Digital Literacies and the Skinner Box

If you recognize the name B.F. Skinner, you most likely associate him with behaviorism, a theoretical perspective that focuses on human behaviors a primarily responses to stimuli. This approach assumes that all behaviors are responses to stimuli from the outside world, either rewards or punishment.

This system of rewards and/or punishment is known as operant conditioning. This is a learning process through which the strength of a behavior is modified by reinforcement or punishment. The individual “learns” or makes a connection, between a behavior and a consequence. As an example, if you tried smoking while hanging out with a specific crowd at school, you were positively reinforced (rewarded) for this activity. If however, your peer group did not smoke, you would have been punished, and less likely to smoke now.

We know a great deal about operant conditioning through the work of Skinner, and his exploration of Thorndike’s Law of Effect. This indicates that behavior that is followed by pleasant consequences is likely to be repeated, and behavior followed by unpleasant consequences is less likely to be repeated. Skinner studied the law of effect, and operant conditioning by conducting experiments using animals which he placed in a Skinner Box.

The Skinner Box

A Skinner Box, also known an operant conditioning chamber, is an enclosed apparatus that contains a bar or key that an animal can press or manipulate in order to obtain food or water as a type of reinforcement.

A subject was placed in the box, and the mechanism gave small amounts of food each time the subject performed a particular action, such as depressing a lever or pecking a disk. With the operant conditioning chamber attached to a recording device, Skinner was able to discover schedules of reinforcement.

Behaviorism in Digital Spaces?

As digital texts and tools become more ubiquitous in our daily lives, there is a romanticism about the role about the connectivity and empowerment that they may provide. The influx of these screens, spaces, and services also permeated our classrooms and learning environments as educators and researchers indicated that the Internet would change everything. New opportunities now existed for individuals anywhere to use the Internet and these new communication technologies to educate, empower, and advocate.

A little more than a decade after these digital signals have formed a foothold in our lives, and we must critically examine how much of the original dream of the Internet has become reality. Together, with my colleague Kristin Conradi Smith, I’m struck by how naive and hopeful initial accounts from educators and researchers sound as we write about the potential of these new literacy practices.

In light of the constant change brought about by these technologies, we believe that we need to expand our notions of text, technology, and learning environments…along with the associated literacy practices. The regular user of these digital texts and tools may not consider that they’re using a text while skimming their social media feed, or interacting with various technologies when they snap that selfie, or equate social networks with learning environments. Yet, if we move past these constrained considerations, we can consider the role that behaviorism might play in the digital, social, and personalized networks that now form an integral part of the lives of individuals.

Digital Skinner Box

We also believe that there are sophisticated uses of behaviorism built into these digital tools and social networks that individuals may unwittingly be using their lives. This learning theory has been utilized by many app and software developers as they seek to modify human behaviors and keep them in the environments. This includes algorithms that share personalized content, bright colors and design to attract attention, and notifications to bring your attention back to the environment. This sophisticated behavioral reward system of positive reinforcement and related services is monitored by algorithms that collect these signals and double/triple/quadruple down on your actions in the environment to make sure you get more, more, more of what you’re looking for.

The systems and algorithms serve up short content, and study the discrete movements you make with this content. Did you immediately scroll past, or click on the link? Did you replay the content? Did you like or comment on the content? Did one color, or deign element keep you in the app, and allow the platform to collect more data? Do you like certain color schemes, transitions, or audio cues…all of this is modified to best serve you. All of this is collected and aggregated by the thousands or millions. The goal is to keep you in the environment and keep collecting your data.

The reward system in this behavioral system not only includes the likes and “thumbs up” you receive from sharing content, but also the types of content you consume and the materials that go “viral.” Materials and content that are not pleasing to you will show up less and less often in your feed. But, if you indicate some behaviors that show that you enjoy, or value certain content, the algorithms will dig deep to identify, and serve you more. The end result of this is that we learn more and more about the things we like. We also become trapped in filter bubble and engage in siloed discussions with likeminded groups. Any hope of serendipity in learning and interacting is futile as it requires the user going against the purpose or rules of the digital text or tool.

Connecting the dots

Contracts, consequences, reinforcement, extinction, and behavior modification are all examples of behaviorist applications used in these digital spaces. Using technology to give individuals and groups content that they want seems like a worthy goal, yet it also runs counter to much of the serendipity and freedom that needs to exist in literacy practices and learning environments. All of this data about your performance in the box is collected as stimulus, environment, and reward interactions are collected and constantly modified to best suit, and mollify the user.

The incorporation of behaviorist learning philosophies into current and burgeoning technologies should fuel a debate about the use of these rewards and signals, yet it does not. Individuals seem far more likely to value the excitement of a like or retweet, and be less concerned about the use of behavioral modification strategies in our lives. , however, these same technologies can help even the most struggling student to succeed and thrive in their educational career. Perhaps it is critique of these devices, and spaces that needs to occur more often as inspect our relationships with these digital tools, and our literacy practices used therein.

Cover Image Credit


Originally published at W. Ian O’Byrne.