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. ↩

Please let this not be the future of reading on the web

In The Pummeling Pages, Brent Simmons sums up the experience of reading on the web, which is something I’ve become increasingly frustrated with as well:

I was there because I just wanted to read something. Words. Black text on a white background, more-or-less. And what I saw “” at a professional publication, a site with the purpose of giving people something good to read “” was just about the farthest thing from readable.

The site has good writing. But the pages do everything possible to convince people not to try. “Don’t bother,” the pages say. “It’s hopeless. Oh “” and good luck not having a seizure!”

I see the sentiment echoed everywhere, including tweets like this one by Alpesh Shah:



Just to be clear about what we’re talking about, here are a few examples that illustrate why there is such a growing frustration with reading on the web.

Celebrating the “Deus Ex Machina” moments in software development

I’ve written about Dhanji R. Prasanna excellent post on Google Wave and working at big companies before, but I wanted to come back to something he said that I just can’t get out of my head. In one section he talks about a topic I care about very much – what motivates people to do great work. I really like his perspective on the importance of incremental progress:

[As] a programmer you must have a series of wins, every single day. It is the Deus Ex Machina of hacker success. It is what makes you eager for the next feature, and the next after that. And a large team is poison to small wins. The nature of large teams is such that even when you do have wins, they come after long, tiresome and disproportionately many hurdles. And this takes all the wind out of them. Often when I shipped a feature it felt more like relief than euphoria.

I like the analogy of these small wins as Deus Ex Machina:

[It means] “God out of the machine”; a seemingly inextricable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object.

It’s so important for large teams to celebrate those wins with the people they work with every day – and to call out the “characters” responsible for accomplishing Deus Ex Machina. It is hard to get that right in large organizations because the invisibility of individual team members and the pressures to move on to The Next Thing aren’t naturally conducive to this type of behavior. But it’s possible if you work at it.

Whether you keep some champagne in a fridge, send out company-wide emails thanking people personally, or ring a bell every time code gets deployed (ok, that last one is lame, sorry), being in a large organization isn’t an excuse for acting like a faceless corporation.

We might as well make beautiful things

This is one of my favorite stories in the Steve Jobs biography:

The result was that the Macintosh team came to share Jobs’s passion for making a great product, not just a profitable one. “Jobs thought of himself as an artist, and he encouraged the design team to think of ourselves that way too,” said Hertzfeld. “The goal was never to beat the competition, or to make a lot of money. It was to do the greatest thing possible, or even a little greater.”

He once took the team to see an exhibit of Tiffany glass at the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan because he believed they could learn from Louis Tiffany’s example of creating great art that could be mass-produced. Recalled Bud Tribble, “We said to ourselves, ‘Hey, if we’re going to make things in our lives, we might as well make them beautiful.'”

See also The difference between Apple and Microsoft: product before profit.

The fallacy of rewarding activity more than accomplishment

John D. Cook writes some scary true words in Productivity and negative space:

People who fracture their time putting out fires seem more productive, or at least more responsive, than the people who block out time to think. It’s harder to notice someone not being frantic. Thinkers don’t fare well in environments that reward activity more than accomplishment.

This is such a huge problem in big corporations today. People who are running from meeting to meeting are perceived to be more productive than those who sit at their desks working all day[1]. And the problem is worse for programmers – very few managers understand what they do, so it’s hard for them to stomach days and days of solid coding without seeing something “tangible” (in their view).

It all comes back the difference between Makers and Managers, and how the Makers should be evaluated on completely different criteria than the Managers. Criteria that reward the quality of what they make, not the number of status updates they give.

(link via Graham Poulter)


  1. I’m not saying that people who have a lot of meetings are necessarily less productive, just that those who are not in meetings are “out of sight, out of mind”, and therefore not seen as particularly productive.  â†©

Copying taste without understanding design

Rob Beschizza in What the Vaio Z says about Sony’s little design problem, a brilliant article on the difference between taste and design:

Apple competitors are obsessed with copying Apple’s tastes without copying its central design habit, which is solving a problem and then refining the solution until the problem changes.

This is also what makes the HP Envy such a bizarre rip-off of the Macbook Pro. It all reminds me of that scene in Armageddon where the Bruce Willis character blows up at the contractors who tried to build an oil drill he designed:

Let me get this straight. You had me pulled off my oil rig, flown half way around the world, you stole my drill design, couldn’t read the plans right, and did a piss poor job of putting it together!

I can image hearing those same words coming out of Steve Jobs’s mouth if he could see the Sony Vaio Z and the HP Envy.

Taste and consequences

It’s not possible to get to know a man just by reading a book about him. And yet, that’s what many of us are trying to do with the Steve Jobs biography. To be fair, we do this whenever we hear stories about people. We tend to forget that ther’s more to a person than the scraps of information we can extract about them from others. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but we must place our opinions in the proper context.

I realize that my thoughts on Steve Jobs are not only based on imperfect words on a page, but I’m also reading those words through the biased lens I use to perceive the world. At best, I’m getting an interpretation of a copy of who he really was. And I’m ok with that, because even feint copies of an original can teach us things, which is why we read these human stories in the first place.

So with that disclaimer out of the way, I believe that Steve Jobs’s genius was rooted in two main character traits: Insanely great taste, and an inability to compromise on that taste at all. This inspires me, but the way his unwillingness to compromise came out of him also makes me extremely uncomfortable.


Product vision and roadmaps

Jared Spool in The Value of Appl’s Knowledge Navigator: Gruber Has It Partially Right:

When teams don’t have a vision [“¦], each person is walking around with a different understanding of what the end of the journey should look like. When ther’s no common understanding on what that end point looks like, each decisions is evaluated on a different criteria and the resulting products end up looking like crap.

This is why I believe that product roadmaps are not evil. As I’ve written before, at our company we are very clear that the product roadmap is a flexible guideline that can (and must) change frequently as needed. But it gives the teams (and the management team) something to work towards. It’s a common vision, a sense of direction that’s more than just fluffy language – it’s concrete evidence that w’re headed somewhere good, and we know how to get there.


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