In the 1950s, Skinner began putting the birds in a box and training them to peck on a piece of plastic whenever they wanted food. Then the Harvard psychology researcher rigged the system so that not every peck would yield a tasty treat. It became random — a reward every three pecks, then five pecks, then two pecks.
The pigeons went crazy and began pecking compulsively for hours on end.
Fast forward six decades. We have become the pigeons pecking at our iPhones, scrolling through news feeds, swiping left/right on Tinder for hours, the uncertainty of what we might find keeping us obsessed by design.
In the modern economy of tablets and apps, our attention has become the most valuable commodity. Tech companies have armies of behavioral researchers whose sole job is to apply principles like Skinner’s variable rewards to grab and hold our focus as often and long as possible.
Market research shows the average user touches their cellphone 2,617 times a day.
William Wan in the Washington Post