This week, researchers at NYU released a study mapping the behavior of social media users onto that of rats in a Skinner box. They found it a perfect match.
As you probably know, B.F. Skinner developed the operant conditioning chamber as a way to study animal learning. In the classic setup, a rat can push a lever in order to receive a food reward, but the box is designed so that the lever only works in the presence of some other stimuli. So the rat can learn that it’s only worth pushing the lever when a light is on, for example.
The study here showed that our behavior on social media follows the same reward learning pattern—we organize our posting and commenting here based on the dopaminergic gratification of receiving “likes.” If anyone has watched The Social Dilemma or listened to Tristan Harris, this should be no surprise.
I’m curious to hear if it matches your personal experience, though, because I feel like it’s missing something, at least for me. I, too, feel like I’ve been conditioned by unconscious forces to impulsively scroll through Facebook, but it doesn’t seem to me like this kind of feedback is the drive. In fact, I find that I don’t really care about feedback at all. Maybe it’s because I’m very low in trait agreeableness.
The reward for me flipping through my news feed is mental stimulation. I can physically feel myself hunting for interesting information—it’s a search for something new to learn. Most posts don’t offer anything interesting, but often enough a post does, probably in a perfectly addictive ratio, and I’m compulsively hunting for that.
I do seek “likes,” but that feels like a fully conscious, goal-oriented behavior. Either I’m sharing something that I think would help people to know, or for work I’m sharing poems that enrich the human spirit—and I know post engagement funds reach within the algorithms of the attention economy—so I want “likes.” But I don’t feel like I’m being conditioned by likes. I’m conditioned by curiosity. Would you say the same thing? I realize I’m an outlier in a lot of ways, and it’s hard to know what’s normal.
So what is your experience with social media? Do you feel like you’re seeking the positive reward of community response, or are you seeking the stimulation of new information?
Anyway, here is this Sunday’s sciku. Originally it was a little gentler, but I’m not pulling any punches (or levers) …
rats at the dump