In B. F. Skinner’s famous experiment in operant conditioning, a lab rat is placed inside a container and rewarded with a food pellet on completion of a task, triggered by an external stimulus such as a light, a sound or a shock. The pattern of reward becomes increasingly inconsistent, following a ‘schedule of reinforcement’ controlled by the experimenter.
Skinner’s operant chamber allowed him to explore the rate of response as a dependent variable, as well as develop his theory of schedules of reinforcement. If the event increased the number of responses it is said to strengthen its responding and if it decreased the number of responses it weakens the responding.
In short: a Skinner Box allows one to observe habits being formed, through control of the conditions surrounding a subject and their reward.
The lessons learned span far beyond Psychology: Education; Behavioural Economics; Interpersonal Communication and even Video Gaming have each benefit from an understanding of operant conditioning, so it is no surprise to see advertisers capitalising on our easily pliable behaviours.
One such experimenter, a brand of flavoured rice cake, posed the research question “how far will you go for Fantastic Delites” – their conditions, a large scale Skinner Box and the baying masses of an Australian shopping mall.
The results are equal parts twisted, fascinating and funny:
The evidence suggests human subjects will endure an embarrassingly strict schedule of reinforcement, especially in a public scenario.
At last year’s TEDxObserver Cory Doctorow gave a talk comparing the machinations of Facebook to operant conditioning of a more dangerous kind… and I can’t help but feel he has a point.
We will go pretty far for free rice cakes – but would we go further knowing we were in a Skinner Box?