How Social Media and E-Mail Hook You and Keep You

When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip…. In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters proud of his extensive correspondence has not heard from himself this long while. – Henry David Thoreau

I found this passage in William Powers’s excellent book Hamlet’s Blackberry(aff link). I struggle quite a bit with the near addiction I have to checking e-mail and social media (mostly Facebook). It’s become an almost automatic response to being on any kind of digital device. I’m connected, therefore I check (email | Facebook | Twitter | Feedly). My fingers tap across the screen without any conscious thought, and before I know it I’m looking at the latest updates or seeing another work e-mail that will ruin my quiet evening.

It makes sense why things like e-mail or Facebook can create these kinds of behavior, and why in Thoreau’s day we could say the same thing about going to the post office. In the behavioral model of psychology, a “reinforcement schedule” is a concept defining how and when a subject is rewarded for behavior. For example, in a simple fixed schedule model, subjects are rewarded every time they produce the desired behavior (every time your dog obeys your command, you give him a treat). But research has shown that over time constant reinforcement tends to produce a leveling effect. The frequency of the behavior slows, and even stops as the reinforcement loses effectiveness. In contrast, if rewards are delivered on a varying basis the behavior continues and is highly resistant to extinction (i.e. it is very hard to stop). This is especially true of so-called “variable ratio” reward schedules, in which subjects are given a reward after a randomized number of times they show the desired behavior.

Think for a moment about that. When rewards are given after randomized counts of behavior, we see the fastest rate of the behavior and the most resistance to change. Now, think about how Facebook works: you check it constantly, and from time to time you see a particularly interesting post, or that someone has left a comment on one of your previous posts. That little glowing red globe symbol is like a tiny shot of dopamine to your brain, and just like a rat in a cage who receives food at random for pressing a lever, you’re hooked.

The same is true of Thoreau’s “poor fellow”. Every time he goes to the post office, there’s a chance he’ll find a letter from a friend or lover. Thus begins the cycle of seeking out the reward, never knowing whether or not this time will be a lucky one.

Lately I’ve worked hard to break this habit as much as possible, with some success. First, it’s best to make getting to Facebook or e-mail as hard as possible; I log out of Facebook once my designated time is done, and turn off my e-mail on my phone. At times I go so far as to turn my expensive smart phone into nothing more than a dumb telephone, at least in the sense of connectivity (for the record, the recipe is to turn off wifi, then disable cellular data. At first it was downright painful, but as time went on, it’s become more and more pleasurable, these brief interludes of silence.

Try it yourself. Today, turn off all your devices and go for a walk. You might be amazed at the things you notice.

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