http://c0rin.com/. His Modern Times column in Ceasefire appears monthly.


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Feb 2, 2012 17:32

Brilliant article, thanks. Like everyone, I know the call of Facebook all too well.

Mar 5, 2012 1:15

Great article, except for two points:

1. You actually type in the web addresses, instead of having sites you use bookmarked? n00b.

2. Animals in hats? You perv.

Behaviourism’s alive and well today, but in a weird hybrid in which it seems to have consumed a lot of its adversaries. In psychology it’s turned into cognitive behaviourism / CBT while also feeding off little bits of Freud, Laing and the New Age. Elsewhere it’s turned into a zillion forms of “management” – the Earned Privileges Scheme, classroom management, “authoritative” parenting, Situational Crime Prevention and so on. It keeps getting confounded by the unconscious, but it keeps capitalism almost-functioning some of the time, as long as people stay predictable and “rational”. Computers themselves come from cybernetics, which is arguably a derivative of behaviourism.

Mar 8, 2012 22:52

Thanks for this article. i live in a community which was inspired by B. F. Skinners book “Walden II”. It is called Twin Oaks and it is in rural Virginia in the US (see http://www.twinoaks.org). For the first 5 years or so, we used behaviorist techniques in an effort to mimic the community that was in the book. But it turned out that there were values which were more important to us than behaviorism, specifically egalitarianism and non-violence.

If you distribute what you produce equally and value work the same (as is central to the egalitarian philosophy) then you strip away most of your capacity to reward people. If you take away threats and violence, than most of your behaviorist punishments evaporate.

The joke around my place is we still use behaviorist techniques as much as you can get people to do what you want them to do by giving them cookies and stop them from doing what you dont want them to do by gossiping about them.

Article about Twin Oaks http://paxus.wordpress.com/2011/12/10/re-post-island/
And an article about how behaviorism lives in one form there

Mar 25, 2014 14:02

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Sep 16, 2014 3:35

[…] B.F. Skinner Likes Your F.B. Status (Ceasefire): More than half a century ago, behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner conducted countless experiments in an attempt to condition the behaviour of pigeons. Corin Faife explores some uncomfortable parallels between Skinner’s pigeons and today’s Facebook and Twitter users. […]

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