But why do spend so much time with these technologies? Why are they so compelling? Of course, there are many reasons, so I don’t want to be reductionistic. Just to name a few – we learn, create, discover, connect with others, become more efficient, enhance our self-esteem or status, and have fun. Although I don’t want to oversimplify this complicated issue, there’s something woven into many of these technologies that keep us coming back in an almost compulsive…or addictive…manner.
Let’s call this “the Vegas Effect.” The Vegas Effect, as the name implies, is what compels people to gamble…but is also embedded in many other engaging activities such as collecting cards, fishing, hunting, awaiting Christmas presents, hunting for Easter eggs, checking stock and news updates…even successful TV shows such as American Idol and Lost play off of this principle. To an extent, sporting events play off of this principle as well. Will our favorite team win? Can we pull off the upset? Will it go down to the wire? Can we pull victory from the jaws of defeat? And, of course, many technologies such as email, texting, Facebook, and Twitter also have the Vegas Effect embedded within them.
Basically, the Vegas Effect works off of a variable ratio (or partial) reinforcement schedule. Let’s take studies with rats, for example. If a researcher creates a learning experiment in which a rat learns to press a lever one time (or 3 or 5) to get a food pellet, this would be a fixed ratio because every time the rat presses the lever a fixed number of times, a food pellet will be delivered. In contrast, within a variable ratio reinforcement schedule, the rat does not know exactly when the food pellet will come – it could be with one press of the lever, or 7, 3, 15…it varies every time. Studies with rats and other mammals show that this variable ratio reinforcement schedule results in the highest rate of responses and is most resistent to extinction. The rat will press the lever rapidly to try to get the reward and, if the researcher cuts off the food pellets, the rat will keep pressing the lever…sometimes until exhaustion… in hopes that foold will eventually come. Basically, the rat is kept in a state of anticipation…when IS that food pellet coming?
One of the reward systems in the brain becomes extremely active when we are in a state of anticipation caused by a variable ratio reinforcement schedule. A critical part of that reward system in the brain is the nucleus accumbens. It is a primitive collection of neurons deep within the brain that project pathways into other areas of the brain. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is involved in feelings of pleasure, gets released when the nucleus accumbens is activated. So, when we are in this state of anticipation, which a variable ratio reinforcement schedule creates exceptionally well, we get a surge of dopamine that keeps us hooked into that particular activity. Research has shown that the nucleus accumbens reward system is involved in many drug addictions (e.g., cocaine, speed). These types of recreational drugs cause surges of dopamine to be released, which can keep the users craving for more of the drug. In fact, studies show that when users are anticipating taking a recreational drug or awaiting its effects, the dopamine reward system in the brain already becomes active.
How does this reward system become activated by some types of technology? Let’s take Facebook, for example. Facebook has so many variable ratio reinforcement schedules built into it that it is almost impossible to fight the urges to check it constantly (which is why some refer to it as “Crackbook”). Consider the following:
- We could get a friend request.
- Someone could tag us a in a photo.
- A friend could comment on our status update.
- A friend could have posted his/her own status update.
- Someone might have sent us a direct message.
- A friend might be online and ready to chat with us.
Any of these situations can put us into a state of anticipation. Interestingly, the content of the message and who sent it don’t matter that much…it is the state of anticipation that gets us hooked. Who might have made a comment? What might she have said? These subconscious questions are what keep us checking Facebook so compulsively. They keep teens from focusing on their homework and lure many adults from work. Interesting, and somewhat paradoxically, what might be is more rewarding than what is. In this sense, the grass always seems greener on the other side of the hill.
So many technologies have this variable ratio reinforcement schedule built into them that it is almost impossible to resist. To be clear, I’m not accusing the creators of these technologies of deliberating exploiting this reward system in order to get us hooked into becoming “users” of their technologies (although I assume that there are some technologists who do). For the most part, many of these technologies inherently work on the variable ratio reinforcement schedule. It is the nature of the beast. But we must learn to tame our technology cravings, or we risk suffering in the long-term as we mindlessly respond to the technologies with which we’ve surrounded ourselves.
In the next post – what we can do curb our technology use.