With the Internet constantly at our fingertips, many people lament that we are perpetually distracted, ignoring the outside world to focus on colorful little screens. The Internet is more addicting than ever—the web has an endless supply of evanescent entertainments, which multiply every day. Yet we don’t just aimlessly wander the Internet to find interesting diversions. Instead, we fixate on specific sites and wander within their borders—these sites either generate or aggregate interesting content from the rest of the web, saving us the trouble of finding it.
One of the most striking examples of this is Facebook. In March 2012, Facebook reported having 526 million daily active users on average.1 To compare, the United States has a population of roughly 311 million people, while the entire continent of South America has a population of about 387 million people.
But the addictiveness of Facebook is not just a statistic to me. As a college student, I know firsthand how addicting Facebook can be—it’s more than a little disturbing how frequently I find myself staring at my Facebook homepage, not knowing why I am even there. Or I’ll close Facebook only to open up another browser window with Facebook. Firefox is insidiously complicit in this—all I need to do is type “f” and hit enter, and I am greeted by a familiar blue header bar atop three columns dense with distractions.
526 million people go on Facebook every day. What could possibly generate that level of engagement?
There are obviously many factors involved. But if we just consider the day-to-day, or even minute-to-minute, compulsion to check Facebook, the answer has to do with the way in which users are psychologically “rewarded” by visiting Facebook.
Thinking inside the box
Some time ago, I read two articles that discuss what makes video games so addicting. Those articles referred to psychological experiments carried out by B. F. Skinner using his “Operant Conditioning Chamber,” also known as a “Skinner box.” A Skinner box contains a rat and a lever, as well as a place where food pellets can appear (and some various stuff for other experiments).
The box can be adjusted so that the food will only appear after certain “contingencies.” For instance, food might appear every fifth time the rat presses the lever or food might appear only if the lever is pressed more than one minute after the previous food pellet appeared. Or the lever might not do anything at all.
Pushing the lever is the behavior we want to induce. Say we want appearances of food to be based on the number of times the rat presses the lever. There are two main types of schedules we can use: fixed ratio (the number of lever presses between food pellets is the same every time) and variable ratio (the number of lever presses between food pellets varies). When comparing fixed and variable ratios, studies found that variable ratio schedules induced more lever-pressing.
Why is this? Well, when there is a variable ratio, each time the lever is pressed, it has a chance of giving a food pellet. That means that there is always a chance of instant gratification when pressing the lever. In the fixed ratio case, once the ratio is established, say every tenth press, then once you press the lever the tenth time, you know there won’t be a reward for another ten presses which may make you quit altogether.
Variable rewards feed
Facebook has a variable interval schedule (like variable ratio except the amount of time between rewards changes rather than the number of actions). Each time you refresh your news feed, there is a chance that something new will show up—pictures of your friends or your crush, interesting articles, news about cool events. This effect is only compounded if you post things to Facebook. Once people start “liking” your posts, each refresh can only make your “likes” go up, giving you a small boost of self-satisfaction when it does. There is always a chance that refreshing Facebook will grant you some new reward.
Breaking out of the box
While it is enjoyable being in stuck in Facebook’s cycle of rewards, I know many people would like to reduce the time they spend on Facebook. One way to do this is to block Facebook on your browser with a tool like Leechblock or Nanny for Chrome. Another strategy would be to limit the ways Facebook can grab your attention by reducing the number of emails and notifications Facebook sends you. Posting less on Facebook will also reduce your engagement, of course, but you might not want to give that up.
Any remotely addictive site or service will have their own unique box with their own set of levers. Try looking around you from time to time and notice the different boxes you step into—at home, at work, at school, and everywhere else. You might be surprised at how many there are. For instance, I know from personal experience that blog stats can be just as, if not more, addicting as counting Facebook likes. And as I post this to WordPress and Facebook, I can hear my own hand pressing the lever with a definite click.