Teachers bemoan the almost constant battle to compete with students’ cell phones in the classroom. But students aren’t the only ones who struggle to beat the cell phone habit – most all of us do. So, why the struggle? It comes down to three very basic principles of psychology.
First, our personal internet portal provides us with a “variable ratio of reinforcement” – the strongest reinforcement schedule available, and certainly the one that creates the most difficult-to-break behaviors. A variable ratio of reinforcement means you are rewarded once in a while, on a mysterious schedule. This is opposed to a “fixed ratio” which reinforces you on a regular, predictable schedule. For example, a vending machine reinforces you on a 1:1 fixed ratio of reinforcement. You put your money in and your selection comes out. Simple. If you put your money in and nothing comes out, it’s unlikely you will stand there and continue to put money in. On the other hand, a slot machine provides a variable ratio of reinforcement. You are rewarded “sometimes” and there’s no predicting it. This creates a difficult habit to break. (Hence, people sit for hours pouring money in.) Our email, news notifications and social media feeds reward us in a similar way – they provide us with juicy bits of excitement, sometimes – creating a difficult habit to break.
Secondly, modern apps and websites provide no “stopping cues”. Most events in life come with cues that tell us when it’s time to stop one activity and move to something else. A bell rings when class is over. A football game ends when the clock runs out after the 4th quarter and the whistle blows. Dinner is over when everyone has finished eating. We use these cues to move us from one event to another. There is no stopping cue when scrolling through your feed on Facebook, Pinterest, or Twitter. Even YouTube and Netflix have moved to a continuous loop model, creating binge-watching. There is no cue that it’s time to stop.
And the third reason has to do with social gratification. Never underestimate the power of social feedback and “leveling up” in the eyes of our social world. One more “like” or “share” or “yay you” comment moves us up the social scaffold – we can’t resist the climb.