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What Rats and Levers Can Tell Us About Humans And Social Media

The other day I noticed that I closed my Instagram, hit the power button on the top of my iPhone—click!—and within minutes I slid my thumb across the screen and clicked on Instagram again. What—why?

Do you do this? With email? With Facebook or Twitter?

Dan Ariely in Manage Your Day-to-Day connects the dots on how rats and levers correlate with humans and social media [emphasis by me]:

The psychologist B.F. Skinner came up with the idea of random reinforcement, where you give a rat a lever and every hundred times it presses the lever, it gets a piece of food. For the rat, that is exciting. But if the number is a random number—any number between one and one hundred—it actually ends up being more exciting. And the rat keeps on working much, much more, even if you take the reward away altogether. I think that e-mail and social networks are a great example of random reinforcement. Usually, when we pull the lever to check our e-mail, it’s not that interesting. But, from time to time, it’s exciting. And that excitement, which happens at random intervals, keeps us coming back to check our e-mail all the time.

This passage made me reflect on the way I use technology. Am I mindful with it? Or do I squander some of the best hours of my day?

Being connected and staying connected is a choice that we made (probably because everyone else was doing it) and continue to make. But now that we are flawlessly connected , our profiles up to date, our dinner looking exquisite in that 70’s style filter, the question we ought to ask ourselves is: are we using our time and energy efficiently?

Are we simply pulling a lever for the sheer excitement of it?

Your attention and energy, and how you use them, is the lifeblood of how your life will turn out. Hence, they are valuable. And if something is valuable, it shouldn’t be wasted.

I bring this up because I know that many of us log on to our social medias and email more than we need to. We are, indeed, acting like a rat facing a lever with a series of unmet expectations.

Christian Jarret, one of the many contributors for Manage Your Day-to-Day, brings up an important insight on the myth of multitasking, and why we need to be mindful of how we use our tools so that those two precious resources—your attention and energy—aren’t squandered [emphasis by me]:

We may tell ourselves that we’ll just answer one quick e-mail or make one short phone call. But in reality, switching tasks sends us down a rabbit hole, pulling our attention away from our priority work for much longer than we anticipate. Even if you have cast-iron willpower, the mere fact that the Internet is lying in wait on your computer takes a toll on your work performance. The very act of resisting temptations eats up concentration and leaves you mentally depleted. Psychologists demonstrated this in a 2011 study. Participants at the University of Copenhagen were told to perform a computer task. Afterward, some of them were allowed to watch a funny video, while the others were faced with a play button for the video, but had to resist pressing it (akin to a tempting YouTube clip on your computer). When confronted with an additional task afterward, those who had to resist the video performed worse than those who were allowed to watch it. In short, committing to ignore distractions is rarely enough. Like Franzen, we must strive to remove them entirely from our field of attention. Otherwise, we’ll end up using half our mental energy just keeping ourselves from breaking our own rules.

It’s scary how much time we can unconsciously waste, but equally important, it’s scary how much we can accomplish by consciously managing our distractions and doing work that matters.