Skinner’s Pigeons – pecking for crumbs


Many many moons ago, in what now seems like another incarnation, I studied animal behaviour. Sadly my romantic teen dream of working with primates in Borneo – or at least something covered in fur and relatively appealing, was soon quashed by hours spent in dusty laboratories watching the unhurried tortuous paths of the Giant African Landsnail  – followed by even less glamorous afternoons of statistical analysis. My career as a behaviourist was thus quickly quashed but I was at least exposed to a term of lectures spent learning about the ghoulish and often frankly unethical exploits of the  pioneers in this field:

Pavlov and his dogs, Konrad Lorenz closely followed by his orderly line of greylag geese, imprinted on hatching and conned into believing that this bearded German Gentleman was their birth mother.

konrad lorenz

In recent times, the experiment that I’ve had most cause to recollect and that seems to apply with an eerie precision to the design of 21st century digital experience, is that of  B F Skinner, a Harvard psychology researcher in the middle of the last century:

Skinner’s unfortunate pigeons were trained to earn food by tapping a clear plastic door. In some scenarios, the pigeons got food every time they pecked. In other arrangements, Skinner set timed intervals between each reward. After the pigeon got food, the system stopped dispensing treats for, say, 60 seconds. Once that period had elapsed, if the bird pecked, it got another payday. The pigeons never quite mastered the timing, but they got close. Skinner would randomly vary the intervals between food availability. One time there’d be food available again in 60 seconds. The next, it might be after five seconds, or 50 seconds, or 200 seconds.

Under these unstable conditions where rewards were variable the pigeons went bonkers – one bird pecked the glass 2.5 times a second for an unbelievable 16 hours, whilst another tapped 87,000 times over a day despite getting rewarded for the behaviour less than 1% of the time.

It would be expected that the pigeon would learn to peck for a reward – and that the release of the grain would be enough to teach the bird to try again – thus learning the behaviour ( this is known as operant conditioning) – what was less expected was that by far the most pecks were elicited by intermittently rewarding the behaviour with a random time interval before the reward appeared – something that’s know as intermittent reinforcement.

This effect is often used to manipulate human behaviour – the random rewards of gaming machines being perhaps the first example  to spring to mind – and close to my heart, the wise advice never to give in to a tantruming child – even the one moment of partental weakness out of a hundred, is enough to reinforce the behaviour……

We cultured, civilised and aware adults may well believe ourselves superior to Skinner’s pigeons but take a moment or two to consider the last time you found yourself compulsively checking emails, that one last look at Facebook before you went to sleep which morphed into ten minutes…. and then the emails call again.

So who’s in charge here? A handful of corporations determine the basic shape of the web that most of us use every day. Many of those companies make money by capturing users’ attention, and turning it into page views and clicks. They’ve staked their futures on methods to cultivate habits in users, in order to win as much of that attention as possible. Successful companies build specialised teams and collect reams of personalised data, all intended to hook users on their products.

As with the pigeons, uncertain and intermittent rewards can lead to obsessive behaviour. It would be interesting to know how many people reading this could honestly say they’ve never felt this compulsion whilst using the web. I certainly have. We (or at least I) tend to blame ourselves for this behaviour – and particularly blame our computer obsessed children. But in reality look what we’re up against – a system designed by the most skilled psychologists and integral to the system are persuasive and hook forming design principles. It begins to be a rather uncomfortable thought.

We tend to look at overuse of the internet as just another form of distraction, but what’s actually being developed, when you check email or Facebook neurotically, or get sucked into pinterest, is actually a particular kind of focus, one that prioritizes digital motion and reward. Couple this with the alarming results of a recent survey that found that, a fifth of children aged 12 to 15 have unquestioning faith in information that they find through search engines like Google. (Ofcom 2015) and it would make sense to be worried that we may be raising a generation hugely vulnerable to the manipulation of the tech wizard.

Of course, as with most aspects of life, there remains a balance and self-control/ self-regulation is obviously an important part of healthy (and I would suggest moderate) internet usage – but should the designers themselves bear some responsibility? If the architecture of today’s web is any indication, the balance at the moment is strongly  skewed toward the designers. Unless we want to keep pecking compulsively for our online crumbs like Skinner’s pigeons, maybe it would be worth paying a little more attention to those whom our attention pays.

Ofcom 2015




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