Skinner reborn

Graphic by Lea Clarin

B. F. Skinner was one of the most influential American psychologists. He developed the theory of operant conditioning, which states that a behaviour is developed by environmental stimuli. The behaviour is determined by the consequences of, reinforcements or punishments, which make it more or less likely that the behavior will occur again.

A ‘Skinner box,’ or an ‘operant conditioning chamber,’ permits the scientists to study behaviour training by teaching a subject animal to perform certain actions (like pressing a lever), in response to stimuli. If the subject animal performs the action correctly, it receives a reward. If not, it gets a punishment.

Phones are becoming increasingly ubiquitous. Your phone can set your alarm, be your radio, and can keep you company on the pot. Our life is getting easier day by day due to intelligent product design. When you think about it, phones are nothing more than Skinner boxes. The modern day Skinner boxes don’t need a cage to program its subject. They are always in your hands and have an effective a way to hold your attention. To keep you hooked on them, they have their icons, notifications, and a very driven user experience design.

At first, only fast food companies were using the “red-yellow” approach to their logos, (e.g.: McDonald’s, Wendy’s, KFC). Red easily catches the eye and triggers stimulation, appetite, and hunger, while yellow triggers feelings of happiness and friendliness. It is obvious for applications like Instagram, Netflix, and Snapchat to switch over to a more “red-yellow” palette to keep you coming back for more. It is like having a big red button (almost literally), which keeps giving you unending content.

Big data companies like Facebook, Google, and even Instagram keep their users hooked on their platform by using ‘Skinner Marketing.’ For example, when you see a new connection on LinkedIn you may feel a sense of importance, or if your Instagram post gets a 100 likes, you get a slight dopamine rush. You tend to post more and more for that same rush.

The pull-down refresh action in all these mobile applications is also eerily similar to the lever in a casino slot machine, which is a classic type of Skinner box. The more you refresh, the more content you get. You can mindlessly scroll down to the fabled end of your Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram feeds, but new content always seems to appear. These apps give you, the user, a feigned sense of control over viewing new content when you want though the refresh mechanic. You are being programmed to open them when you are bored. It is almost rare to see any person sitting idle on a bus full of people. You can look anywhere and find glassy-eyed young professionals sipping coffee and refreshing their mobile screens, over and over again.

In an app like Netflix, the user is never automatically logged out. They want you to increase the on-application time. It is easy to see how we can play the next episode without touching a button. You could stay on Netflix for days without ever turning it off. You can watch a new show after finishing one. You don’t even have to press more than two buttons. Even their sign-out option is nestled deep inside the Settings menu, right at the very bottom. The beauty of their application design makes it harder for users, inclusing me to not binge watch.

As the user experience of mobile applications becomes more enticing and addicting, it becomes more difficult for the user to close the application. It is time we watched our content consumption habits, and reap the profits of a more cautionary experience.

Nikhar Dhingra

2B Management Engineering


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