kottke.org posts about Augustin Lignier

Rat Selfies

a white rat taking a photo of itself

a brown rat taking a photo of itself

For a photographic experiment based on the Skinner box, Augustin Lignier trained a pair of rats to take photos of themselves, aided by a sugary reward. When the rewards became intermittent, the rats kept snapping away, sometimes even ignoring the sugar.

To Mr. Lignier, the parallel is obvious. “Digital and social media companies use the same concept to keep the attention of the viewer as long as possible,” he said.

Indeed, social media has been described as “a Skinner Box for the modern human,” doling out periodic, unpredictable rewards — a like, a follow, a promising romantic match — that keep us glued to our phones.

Or maybe being able to keep ourselves busy pressing buttons is its own reward. In a 2014 study, scientists concluded that many human volunteers “preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts.” Maybe we would rather sit around and push whatever levers are in front of us — even those that might make us feel bad - than sit with ourselves in quiet contemplation.

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