Between 1930 and 1931, while B. F. Skinner was a graduate student at Harvard University, he carried out an experiment on behaviour. A hungry rat was placed in a box with a lever in it.
As the rat moved around the box, it accidentally knocked the lever and a food pellet dropped into the box. After a while, the rat learned to knock on the lever and obtain food.
The experiment showed that when the rat got the same pellet each time, it only knocked on the lever when it was hungry. But where it randomly received none or many at once, the rat did nothing but pull on the lever over and over again, at times for days until it died. This came to be known as the principle of variable rewards. The experiment revolutionised marketing and buying habits worldwide.
When applied to human beings, the consumer is placed in a position where he or she is always anxious to acquire a new product, which they have a faint idea about, but they know will bring them more happiness. In part, this contributed to the rise of consumerism, especially in the Western world, as a key aspect of capitalism.
The principle was successfully applied to gambling and has since been fruitful in getting millions of people addicted to the habit, while they were convinced that it was their choice to gamble.
The computer and Internet age has, however, brought a new dimension to the use of variable rewards. Social media corporations, having realised the vulnerability of the rat in “Skinner’s box”, have successfully used it to keep “users” or “owners of accounts” hooked to both their smart phones and the apps.
The same way the rat felt an intense rush of emotion is similar to how rushes of dopamine work in human beings, especially when they choose which “filters” to use to their pictures or when they find new “notifications” or “status views”.
The nature of algorithms that operationalise various social media accounts is randomised in such a way that the user has to keep checking, like the rat, to see what new aspect has been brought about.
It is now well known that social media companies have been collecting data and selling it to advertisers, who seek to target specific markets. Couple this with “Skinner’s box” and you have a situation where the data that someone accesses seems to be suited to their needs (just like the rat’s food in pellet form), but delivered on different occasions.
The priority that algorithms give to pictures over words is intended to keep users hooked to see who appreciated or looked at their “post”. Little wonder then that some studies have concluded that social media use has increased narcissism, has a negative impact on esteem, and may lead to depression.
Social media addiction has kept the younger generation hooked to our smartphones looking at “funny videos” and replying with “emojis”, instead of obtaining productive knowledge or working hard.
Most people dealing with the youth will tell you that smartphones have become a challenge to teaching and learning. It is interesting to note that Mark Zuckerberg does run a personal Facebook account and Steve Jobbs did not let his children use an ipad.
Do you wonder why it is easier to spend an hour on social media than read a book? Maybe it is time to revisit our social media habits.
Herman Tuhairwe is lecturer in law at Uganda Christian University.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.