In the 1930s, psychologist B.F. Skinner put rats in boxes and taught them to push levers to receive a food pellet. They pushed the levers only when hungry, though. To get the rats to press the lever repeatedly, even when they did not need food, he gave them a pellet only some of the time, a concept now known as intermittent variable rewards. Casinos have used this same technique for decades to keep us pouring money into slot machines. And now the technology industry is using it to keep us checking our smartphones for emails, for new followers on Twitter, or for more “likes” on photographs we posted on Facebook.
It’s also the technique Donald Trump has mastered with his tweets. Whether on the left or the right, we are now so addicted to this erratic stream of controversy that we must, must, must check our social media far more often to witness the latest twist. In other words, we are now a national Skinner Box experiment, a country of rats waiting for the food pellet to fall.
Ironically, the greatest beneficiaries of this growing addiction to the crazy political news cycle are none other than the technology companies that make it possible. Donald Trump is their greatest gift, and they are his. Social media has become the equivalent of rat pellets, and the technologies that were supposed to bring humanity together and satisfy our social cravings are instead tearing societies apart.
We are never sure whether someone has retweeted, “liked”, or commented on our posts, so we return to our devices all the time and, in doing so, end up being sucked into the rabbit hole. This induces release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter related to feelings of satisfaction. The resultant feeling of satisfaction is very short term, though, and is often followed by longer-lasting feelings of frustration and regret at having wasted time and allowed another to hijack our brains and our attention.
One motivator dependent upon intermittent variable rewards is the fear of missing out (FOMO). FOMO is a tangible feeling that we are being left out of a conversation or event that is important to our social status, work, or position in society. FOMO commonly happens at work. And now, our president has pushed FOMO aggressively into the social realm. We feel a need to know what’s happening because so much is happening and it’s all so crazy!
The media that we consume as a result of these manipulations tends to be biased toward events that have a very negative effect on us. It may be important that we know what is happening in the world around us, especially if we are to change it. But absorbing too much news of negative events trains us to perceive them to be more likely to affect us directly than they actually are. Talk of the invasion of America by gangs of the transnational criminal organization MS-13 induces people to fear gang activity even in places where MS-13 has no presence. That effect occurs amongst both Trump supporters and Trump opponents, because the part of our mind that processes deep fears still factors in information that our logical minds would declare false.
Of course, the ubiquity of negative stories of even marginal importance to us makes those stories appear highly relevant to our everyday life, leading to greater consumption of the technology platforms that publish them. Until the last elections, Twitter was essentially dying. Yet, following the election, in its 2017 annual report, Twitter stated that, though user numbers had grown by just 4 percent, engagement had grown by a very substantial 12 percent. More engagement means more ads and a feedback loop that is stronger and therefore harder to exit or to consciously opt out of.
Twitter is Trump’s platform of choice, of course. And Trump’s use of it encourages behavior in all of us that feeds into the advertising-revenue streams of all major online search engines and social media. Thus many apps now employ the convention of using a red dot on an icon or on a menu to indicate that an update, message, or other form of communication is awaiting our attention. And the growth of this compulsive behavior conversely robs us of control and poisons our world view.
We don’t want to check Twitter more often. It makes us dissatisfied, even grumpy. And we don’t want to think only about the bad things in life. But we feel powerless to control the information that overwhelms us via our friends and the media we consume.
So this presidential term is, if nothing else, a gift to the tech companies that benefit from this behavior. And if you’ve felt you have less control over your life since the nation entered this new Skinner Box phase, that may be because you do.
Vivek Wadhwa is a Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School and Carnegie Mellon’s School of Engineering at Silicon Valley. He is also author of The Driver in the Driverless Car and Your Happiness Was Hacked: Why Tech Is Winning the Battle to Control Your Brain—and How to Fight Back.