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.
Virtual Skinner Boxes will undoubtedly be used to help us get thin (See The Perfected Self by David H. Freedman) and keep America fat.