Levers

Every first-year psychology student eventually does the rat experiment.

The rats are hanging out in cages called “Skinner boxes“. They’re equipped with a food dispenser its fuzzy occupant activates by manipulating a lever. The rat pulls the lever, and a food pellet may (or may not) come out of the food dispenser.

In first-year psychology, you use these rats and Skinner boxes to learn about ‘operant conditioning‘. You learn that the rats’ behaviour varies dramatically depending on the reliability of the lever.

The cages are configured a couple of different ways:

  1. Continuous reinforcement: every time the lever is pulled, a pellet of food is delivered, it’s 100% reliable and predictable.
  2. Fixed ratio reinforcement: It’s not every time the lever is pulled, but it’s a set ratio, like every 5th time the lever is pulled, a pellet of food is delivered.
  3. Variable ratio reinforcement: The lever will work, but only after an unpredictable number of attempts, like a roll of the dice.

The rats have been in their assigned cages for a while, they know the deal. The experiment that you are performing is to measure how often the rats are pulling those levers, and how long it takes them to stop pulling the lever when you disable the food supply — when you make all the levers stop working.

You may have heard about this experiment before, and you probably know how the results shake out.

The rats in the ‘continuous reinforcement’ cages aren’t actually very interested in the lever. Their lever was 100% reliable. They were pretty much just pulling it when they got hungry, and they’re the first to give up on it when it stops working. To these rats, the lever is simply a tool they use to get food. When it’s clear that food isn’t coming out anymore, they abandon it.

For ‘fixed ratio’ reinforcement, the rats’ behaviour is very different. Once the rats realise that the lever only sometimes delivers food, they wrap their little claws around it and tug it frantically for all they’re worth. Their ‘response rate’ skyrockets. Not only that, but when the food stops, it takes these rats a lot longer to give up on pulling that lever.

And the ‘variable ratio’ rats? The ones who’s lever worked like a roll of the dice? They will never stop. Your two-and-a-half-hour undergraduate psychology class will not be long enough for you to wait around to see them give up pulling that lever. Desperately trying, again and again, for a food pellet that isn’t coming. Even though they’re not hungry.

…the ‘variable ratio’ rats? The ones who’s lever worked like a roll of the dice?

They will never stop.

This probably sounds familiar to you. You’ve seen this before. You’ve seen the ranks of slot machines at casinos. The relationship of operant conditioning and intermittent reinforcement to human behaviour is pretty well known. It’s not just the rats that fall for this, and you know it.


Have you ever found yourself wondering why Facebook sucks now?

It didn’t used to. That’s the honest truth. Facebook, when I first signed up in 2007, was the most astonishing website on the planet. For the first time, I could go to a single website and see, at a glance, what was going on in the lives of everybody I cared about. It was amazing, and new, and valuable. I could go to Facebook, catch up with my world, and then go on with my day.

Have you ever found yourself wondering why Facebook sucks now?

That’s not the case anymore. No matter how many friends on Facebook you have, what you see when you go there is a string of shared memes from a subset of about a dozen people on your friends list. On your feed you’ll see posts from strangers. Friends of friends that you’ve never met, you never wanted to know what they thought of water fluoridation, or vaccination, but Facebook has decided that that’s what you need to be looking at right now.

Facebook decides. Not you.

The linear timeline is pretty much gone entirely. Facebook goes out of their way to prevent you from seeing the one thing you wanted: a straight line of chronologically sorted posts, by the friends in your friends list.

Every social media platform eventually adopts a non-linear timeline. Instagram is dreadful: three weeks into 2019 and Instagram is finally showing me my friends’ New Years Eve pics. Twitter tried in 2016 and backtracked after an outcry, but now, in 2019, they’re rolling it out for real:

Why? Why the inevitable shift away from a linear timeline?

The answer, is that while a liner timeline is perfect for readers, it’s cripplingly counterproductive to the fundamental mission of a social media platform — the consumption of your time and attention.

A linear timeline can only hold your attention for a finite period: until you’ve caught up. Once you’re caught up with all the news, you close the window and go on with your day.

Closing Facebook is not in Facebook’s best interests. Facebook’s business model depends on your attention, not on your satisfaction.

Consider a tool, like a screwdriver. The measure of success for someone making a screwdriver is that you, in fact, spend less time screwing in screws than you did before you bought their high-quality screwdriver.

A linear timeline can only hold your attention for a finite period: until you’ve caught up.

Facebook used to be like that, too. I’d go to Facebook, get what I wanted, and then close it again. It was the greatest website in the world. That was good enough for Facebook too, for a while.

But “engagement” is increased, not by providing what the customer wants, but by withholding it, so you keep coming back.

Imagine your screwdriver again. What if its business model actually depended on you continuing to screw in screws, no matter what? What if all their research was bent towards making sure you were never quite finished with the screwdriver? What would that look like? Would it still be a good screwdriver?

“engagement” is increased, not by providing what the customer wants, but by withholding it, so you keep coming back.

You’ve heard the phrase “if the product is free, then you are the product”. Everyone understands that Facebook is making money off of your attention. What I want you to understand, today, is that the things that annoy you the most about Facebook are deliberately designed to increase your time spent there.

Social media platforms don’t make their money by providing pellets of nourishment every time you pull a lever. They make all the money in the world just by making sure that you keep on pulling.

3 Replies to “Levers”

  1. Wow that’s fascinating and shocking at the same time. How could we use the same technique for the good of the planet? Could we gamify the developing of the algorithms to model natural disasters such as flooding? Or to insetify people to donate to great causes somehow? There’s a lot to learn from this. Thank Tom!

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