Online All the Time? Researchers Predicted It.

Our social media addiction is explained by theories pioneered by B.F. Skinner decades ago.

Social media’s power over consumers is not by chance, it is by design. Theories pioneered decades ago by B.F. Skinner lie at the root of today’s multi-trillion-dollar “attention economy.”

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For teachers
  • Read transcript
  • Producer: Kit R. Roane
  • Editor: Anne Checler
  • Associate Producer: Katherine Wzorek
  • Reporter: Meral Agish

For Educators


This 11-minute video introduces students to the influential psychologist B.F. Skinner through interviews and vivid footage of his original experiments, including pigeons playing a version of Ping-Pong. It illuminates the connections between Skinner’s theory of variable rewards and the rise of habit-forming internet applications. The video is useful for introducing Skinner and behaviorism, or for setting up a classroom discussion about the ethics of creating habit-forming products. The video includes recent interviews with Skinner’s daughter, who comments on what her father might have thought about social media, along with interviews with software engineers who incorporated Skinnerian principles into the products they designed.

Background reading

Surprising as it may seem, the power to lure and hold social media users is rooted in decades-old work of the legendary psychologist B.F. Skinner and his experiments with pigeons.

Skinner was fascinated with what motivated behavior. His experiments, conducted in the late 1950s, were groundbreaking.

Skinner motivated pigeons to peck at levers or perform tricks to get food, but along the way he discovered that the pigeons were much more likely to keep pecking at a lever if they got food only occasionally.

That concept, variable rewards, can be seen in every habit-forming activity known to man, like slot machines and Instagram. Inconsistent results keep the players – or users – coming back for more, hoping to collect a payout in quarters, or posts that bring a Like.

Skinner’s goal, of course, was not to create gambling addicts, or a generation of teenagers glued to their phones. And he would probably be horrified at how tech companies have used his work to make billions. He wanted to better understand behavior, and that had led him to perhaps his most important realization about variable rewards: Knowing that you’re being manipulated by a product might be the first step toward breaking its grip.

Lesson Plan 1: Psychology: Behaviorism, B.F. Skinner and Social Media

Students will learn about behaviorism and the method of learning called operant conditioning that was developed by B.F. Skinner in the 1960s, and will explore why social media psychology makes that work highly relevant today.

  • How B.F. Skinner’s theories about operant conditioning and intermittent reinforcement help explain human behavior.
  • Why B.F. Skinner is an important figure in psychology.
  • How B.F. Skinner’s research on the “variable reward schedule” has been used by social media companies to create habit-forming internet products.
  • How consciousness of Skinner’s theories can be used to counteract the habit-forming qualities of social media.
Essential questions
  • What did Skinner’s research indicate about intermittent reinforcement or variable rewards?
  • Why were Skinner’s ideas about human behavior and free will considered “creepy” to many people when he was alive?
  • In application design, what is a hook?
  • How have engineers incorporated Skinner’s ideas about an inconsistent rewards schedule into the products they design?
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.Psy.19.9-12.Apply major theoretical approaches in psychology to social issues.
  • National Standards for High School Psychology Curricula
    • Development and Learning: Content Standard 2: Operant Conditioning2.3: Describe experimental examples of operant conditioning.