NEW YORK TIMES – When Augustin Lignier, a professional photographer from Paris, was in graduate school, he began thinking about the importance of taking photos in the modern world: Why do so many of us feel compelled to photograph our lives and share those images online? This wasn't a new question, but it led Lainier to a surprising place, and he soon found himself building what was essentially a photo booth for mice.
It was inspired by B.F. SkinnerFamous behavioral scientist who created a testing chamber to study learning in mice. a Skinner boxAs it became known, food pellets were distributed when rats pushed a specific lever.
It has become one of the most famous experimental models in psychology. Scientists found that reward-seeking rats became expert lever pressers, repeatedly pushing the bar down in exchange for food, medicine, or even a mild electric shock directly to the brain's pleasure center.
Lignier built his own version of a Skinner box — a tall, transparent tower equipped with a camera — and released two pet store rats inside. Whenever the mice pressed the button inside the box, they received a small dose of sugar and the camera took a picture of them. The resulting images were immediately displayed on a screen, where the mice could see them. (“But honestly, I don’t think they understand it,” Lignier said.)
The rodents quickly became fans of pressing buttons. “They are very smart,” Lignier said. (The white mouse, which proved to be the more intelligent of the two, was named Augustine, after him. The brown and white mouse was named Arthur, after his brother.)
But after this training phase, the rewards become unpredictable. Although the mice were photographed every time they pressed the button, the rewards came only once in a while, by design. Scientists have found that these types of intermittent rewards can be particularly powerful, keeping animals glued to their senses. Slot machines Experiments while waiting for the next award.
Indeed, in the face of these unexpected rewards, Augustine and Arthur – the mice – insisted on continuing. They sometimes ignored the sugar even when it arrived, continuing to press the button anyway, Lignier said.
For Linier, the similarity is clear. “Digital media companies and social media sites use the same concept to grab the viewer’s attention for as long as possible,” he said.
In fact, social media has been described as a “Skinner box for modern humans,” doling out periodic, unpredictable rewards — like a like, a follow, or a promising romantic partner — that keep us glued to our phones.
Or perhaps the fact that we can keep ourselves busy pressing buttons is its own reward. In a 2014 study, scientists concluded that many human volunteers “would rather give themselves electric shocks than be alone with their thoughts.” Maybe we'd rather sit there and push whatever levers are in front of us—even ones that might make us feel bad—rather than sit with ourselves in silent contemplation.
But this is exactly the kind of thing that can be very uncomfortable to sit and think about. Especially when there are mouse selfies to impress — “I thought they were cute and fun,” Lignier said — and an endless stream of Instagram photos to scroll through or even occasionally enjoy.
“Music fanatic. Professional problem solver. Reader. Award-winning tv ninja.”