Skinner Marketing: We're the Rats, and Facebook Likes Are the Reward

Our Internet handlers are using operant conditioning to modify our behavior.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

One of the most popular announcements at Google's recent developers conference was the new version of Google Maps, which has a lot of spiffy new bells and whistles, to be sure.

But there's an ominous side note here: The new Google Maps for mobile devices allows marketers to offer products and deals based on the consumer's physical location.

We're entering the age of Skinnerian Marketing. Future applications making use of big data, location, maps, tracking of a browser's interests, and data streams coming from mobile and wearable devices, promise to usher in the era of unprecedented power in the hands of marketers, who are no longer merely appealing to our innate desires, but programming our behaviors.

And the new Google Maps is just the start. Google, Facebook, Twitter, retailers, and thousands of application developers are now positioned to keep users engaged on Web sites and program behaviors. That is, to operant condition them.

In the 1930's, B. F. Skinner developed the concept of operant conditioning. He put pigeons and rats in Skinner boxes to study how he could modify their behavior using rewards and punishments. His pigeons pecked at buttons in search of food. We peck at keys in search of virtual rewards -- good news arriving in an email, a retweet, a thumbs-up on a blog post, or leveling up in World of Warcraft.

The effectiveness of these behavioral modification techniques are in plain sight -- families ignoring one another while checking the email and Facebook at dinner, drivers texting in heavy traffic, and 14-year-old girls sending hundreds of text messages a day.

Skinner's techniques of operant conditioning and his notorious theory of behavior modification were denounced by his critics 70 years ago as fascist, manipulative vehicles that could be used for government control.

Skinner's critics were prescient. They were right about control but wrong about the controllers. Our Internet handlers, not government, are using operant conditioning to modify our behavior today.

Skinner's basic technique was to give his subjects a cue that triggered them to engage in an activity that provided them with a reward -- see the button light up, peck at it, and get food.

Thanks to Skinner's work, brain MRIs, and more recent research by psychologists, neuro-scientists, and behavioral economists, we now know how to design cue, activity, and reward systems to more effectively leverage our brain chemistry and program human behavior.

According to psychologist Scott Rigby, we have an innate desire to gain mastery of new situations. As a result, players crave leveling up in a computer game. Just try getting a kid to turn off a game when he is almost at the next level. As humans, we have a powerful need for human connection and recognition. Facebook and Twitter meet the need by enabling us to gather friends and followers. Facebook and Twitter's "like" or "tweet" buttons are designed into Web sites throughout the Internet. Big rewards that come at unpredictable times trigger dopamine releases in the pleasure centers of our brains and keep us searching the web for the best price, trying to win an eBay auction, or pushing buttons on slots.

Gambling casino operators such as Harrah's were among the first to employ operant conditioning for profit. They used carefully designed physical environments, skillfully designed slot machines, highly motivating unpredictable reward systems to ensnare rows of players in "the zone" in which time, space, and social identity are suspended while they push buttons and pull levers -- some so absorbed they urinate in cups so as not to break the flow. One of the keys to making these environments effective is the ability to track individual gamblers' activities using reward cards. Unfortunately for Harrah's when you leave the casino, you leave their Skinner box.

The beauty of the Internet is that by combining big data, behavioral targeting, wearable and mobile devices, and GPS, application developers can design more effective operant conditioning environments and keep us in virtual Skinner boxes as long as we have a smart phone in our pockets.

Presented by

Bill Davidow is an adviser to Mohr Davidow Ventures and the author of Overconnected: The Promise and Threat of the Internet.

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