B.F. Skinner was an extremely influential psychologist and behaviorist whose career spanned more than four decades. He developed a philosophy of science known as radical behaviorism and is best known for his experiments with lab rats and an operant conditioning chamber known as the Skinner box.
Rats in Skinner's lab were exposed to various lights or sounds that would cause them to move around their cages. Occasionally, they would bump into a bar which caused a food pellet to fall into the cage. The rats soon began to notice the correlation and learned to push the bar intentionally whenever prompted — operant conditioning.
However, Skinner determined that intermittent food rewards were far more successful in prompting behavior than rewarding the rats every time they pushed the lever. If food rewards occurred after a random number of presses rather than every single time, the rats quickly became obsessed with pressing the bar. Rat behaviors that had evolved over generations, such as foraging, mating and raising young, were quickly jettisoned in favor of pressing the almighty bar. Sound familiar?
In a recent blog, Dr. Andrew Weil, founder and director of The Arizona Center for Integrative Science, discusses Skinner's rats and the ways in which technology has, within a relatively short period of time, altered hundreds of thousands of years of human behavior.
For as long as there have been Homo sapiens — roughly 200,000 years — people have filled their lives principally with two activities: talking directly with other people, and doing physical things. Both of these required — and cultivated — physical effort and an ability to defer reward, but they ultimately led to lives that people usually found fulfilling.
Now, in coffee shops, at bus stops, sitting in parked cars, I find it increasingly common that people hardly speak to those in their immediate vicinity, and barely seem to move. Entire groups sit motionless, stare, and tap, tap, tap at their phones.
As Weil points out, we have, like Skinner's rats, been trained to obsessively check our text messages, emails and Facebook accounts every time our smartphone buzzes. After all, it's easy and intermittently rewarding, just like pressing the bar. As Weil puts it, "…just enough of [our] electronic media experiences are just rewarding enough at a frequency that is just random enough that the small effort of repeatedly tapping the screen nearly always seems worth it."
As this lazy, all-consuming search for a "stimulating, novel experience" takes over our every waking hour, there is a risk it could lead to "lives … pass[ed] in a stressed-out, unconscious fog of misdirected, dysfunctional desire for stimulating experiences expressed as tap, tap, tapping that bar," Weil says.
So, over the past few years, studies have found that technology is making us more depressed
, more dangerous behind the wheel
, more stressed out, and even seems to be completely reshaping our behavior and rewiring our brains
. It's enough to make you think twice before plugging in, isn't it?
What do Skinner's rats and shifting human behaviors have to do with advisors? Well, on the one hand, it would be foolish to ignore the many ways in which technology can be used to build businesses and connect with clients. There's little doubt that those who choose to bury their head in the sand will be quickly left behind. However, there's also something to be said for "talking directly with people and doing physical things." I would recommend a handshake for starters.
As for me, I'm going to do my best to start putting down the electronic devices at night and picking up a book with one of my kids instead. After all, advisors aren't the only ones who have to worry about staying relevant and connected.