Tuesday 19 October 2010

Would Skinner have owned a Blackberry?

In 1972, my first visit to university, I took a course in psychology which covered behaviourism and the work of B. F. Skinner (1904-1990). I was so fascinated by the American psychologist and his studies of operant conditioning that I have never forgotten the material even after more than thirty years. However for me, the most interesting concept of his work was intermittent reinforcement.

In a word, behaviourism analyzes what the individual actually does. Unlike the Freudian school which seeks to explain the conduct of individuals by studying the internal workings of the mind, behaviourism limits itself to observable phenomena, that is to say that we look at what the individual does and we do not take into account what the individual thinks. Drawing on the work of Pavlov, Skinner was able to apply the idea of reinforcement to evoke a certain action on the part of the individual regardless of his will. The term "operant conditioning" refers to the conditioned response of an individual to stimuli.

The concept of reinforcement is, I think, fairly easy to understand. If we want an individual to do something, we reward the individual and if we don't want the individual to do that thing, we do not reward the individual or we may even punish the individual: a positive or negative reinforcement. Skinner proved his theories by creating what is called the Skinner box. He put rats and pigeons in a box to submit them to tests designed to determine their ability to undergo operant conditioning, that is to say he wanted to know how a reinforcing stimulus could change the behaviour of animal. For example, a pigeon learns that if it presses a button, it gets a piece of food, a seed and if it does it more frequently, it gets more seeds. The seeds, the stimulus reinforce the action of the pigeon.

Skinner came to observe that the desired behaviour of these animals could be obtained without offering food each time they pressed the button or lever. Skinner changed the frequency with which he gave a piece of food from every other time, to every third time, every fourth time, etc. or even randomly. The behaviour, pressing the button, did not change; the animal continued to press it. This is where Skinner formulated the idea of intermittent reinforcement.

The university course mentioned the application of this idea to the field of gaming. It was easy to see how the slot machine was the equivalent of a Skinner box and the pigeon was man himself. The desired action, insert a coin into the machine and pull the lever would continue even if the reinforcement, the payout, was available only intermittently. I do not frequent casinos; however, over the years I have had few opportunities to observe this phenomenon.

As an aside, while I see the payout of a slot machine as the piece of food given to the animal, I've come to appreciate how the intelligence of a human being has affected this system of reward. In a casino, when somebody wins at a slot machine, all sorts of bells go off accompanied by flashing lights; sometimes I've even heard a siren. The point is that the house is advertising that somebody has won. It occurred to me that the reward per se doesn't necessarily have to go to the individual. By seeing somebody else win our behaviour that is the desire to continue playing, is reinforced. Ha! While the pigeon is only going to continue if the pigeon gets a seed, we don't necessarily have to get the reward ourselves. By seeing anybody win or get the reward, our behaviour is reinforced. Hmmm does that make us smarter or possibly more stupid than a pigeon?

Several years ago my wife and I visited Niagara Falls to celebrate our wedding anniversary. We had some good luck this particular weekend as it was lovely out; it was sunny, it was a perfect day for strolling in the park near Victoria Falls. At this point, a new casino had opened near the Falls and we talked about how this new business would affect the local economy. During our walk, we decided to take fifteen minutes to go and check it out. Despite it being very pleasant outside, we found lot of people inside the casino planted in front of the slot machines inserting one coin after another. For me it was a bizarre spectacle. I could not help but think of the Skinner box and the fact that these people were just pigeons pressing the button hoping to get their piece of food. It was intermittent reinforcement in action! Very funny.

Since my introduction to Mr. Skinner, I saw the concept of reinforcement everywhere: parents and their children, teachers who deal with children, the boss and his employees, society and even the population taking account of the law and other regulations that govern us. The way we are governed has been developed from the principle that when we do one thing, the reaction we receive either positive or negative determines if we do that action again. Exceed the speed limit; get a ticket; don't do that again.

The personal computer has existed since 1980 but with the advent of the Internet in the mid 90s, we saw the popularity of the computer explode. Who knew that the desire to communicate electronically was so widespread in the world? That's when I saw a curious thing.

Email has become one of the major means of communication, if not the principal means. Those of us for whom email is essential, checking the Inbox has become a central activity of good communication. Is there an important email to which we must respond? Otherwise, recheck your Inbox in a minute. We go back constantly to see if there is new mail. .... Hey! What is the difference between the Inbox and the Skinner box?

Either at office or home, I found that I returned to my Inbox over and over again in hopes of finding a new email. Suddenly, it occurred to me that there was a strong link between this phenomenon and intermittent reinforcement. However, this time it is not a piece of food, the reward is an email. My Inbox is a slot machine!

I have long chuckled when I saw myself as a pigeon in a Skinner box. I realized that without my knowledge the action of checking my mail had become a habit and that habit controlled my life to some extent. I started watching my colleagues at work and I noticed that many of them did the same thing as me. They were also captivated by email. Or should I say they were also captivated by the possibility or hope to receive an email.

I am determined to regain control and change my life a bit. With me, yes, I could see if there was mail from time to time but that does not mean that I should watch my Inbox constantly. And the result? I think I am no longer a slave to my computer. Instead of wasting my time checking my Inbox over and over again, I can do other things and I can just look at my email ... no, I can restrict myself to checking my email only at certain times during the day. Now I can clearly see that in reality there are not many emails which deserve an immediate response. As I always tell my colleagues, in an emergency, you can call me. No, you should call me! Hey, if it's a critical situation, we should not send email, we should contact a human being by phone to be sure someone is aware of what's going on!

Has everyone had the same revelation? The arrival of a portable device on the market and its acceptance in the field of business tends to prove my point: people check their email constantly and the phenomenon is spreading and getting worse. Given the portability of the device, one can be connected to their email twenty-four hours out of twenty-four anywhere. If I look around me, I can say that the situation has now become quite funny.

An executive of the company I work for - I will call him Alan - has been a Blackberry enthusiast for many years. He even spent his own money to buy one. Finally, he convinced the company to invest in this technology to equip certain employees with their own Blackberry. Now the use of such equipment is common among our employees. Myself, I have one but I must admit that the device spends most of the time in a drawer of my desk. However, what have I observed with others?

During the meetings when everyone should pay attention to the speaker, I can see that a number of people cast a glance under the table in front of them. They keep their Blackberries on their lap so they can look at the display on the sly. Sometimes I can even notice that a particular person has even stopped looking at the speaker and their attention is focused in their lap, on their Blackberry so they can type a reply to a message.

I once watched my colleague Alan leave his office and go in the direction of the men's room. A minute later, I myself decided to go to the washroom. Leaving the office, I looked down the length of the hallway and saw Alan standing in front of the bathroom door looking at his Blackberry. I knew he was just in his office where he was working on his computer and had access to his email. I was wondering what could have happened that was so important during the short period of time necessary to traverse the 25 feet that separated his office from the men's room. Why was it important to verify his email before going into the men's room?

Speaking of toilets, I remember once when I went to the washroom, I was washing my hands when I heard the distinctive sound of the vibrate mode of a Blackberry. Under the partition wall of a toilet stall, I could see the shoes of a man. I recognized them as belonging to Alan! Gosh, I could hear him replying to an email! Such dexterity! Such multitasking!

I now see the Blackberry and similar devices everywhere. As my experience in the bathroom shows, the ubiquitous nature of this device can be very amusing. Its omnipresence shows the need to communicate, the need to be connected to the "network of humanity" for all those who have them. This supposed need to be in touch leads me to observe that for these people, any "future" communication will necessarily be more interesting than what we have right now.

Have you ever experienced the situation that you're in somebody's office and you're talking to the person in question when suddenly the phone rings? The caller then says, "Excuse me" and answers the phone. Wait a sec! There is a human being in front of you, a living person with whom you talking, yet the phone has priority? Do you know the concept of customer relationship? Where are the good manners of office etiquette?

This is the same phenomenon in terms of smart phones; however, we are now talking about two things: phone calls and emails. A Blackberry can be set up to give an audible notification for a phone call and another audible notification for an incoming email. I notice the same idea that the contact person gives more priority to the audible notification that to the person with whom he is talking. To me, this is a perfect example of operant conditioning of Skinner; we are the Skinner's pigeons.

All things considered, I must add another observation about these "Skinner's pigeons," an observation which I read about in the newspapers. There are good reasons to put forward the argument that contemporary society in this era of instant communication suffers from a short attention span and the constant need for communication is an indication of how quickly we get bored and how we are constantly seeking new stimulus to satisfy the need to be entertained.

Excuse me, my Blackberry just vibrated to tell me I have received an email. I am holding up my index finger to you in the universal sign of excuse me to tell you to stop talking while I say "Pardon." As you stand there, I hold my Blackberry so I can 2 thumb type my password then examine my Inbox. I'm sorry but getting my "seed" is far more important than talking with you.  :-)


Wikipedia: Behaviorism

Wikipedia: B. F. Skinner


1 comment:

BigLittleWolf said...

The all important phone-cell-blackberry etiquette.

If I'm with another human being, I only answer the phone if it's one of my kids who learned long ago that you call / interrupted only for something important.


The phone/blackberry is tucked away, unless I am alone.

Funny how conveniences can become yokes or bad habits.