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Lesson Plan

Psychology: Behaviorism, B.F. Skinner and Social Media

About this Video
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.
  • 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.
  • Psychology
  • Science
  • Media/News Literacy
  • Media Literacy
  • News Literacy
  • Social Media
  • Cultural and Social Change
  • The Media
  • The Postwar Era (1945-1980)
  • 1950s America
  • 21st Century
For Teachers
Introducing the Lesson

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.

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?
Lesson Procedure
  • Is it possible to become addicted to social media? Is that the best word to describe the relationship that some people have with social media or other internet applications? Are video games addictive? Can any consumer product or entertainment experience become addictive? Is binge-watching a TV show a form of addiction?
  • Do you agree with Skinner’s daughter that awareness of how we are being controlled might enable us to break free from that control? Are there other approaches to limiting behavioral control? How do we reduce other habit-forming behaviors? Could those strategies be applied to habit-forming digital behaviors?
  • Some apps seem to encourage healthy or constructive behaviors, like language-learning, exercise, and smoking cessation. But others seem to encourage behaviors that are not positive. On balance, when we apply Skinner’s theories to internet behavior, are they doing more harm than good?
  • Is it ethical for companies to encourage children to engage in habit-forming behaviors? Would it be ethical to create a gambling casino for children? Is there a difference between selling habit-forming products to children and selling them to adults?
Additional Resources
Transcript for "Online All the Time? Researchers Predicted It" Retro Report

2.3: Describe experimental examples of operant conditioning.

Apply major theoretical approaches in psychology to social issues.

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