Conditioning and the addictive nature of social media feeds

When presenting someone with a stimulus results in some kind of reflexive behavior we call it classical conditioning. The most famous example of this is Ivan Pavlov’s experiment where dogs started salivating whenever they heard a bell that indicated that food was on the way.

Compare that to operant conditioning, which happens when someone deliberately alters their behavior because of a stimulus they receive as a result of that behavior. We all know about positive reinforcement[1] – that’s one of the ways to affect operant conditioning in someone. The classic example here is the experiment where rats can be taught to press a lever to get sugar solution delivered down their feeding tubes.

In Unpredictable Rewards, Kevin Purdy applies the theory of operant conditioning to activity streams on Twitter and Facebook. He explains why some people[2] can’t stop looking at their feeds:

Eyal Ophir, primary researcher at the Stanford Multitasking study, believes ticker-style updates are effective in a way familiar to researchers of operant conditioning.

“Unpredictable rewards keep us guessing, so we’ll keep checking long after we’re no longer getting rewarded, because ‘you never know,'” Ophir wrote in an email. “So if there’s one or two exciting tweets, or a rewarding social experience in the Facebook Ticker, and we can never tell when something like that will come again, that’s going to be a good motivator for us to just keep checking. And that’s going to drive up the perceived value of interrupting whatever we’re doing (work, family, etc.) to go and check.”

It’s scary to think about our social media activities in this way, especially if you keep going down the path of operant conditioning. One of the key predictive factors is deprivation: “the effectiveness of a consequence will increase as the individual becomes deprived of that stimulus”. So, the less frequently you see something valuable in your stream, the more motivated you become to keep checking until you find that one valuable piece of information.

It might be time for us to step back and accurately assess the size of the benefit: “If the size, or amount, of the consequence is large enough to be worth the effort, the consequence will be more effective upon the behavior.” How valuable is the number of likes on that one status really? And is it worth checking our phones every 5 minutes in the hope of seeing a change?


  1. When a behavior (response) is followed by a stimulus that is appetitive or rewarding, increasing the frequency of that behavior (via Wikipedia) ↩
  2. I’m going to say “some people”, not “I” or “we”. I like living in denial like that. ↩