Social Media, the “Dopamine Loop,” and the Role of the Software Engineer

“The mind-forg’d manacles I hear” –William Blake, London

Willliam Gibson, the near-enough future science fiction writer, described this Tokyo street scene in his novel Idoru (page 128):

There was a man on stilts at the intersection nearest the hotel. He wore a hooded white paper suit, a gas mask, and a pair of rectangular sign-boards. Messages scrolled down the boards in Japanese as he shifted his weight to maintain balance. Streams of pedestrian traffic flowed around and past him.

“What’s that?” Laney asked, indicating the man on stilts.

“A sect,” Arleigh McCrae said. ” ‘New Logic.’ They say the world will end when the combined weight of all the human nervous tissue on the planet reaches a specific figure.”

A very long multi-digit number went scrolling down.

“Is that it?” Laney asked.

“No,” she said, “that’s their latest estimate of the current total weight.”

Laney saw the man’s eyes through the transparent visor as they passed. A look of grim patience. The stilts were the kind workers wore to put up ceilings, articulated alloy sprung with steel.

“What’s supposed to happen when there’s enough nervous tissue?”

“A new order of being. They don’t talk about it. Rez [the rock star with whom both Laney and Creigh have a gig] was interested in them, apparently. He tried to arrange an audience with the founder.”


“The founder declined. He said that he made his living through the manipulation of human nervous tissue, and that that made him untouchable.”

Idoru was written in 1996. Facebook was released in 2004.

I have the sense that NC readers are below average in their social media usage; after the late unpleasantness, I abandoned Facebook almost entirely, though I still frequent the Twitter[1]. However, in 2017, there were about 2.46 billion social media users in the world; that’s a lot of nervous tissue. The global advertising revenue for social media is estimated at $23.39 billion U.S. dollars worldwide in 2017 for mobile, and $8.63 billion for desktop; that’s real money, even today. So even if you don’t use social media yourself, I bet you have friends and family members who are users.

As it turns out, we’ve had a recent spate of stories about some Facebook executives having second thoughts about manipulating human nervous tissue. Sean Parker was a Facebook co-founder, and he unloaded recently at an Axios conference. From November 9, 2017:

God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains…. The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, … was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’ And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you … more likes and comments. It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. The inventors, creators — it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people — understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.”

Parker’s remarks seem to have been a one-day’s wonder, lost in the “news” flow, but they were reinforced by a former Facebook executive, Chamath Palihapitiya. From December 11, 2017:

Another former Facebook executive has spoken out about the harm [Facebook] is doing to civil society around the world. Chamath Palihapitiya, who joined Facebook in 2007 and became its vice president for user growth, said he feels “tremendous guilt” about the company he helped make. “I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works,” he told an audience at Stanford Graduate School of Business, before recommending people take a “hard break” from social media.

Palihapitiya’s criticisms were aimed not only at Facebook, but the wider online ecosystem. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works,” he said, referring to online interactions driven by “hearts, likes, thumbs-up.” “No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem — this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem.” He says he tries to use Facebook as little as possible, and that his children “aren’t allowed to use that shit.” He later adds, though, that he believes the company “overwhelmingly does good in the world.”

Of course he does. (See Charlie Stross for another descrption of the “dopamine loop.”) So what is this dopamine loop?

The existence of a “dopamine loop” created by social media likes and clicks is conventional wisdom in Silicon Valley, but I haven’t been able to find the original science behind it. (It is possible that it’s a phrase that is used because it sticks in the mind and makes the user sound authoritative, like “kompromat.”) The Atlantic describes the dopamine loop as “neuroscience” (hmm) in 2012:

Thanks to neuroscience, we’re beginning to understand that achieving a goal or anticipating the reward of new content for completing a task can excite the neurons in the ventral tegmental area of the midbrain, which releases the neurotransmitter dopamine into the brain’s pleasure centers. This in turn causes the experience to be perceived as pleasurable. As a result, some people can become obsessed with these pleasure-seeking experiences and engage in compulsive behavior such as a need to keep playing a game, constantly check email, or compulsively gamble online. A recent Newsweek cover story described some of the harmful effects of being trapped in the compulsion loop.

(Gibson’s Pattern Recognition describes a heroine who checks her mail if not obsessively, at least extremely frequently; “refresh” captures the tiny rush quite nicely. I’ve had the same habit.)

Here’s another description, this time not from the world of middlebrow neuroscience, but from the American Marketing Association. From 2015:

According to a study of Australian consumers by San Francisco-based media-buying firm RadiumOne, social media usage is a dopamine gold mine. “Every time we post, share, ‘like,’ comment or send an invitation online, we are creating an expectation,” according to the study. “We feel a sense of belonging and advance our concept of self through sharing.”

The findings are compelling not only because they help explain why we feel compelled to click “like” so often, but also because they lay bare the power that marketers can wield by creating “likable,” shareable social content. As the study puts it: “Building sharing events into any marketing strategy is a valuable step in realizing this opportunity. The benefits and insights gained can ultimately inform abrand’s entire marketing approachand improve results.”

[Mauricio Delgado, associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J., says] that when you share those things that naturally give you a dopamine kick—your workout, a dinner date—you get a second shot of dopamine from the sharing and “liking” aspect, he says. “It’s a daisy chain of dopamine.”

I have no doubt that for a conservative, liking and sharing to “own the libs” on social media creates what could be called a dopamine rush; and the same for likes and shares for performative speech, “calling out,” and virtue signaling by liberals. However, I don’t think we have to buy into the “dopamine loop” as a construct — absent the science I have been able to find — to agree that social media is about the “manipulation of human nervous tissue.” There’s an enormous body of literature on this, and I’m no expert on brain chemistry, so these citations only scratch the surface:

For example: “Viewing photos with many (compared with few) likes was associated with greater activity in neural regions implicated in reward processing, social cognition, imitation, and attention” (Psychol Sci. 2016 Jul;27(7):1027-35).

For example: “Popular photographs elicited greater activity in multiple brain regions, including the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), a hub of the brain’s reward circuitry” (Child Dev. 2018 Jan;89(1):37-47).

For example: “Receiving a text message has been shown to light up the same area of the brain stimulated by highly addictive drugs such as heroin or cocaine” (Yale Daily News).

For example: “In the current study, 22 adolescents (average age 16.98) underwent neuroimaging (functional magnetic resonance imaging) while viewing and rating emotions shown in brief video clips featuring themselves, their parents, or an unfamiliar peer…. The results suggest neural correlates of the adolescent social reorientation toward peers and away from parents that may be associated with adolescents’ real-life risk-taking behaviors and social relationships” (Soc Neurosci. 2015;10(6):592-604).

For example: “Here, we test recent theories that individuals place high subjective value on opportunities to communicate their thoughts and feelings to others and that doing so engages neural and cognitive mechanisms associated with reward. Five studies provided support for this hypothesis. Self-disclosure was strongly associated with increased activation in brain regions that form the mesolimbic dopamine system, including the nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmental area. Moreover, individuals were willing to forgo money to disclose about the self” (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 109 no. 21, 8038–8043).

And so let me circle round to the programmer. Here’s an example of manipulating human nervous tissue at Instagram (owned by Facebook). From the Toronto Globe and Mail:

The makers of smartphone apps rightly believe that part of the reason we’re so curious about those notifications is that people are desperately insecure and crave positive feedback with a kneejerk desperation. Matt Mayberry, who works at a California startup called Dopamine Labs, says it’s common knowledge in the industry that Instagram exploits this craving by strategically withholding “likes” from certain users. If the photo-sharing app decides you need to use the service more often, it’ll show only a fraction of the likes you’ve received on a given post at first, hoping you’ll be disappointed with your haul and check back again in a minute or two. “They’re tying in to your greatest insecurities,” Mr. Mayberry said.

(I like that word “haul.”) Above, we saw a Facebook executive — not Zuckerberg — say:

The inventors, creators — it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people — understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.”

But what about the software engineers who also “did it anyway”? That horrid little piece of manipulation — “strategically withholding ‘likes'” — was implemented by a team. There was a manager, there was a whiteboard, there were design sessions, there was testing, there was coding, all for software engineered to treat humans like cattle. And even if the “likes” weren’t being withheld, isn’t taking advantage of “desperately insecure people” a bad thing, in and of itself? Something that you would not want children to grow up to do? Especially when practiced “at scale,” impacting billions of users? Is a life spent forging manacles for other minds a life worth living? [3] Jaron Lanier, in a recent interview:

It helps that he avoids all social media.

“It’s like, why would you go sign up for an evil hypnotist who’s explicitly saying that his whole purpose is to get you to do things that people have paid him to get you to do, but he won’t tell you who they are?”

Concluding by looking at the bright side, Lanier has the only sensible explanation I’ve ever heard for the plethora of cat videos on the web[4]:

“I think we know that Facebook is turning us into trained dogs,” he says. “We know we’re being trained. We can feel ourselves being turned into trained circus animals. And we long for that independence that cats show. So when you look at a cat video, what you’re really seeing is this receding identity that you want to cling to and find again.”

And so I will conclude with a cat video. Here is Maru getting into and out of a box:

I’m with the “New Logic” guy on stilts. We need a lot of new logic.


[1] I have a carefully curated list. Twitter is wonderful because a lot of journalists, writers, scientists, artists, and activists frequent it, so I get many fascinating links and insights from all over the world that I would never find otherwise. Twitter is horrible because it takes every aspect of American politics that is currently horrible, and amplifies it, and the short form may itself encourage more horribleness. On the whole, however, I prefer Twitter because I curate my news feed — I suppose it could be said that I titrate my dosage — and not Facebook’s faceless engineers.

[2] Of course, neoliberalism produces plenty of desperation. “The good autocrat provides many opportunities for failure in the populace” –Frank Herbert, Children of Dune.

[3] Here is an interesting article, from a Google “Design Ethicist,” that frames these issues at a higher level, considering deception, “magic,” con artistry, and so forth.

[4] Aside, that is, from their intrinsic adorableness.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Lee

    The fact that people can’t stop staring at and interacting with their phone screens while driving, walking, conversing, or even having sex, if news reports are to be believed, are indicative of the addictive nature of the technology. Or would “format” as opposed to “technology” be the more appropriate term? The “Technology” section on Google news page seems to consist largely of infomercials for social media.

  2. Thomas Hilton

    I think this story raises an interesting, albeit fictional, account of why people use social media so much. I think that if one honestly mined the user population, they would find that dopamine rushes apply to only a segment of users – the socially insecure, which accounts for most children and many young adults. There is also the cofactor of the smartphone, which for some has become the technological equivalent of Linus’ blue blanket.

    You do see evidence from posts on FB that some people are seeking approval of their daily lifestyle. “Here I am at this club, this restaurant, this event, with this person.” If they do not get many likes, do they patronize alternatives? Perhaps they seek reassurance that they are tasteful, “in,” cool, not overdoing, etc.

    As an elderly FB user, I grew up with computers (DARPANet, BITNET, the Internet), PCs, laptops, tablets, cellphones, palm pilots, smartphones, etc. These are tools for various purposes. When working, I would not tolerate people putting their smartphones on the meeting room table – it was/is a rude distraction. It was okay to use them for scheduling the next meeting date, or making a note of a new task. It was/is handy to have my rolodex IN my phone now, and a diary that vibrates to remind me of my next appointment – even in retirement! None of those uses smack of abusive use, and the vibration in my pocket does not produce a dopamine rush.

    I find social media to be most useful to keep up with old friends scattered all over the world because smartphones make their sharing spontaneous. “Likes” for my peers are often ratifications that grandparenting is indeed gratifying, isn’t it nice that we can travel, or sharing in the glee of a new puppy. Passe email, is still a wonder because we can daily share private ideas, experiences, new theories, or discuss world events just like when we were teens or in college. Lastly, there is blogs. Like NC, I learn more and faster what is going on in my world, and I can adjust the diversity of my input (which for me is quite high).

    Lastl, from a neuroscience perspective, dopamine is often characterized as if it were an addictive neurotoxin like heroin or cocaine. We hear rants about how people are addicted to their iPhones (a metaphor of sorts for social media). Addiction is rarely likely to be the case, because craving is only one part of addiction. The other part is getting physically ill when you stop. Being cranky or preoccupied when deprived of social media is not illness – it is just annoying to others.

    1. SOMK

      Whilst you may not get physically ill if you quit off social media (indeed quite the opposite), there is a penalty to not partaking in a world with increasing tendencies towards atomisation, firstly you risk cutting yourself from your friends, secondly a lot of groups do their organising and networking using Facebook because it is so ubiquitous. The other aspect of addiction is that the drug/activity fills a hole, we engage in addictive activities when we are in environments that do not nourish us otherwise and social media certainly fills that aspect of addiction too. In that with more inequality, less security, scarce opportunities, and the atomised/individualistic culture that heralds this shift, make it far harder to form meaningful relationships, Facebook offers a similar incentive, why go through the effort of knowing your neighbour who you have nothing in common with when you can look at photos of people we already know? The elderly have far less to loose from social media, because it is not as imbedded and core to their entire culture. I’m 37, so of that age of people who were young adults when social media started happening rather than experiencing it at more formative years and I am very thankful for that, but it is still poisonous.

  3. Toske

    ““The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works,” he said, referring to online interactions driven by “hearts, likes, thumbs-up.” “No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth.”

    Likes makes right. Those posts with fewer likes become invisible compared to those with more. Having a discussion might lead one or both sides to learn something and come to a place of mutual understanding, if not agreement, but why bother with all that when it’s a million times easier to simply block out disagreeing voices? Hell, the apps do that for you.

    If you want likes, keep it simplistic, feel-good and humorous. Posting anything thought-provoking causes the dopamine machine gun to stutter, and that’s poor form.

  4. Enquiring Mind

    My kids went through a social media (FB, Instagram, etc) phase and gave it up. They said that it was a huge waste of time and that they came to realize that there were relatively few truthful posts. When they saw some classmate or roommate or colleague post a picture of that fab outfit, vacation or whatever, and they were told or otherwise knew that such events did not occur, that reduced the credibility of those posters.

    When people see others checking phones frantically for likes or other dopamine hits, it is a step toward realizing that it is a rigged game and that there are serious, unpublicized risks to mental health. Multiply that by some user-inflation factor and the whole social media exercise seems mostly pointless.

    I think that social media consumers and people in general should be very concerned about the predatory and manipulative aspects of media and their facilitators.

  5. drumlin woodchuckles

    I remember reading/hearing that the “pleasure center” in the brain is supposed to be a real bunch of neurons which really exists. Dopamine is supposed to be one of the neurotransmitters secreted therein. Various other braincell fiber pathways are supposed to connect to it such that when survival-necessary activities send related sensory-stimulus impulses through those pathways, that some dopamine is secreted which makes the pleasure center make the brain-at-large feel good. The brain will seek more such feel-good dopamine-pellet rewards by driving the body to engage in more such survival-prolonging activities such as eating food or having procreational sex.

    It is so much easier to use and to hear the 3-word-phrase “dopamine feedback loop”.
    Perhaps “dopamine feedback loop” is a metaphorical word-model for the whole process alluded to above, just as Niels Bohr’s little solar system model was a metaphorical diagram-model for an “atom”.

    Regardless, getting users addicted to running in the dopamine hamster wheel is exactly what the social media engineers have been designing to achieve on purpose. Because every turn of the wheel generates more money for the social media platform owners who pay the social media engineers to do the engineering. Except for those founding social media engineers who founded the platforms themselves, like Zuckerberg. Their incentive to addict as many hamsters as possible to running in the dopamine wheel is even stronger.

    Their statements of dismay are so much virtue signalling and mutual back patting. Their actions all say: more hamsters, please. And spin the wheels faster.

    ( I don’t have a cell phone because cell phones cause cancer. I don’t do facebook because facebook was never anything but a clever conspiracy to trick people into building dossiers on themselves. I don’t do twitter because I don’t have the energy or the desire to be known and followed. Reading and commenting on 3 or so blogs is the closest I come to running in the dopamine hamster wheel).

  6. David

    I’m as anti these social media companies as anyone, and never use their products. But I wonder if some of their success doesn’t come from kicking into an open goal.
    We live in a society where people are lonely, isolated and insecure, and where they are officially encouraged to fight each other for financial or social/identity advantage. But people don’t actually like doing this, and would rather be members of communities than be good liberal autonomy maximizers. But if you haven’t got a real community any more, you’re much more likely to adopt, and even use to excess, something that has the outward trappings of one.

  7. clif

    ha; yes, good ole disruptive neuroscience. i suspect ‘dopamine loop’ is the updated jargon for the well-worn operant conditioning, with a soupcon of crypto-cyber-chemistry….

  8. DocMo

    This reads like a science fiction horror story. Of course, it’s real. The future we have feared is behind us, edging us to the abyss.

  9. Wombat

    Thank you for this read and summary of everything we have been hearing as of late. A dopamine-free appreciatory gracias to you. Thanks for everything you do.

  10. jsn

    What is the opposite of trust? Distrust doesn’t capture it. While the bonds of civilization are made of trust, they somehow hold even in a place like North Korea where we’re told no one can trust each other.

    Whatever it is, this opposite of trust, it has become the most remunerative human activity. Maybe trust, something that exists only as a shared experience with others, has as its opposite money love, which has the effect of commoditizing everything, even those we trust.

  11. Wade Riddick

    The corporate fraud behind this is a bit wider than you think. The way your brain processes pleasure is regulated by the bacteria in your gut digesting fiber (via a GLP-1/beta-endorphin set of pathways, if you must know). Antibiotics plus fiber-free processed food diets, bad fatty acids, sunscreen and a host of other changes to our environment leave us prone to these dopamine manipulations – and also chronic pain and various addictions ranging from sugar and opiates to alcohol and meth. I’ve posted research references on this before.

    This is also a broader flaw in advertising culture. If you’re getting something for free, you’re not the customer, as the neologism goes, you’re the product being sold. Why would you think an advertising industry would ever represent your interests? For that matter, why would you think public representatives taking ten times their salaries in bribes would ever represent the taxpayers?

    You get what you pay for.

  12. bassmule

    Tell me where it is written that FB obliges me to tell it the truth. I volunteer no information about myself unless it is required, in which case I lie.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Doesn’t every computer-machine have its very own “machine ID number”? If it does, then every time you log onto FB from a computer-machine, your fingers are telling the by-definition truth of what particular machine you are logging in from. And every time you log onto FB from a smart phone or other portable computing device, your fingers are telling facebook the by-definition truth about where you were at the moment of that log in.

      So how much are you successfully hiding from facebook, really?

  13. Altandmain

    It’s sad to think about the fact that Sam Francisco is getting gentrified and people can no longer afford to live their specifically because there are more people who are being paid a lot of money to make Facebook and similar apps. Most of them are not that valuable to the human race and the net effect may be deeply in the red.

    Now that mag not be the only reason why San Francisco is unaffordable, but it is a major issue. Worse, this is having spillover effects in Oregon, Washington state, Texas, Colorado, and parts of Canada as local residents who in many cases have live their lives for decades in their communities are driven out by gentrification.

    1. neo-realist

      Sam Francisco is getting gentrified and people can no longer afford to live their specifically because there are more people who are being paid a lot of money to make Facebook and similar apps.

      Seattle proper is in pretty much of a similar unaffordable state for most working people now because there are more people in high tech (thanks to the metastasizing of Amazon around here) living here and competing for limited housing and rental stock which has had the effect of drastically driving up housing prices and rents.

    2. jrs

      Every city in the country is becoming increasingly unaffordable, it’s not just about tech. And in fact this is the case even when most people in the city hardly earn enough to afford the rents. But yes encouraging tech to move into SF was bad city planning in retrospect.

  14. ewmayer

    “Another former Facebook executive has spoken out about the harm [Facebook] is doing to civil society around the world. Chamath Palihapitiya, who joined Facebook in 2007 and became its vice president for user growth, said he feels “tremendous guilt” about the company he helped make.” — Guilty enough to give away all your thus-by-definition ill-gotten riches to charity and retreat into a humble life of atonement and self-reflection? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

    And contemplate, for a moment, the staggering cognitive dissonance of first describing FB et al as “ripping apart the social fabric of how society works,” and then a few moments later describing the same actor(s) as “overwhelmingly do[ing] good in the world.” Whatever helps you sleep at night, eh, a**hole?

    Also, I’m puzzled why in the context of all this “dopamine loop” discussion, the term “Skinner box” did not get used. Here is what my dictionary says on that innovation:

    an apparatus for studying instrumental conditioning in animals (typically rats or pigeons) in which the animal is isolated and provided with a lever or switch that it learns to use to obtain a reward, such as a food pellet, or to avoid a punishment, such as an electric shock.

    Which – from the actual in-real-life isolation of the typical social-media addict, to the rewards (likes and supportive comments) and punishments (dis-likes and negative comments) precisely describe the social media ecosystem. And here, about the box’s inventor (bolds mine):

    Skinner, B(urrhus) F(rederic) (1904–90), U.S. behaviorist psychologist. He promoted the view that the proper aim of psychology should be to predict behavior and hence be able to control it. He applied the results of his studies to the development of programmed learning and to educational practice.

    1. Carolinian

      Yes B.F.Skinner is who we should be talking about. My brother the psychology major says that Skinner greatly underestimated the role of inherited instinct in behavior. But if Skinner fell short re the big picture he sure understood animal behaviorism. Arguably the biggest fans of his work turned out to be the hard sell jockeys of Mad Avenue and other branches of the corporate world.

      Which is why I avoid TV commercials, curse outdoor advertising and in general try to avoid anything that smacks of propaganda or manipulation including Facebook. Perhaps the scale of modern manipulation is indeed becoming large enough to be quite dangerous. But I’m not sure what we can do about it other than wait it out. Here’s betting it’s only a matter of time before the Facebook fad fades.

      1. blennylips

        >Yes B.F.Skinner is who we should be talking about. My brother the psychology major says that Skinner greatly underestimated the role of inherited instinct in behavior.

        Therein lies a tale. A classics in the history of psychology is the first paper to show this underestimation of instinct by Skinner (the first chink in black-box behaviorism):


        Our first report … concerning our experiences in controlling animal behavior, was wholly affirmative and optimistic, saying in essence that the principles derived from the laboratory could be applied to the extensive control of behavior under nonlaboratory conditions throughout a considerable segment of the phylogenetic scale…

        The first instance of our discomfiture might be entitled, What Makes Sammy Dance?


        Some amusing raccoon problems too!

  15. D


    So glad you dedicated a page to this crucial subject. Wish I wasn’t feeling so under the weather as I’d love to add some thoughts on it and add a link or more, but I’m not up to it tonight.

  16. The Rev Kev

    Re the cat video
    I have noticed that cats feel a need to mock our technology and that cat video was a perfect example. The cat ignores the TV on in the background and seeks to challenge itself to a physical/mental challenge just for the sake of it – like we all should. When humanity eventually goes into evolutionary oblivion, we will be replaced as the dominant species on earth by our logical successor – Felis sapiens.

  17. Oregoncharles

    “Dopamine” is just a trendy term for “reinforcement” or, before that, “pleasure.”

    So an important reminder: we’re always – ALWAYS – “manipulating human nervous tissue.” That’s what it means to be an obligate social animal.

    However, I have only a “dumb” phone (a lot of us, here on NC), and minimize my involvement with Facebook; not on Twitter at all.

    Of course, with a recent rash of babies in my family (my siblings are suddenly grandparents – long generations in my family), I’ve been introduced to “23snaps,” a picture-sharing platform. It’s annoying, no matter how cute the babies are.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Yes, of course, if you are a materialist (as I am).

      That said, having nervous tissue manipulated by enormous monopolies selling eyeballs on the scale of billions is a new thing on the face of the earth.

      1. johnnygl

        All this talk of ‘likes’ is like talking about other dopamines sources like booze or sex. Talking about ‘likes’ only makes me want them! So, I think the obvious question is….when is NC getting a ‘like’ button?!!?? :)

        Why should everyone else on the interwebs get high while we’re stuck with no dopamine?!!!?! :)

        I have insecurities that can only be soothed with reassuring ‘likes’ from a real highbrow lefty bunch like the one that’s been cultivated here for years!!! :)

        /sarc tag just in case it isn’t screamingly obvious.

  18. The Rev Kev

    Decades ago the fast food industry took advantage of the biochemical “bliss point” effect ( in order to get people hooked on their foods. The hundreds of millions of obese or prematurely dead people is a monument to their success. I would say that social media corporations employed psychologists to also target people’s vulnerable biochemical weak points and the present addiction to mobiles and social media is a sign of their success (good one, guys!).
    So we had a generation of software engineers beavering away to design their software to appeal to these weak points so that it would appeal to every Tom, Muhammed and Zhang Wei. And now human nature has asserted itself. Now people like Sean Parker and Chamath Palihapitiya are decrying the effects of social media. Why now? Well, San Parker has two very young kids and Chamath Palihapitiya has kids as well. When their status changed to PARENTS I think that they suddenly realized that this will impact their own kids whether they like it or not. This is something that will make its way into their own homes.
    Probably find too that as parents that they have been swapping notes with other parents around the water cooler about social media and young kids and are not liking what they are hearing. It’s OK when you are designing addictive social media for other people to conquer the world but not when you have your own kids on social media.

  19. DJG

    I read Jaron Lanier’s books, You Are Not a Gadget and Who Owns the Future?, when they came out. He has been skeptical of Facebook all along. He is also highly skeptical of EULA agreements–the idea that software is licensed to you and that the licenser then has access to your computer because you are not the owner. He also pointed out several years ago that certain assumptions about software, for instance, that text should go into a “file,” have frozen innovation. As a musician, he is definitely not keen on musical software (neither the software for storing / playing music nor composition software).

    The dopamine connection sounds like a bunch of quant majors searching for something from their required bio course. The problem with Facebook is that it is Pavlovian–you get approval and go back for more approval. Ding, ding, ding. The reason that the dopamine connection is popular is that it reinforces some currently received ideas about the chemical brain. Pavlov was about behavior: But criticizing behavior is so darn patriarchal and judgmental and old fashioned. With chemicals, no one has to answer for behavior. It’s the fault of covalent bonding.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      The brain either has chemicals in it or it doesn’t. If it does, the people who understand that fact and figure out how to study what those chemicals have to do with what will know more than those people who don’t understand that fact and don’t study anything to do with that fact or how it operates.

  20. JEHR

    I made a conscious decision to not belong to Facebook, to cancel Twitter, and to not use a cell-phone except for its communication as a phone-thing. If we human beings had used our techno time to help solve some of earth’s problems (pollution, climate change, over-population, poverty, inequality, etc.) we would have been on the path of solving these most important problems already. Technology of the type named basically keeps us from confronting and resolving these most important problems. Another fear I have of the overuse of technology (along with a world run by billionaires) is the weakening and finally the breaking down of democracy itself.

  21. lyman alpha blob

    I will just say thank you for not having any type of ‘likes’ on NC. I enjoy the fact that here, people’s words stand on their own and people can make up their own minds what to think.

    And these days, how many ‘likes’ or ‘followers’ or whatever are from real human beings as opposed to bots? Seem to remember reading about a whole cottage industry where one could purchase followers to make themselves seem more popular.

  22. XXYY

    But what about the software engineers who also “did it anyway”? That horrid little piece of manipulation — “strategically withholding ‘likes’” — was implemented by a team. There was a manager, there was a whiteboard, there were design sessions, there was testing, there was coding, all for software engineered to treat humans like cattle.

    Another industry that has been in this business a long time is the gambling and casino industry. Slot machines, video poker, etc., are also software constructions explicitly designed to engage users as strongly as possible and keep them engaged for as long as possible, in order to generate as much profit as possible.

    By Facebook standards, gaming machines are quite crude: perform some physical act, then get monetary reimbursement (or not), repeat. It’s straight variable-ratio reinforcement, as the behaviorists used to say. But it seems to work quite well, and no one can say it isn’t intentional.

  23. False Solace

    A few things leap to mind:

    It should be noted that no ethically-trained software engineer would ever consent to write a DestroyBaghdad procedure. Basic professional ethics would instead require him to write a DestroyCity procedure, to which Baghdad could be given as a parameter.

    — quoting Nathaniel Borenstein here

    Also this post from Clean Coder, about the VW diesel fraud and the engineer who’s going to prison for “just following orders”:

    Imagine the scene in that meeting room. What was said? What was agreed to? We may never know all the details; but it’s clear that the executives asked the engineers to find a way to defeat the emission tests.

    Now think of the engineers. What a cool problem to have to solve? No, really! Imagine how much fun it would be to figure out some sneaky way to bypass the emission test. [snip]

    Imagine the brainstorming, the “good” ideas. The coolness of knowing that there’s a really nifty solution to this problem.

    Imagine how pleased the executives would be with this really cool engineering solution. Imagine how proud the engineers were.

    I have to say that many programmers are very young, and mostly male, and when in groups, for whatever reason, I’ve observed among them a distinct lack of empathy, a lack of worldly wisdom and questioning, and an inability to imagine any other kind of life experience than what the engineer has personally known, no matter how well intentioned the individual is (and they are sometimes rather the opposite). Meanwhile the much more experienced, worldly and wise managers stand over the coding team, giving direction and applause and monetary rewards for every bit of “cleverness” the team comes up with, no matter how deranged. Every incentive is in favor of sociopathic mindless greed. And who goes to prison when something goes wrong? The engineer.

    Robert Martin’s speech “The Scribes’ Oath” from GOTO 2017 also comes to mind. (The video is very easy to find on Youtube, but the URL is blocked where I work so I’m not able to provide it.) I’ve only read his “code of conduct” so I’m not certain whether his speech goes into the ethics of certain programming decisions, as opposed to strictly technical decisions. If there were some sort of “oath” required for the programming profession, I would hope it placed ethical and moral considerations much more highly than merely technical ones like requiring unit tests or not blocking other people’s commits. While the scribes in ancient Egypt were highly valued and technically skilled, they fundamentally served autocratic power. And it is the same for us.

    1. False Solace

      From another post by Clean Coder:

      If we had a real profession, those programmers would be brought before that profession, investigated, and if found guilty, drummed out of the profession in disgrace.

      — “VW” 14 October 2015

      Of course, we don’t have a real profession. Just some mystique stolen from actual engineers.

      1. jrs

        Well if it was a profession there would be some kind of job protections as well maybe. But haha. So maybe people just do it because if they don’t some H1B will.

        How actual weakening of peoples morality goes is: one may start out all idealistic and moral, but in order to stay employed or get employment one gradually must compromise more and more … and one HAS TO deaden themselves to the effect of this compromising. So one may start out idealistic at 20 but chances are one isn’t going to be such an idealist by the time they reach 50, oh heck one would sell their soul several times over just to get a job by the time they reach 50 …

  24. Tuan

    So if we can do this affirmation gig ad infinitum on FB, why can’t we do it in the flesh then???

    Feeling puzzled….

  25. Anonymous Coward

    Nir Eyal wrote a whole book in this topic called Hooked.

    There is a ton of skepticism here, but keeping people in anticipation of the next hit is why there is endless scroll on the most time sucking applications

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