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Facebook and its Addictive Traits


Facebook. What makes it so popular and why is it so addictive?

The social networking site continues to grow since it was created in a Harvard dormitory in 2004. With over 500 million users (according to kissmetrics.com), it has united individuals from dozens of countries into a population exceeded by only China and India. History has never seen such an incident occur; the site is translated in 70 different languages and is used via mobile by 30% of its virtual population. With over half of its users logging in on any day and over 700 minutes spent per month by the average Facebooker, there clearly must be something amiss.

What did Mark Zuckerberg and his co-founders do to make Facebook so powerful and uniting? Certainly many things but one aspect proves exceptionally interesting because of its relation to psychology.

My explanation starts with Edward L. Thorndike, whose 1898 experiment consisted of cats searching their way out of a puzzle-like maze toward a concluding reward of fish. Thorndike noted that the cats improved in performance over time. He attributed their increasing speed in completing the maze to the fish treat. The cats learned that there would be a treat at the end of the puzzle, so they worked quickly to complete it.

Upon obtaining these results, Thorndike generalized that actions followed by positive consequences are more likely to recur in an individual. Likewise, actions post ceded by unfavorable consequences will be less likely to recur. He coined the overall phenomenon the law of effect.

Following in 1961, psychologist B. F. Skinner delved more into the law of effect in terms of partial reinforcement. In this method, reinforcement—the consequence—is present but not in a 1:1 ratio to the committed action. Instead, the reinforcement schedule comes in four different options: fixed ratio, variable ratio, fixed interval, and variable interval.

In a fixed ratio plan, the individual receives the consequence periodically after completing the action a specific number of times. In Thorndike’s example, the cat would receive a fish treat every—for example—five times that it completed the puzzle maze. This schedule is effective but the desired action can disappear very easily if the reward stops coming.

In regards to the fixed interval schedule, the individual receives the consequence periodically after a specific amount of time. The cat in Thorndike’s puzzle maze may receive a fish treat every hour, regardless of the number of times it completes the puzzle. The cat will most likely learn to only complete the maze at the end of the hour in order to take the treat that is left at the end of the maze. Naturally, this schedule is very ineffective once the individual learns how long he must wait in order to receive the reward.

The variable ratio schedule has the individual receive the consequence after completing the action a random number of times. For example, Thorndike’s experimental cat may receive its first fish after completing the puzzle five times, the second fish after completing the puzzle eight more times, and the third fish after completing the puzzle four times more. This schedule is effective; in a study with pigeons, Skinner showed that this schedule can increase the number of instances that the action is performed, per unit of time, very early on in the procedure or setting.

In the variable interval schedule, the consequence is presented over random periods of time—regardless of how often the action is performed. In Thorndike’s situation, the cat may receive a fish treat after twenty minutes, a second fish after another ten minutes, and a third fish after another two minutes. This schedule is effective for the cat because the cat has to go through the maze to receive the treat at the end. (If the treat was given directly to the cat, then the schedule would become ineffective because the cat would have no motivation to go through the maze.) The individual altogether never knows when he will receive his treat.

Facebook’s foundation complies with the variable interval schedule through the site’s notification system. This system allows an individual to receive messages every time an event or action occurs in relation to him. If someone writes on the individual’s “wall”, then the latter will receive a notification that will come up when he logs onto Facebook. In this sense, a notification is the consequence—the treat—that occurs when the individual logs in. Notifications are not dependant on how often the individual logs in; they occur according to random intervals of time. The variable interval schedule is thus created.

Facebook’s addictiveness altogether proves discernable as the individual constantly logs onto the networking site (goes through the trial) to see if there are notifications (check for treats at the end of the trial’s puzzle or maze). Of course, this only explains the situation from the psychological level; there surely must be more going on at the molecular level…


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