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You Are Not a Rat

But digital tech developers use what they’ve learned about rats to keep you scrolling and clicking!

By Betsy Mayer

It was American psychologist B. F. Skinner’s famous studies with rats and rewards that have helped us understand why it is so easy for humans to get hooked on digital media. Of course, there were no digital devices at the time Skinner was doing research, but there was gambling. It is now well known in addiction circles that people who are addicted to digital media exhibit very similar behavior to compulsive gamblers.

Here’s what Skinner found when he put lab rats into a cage with a food dispenser activated by a lever: When a rat pressed the lever and food pellets were dispensed in a predictable pattern, like at every second or sixth lever press, the rat learned the pattern and approached the lever only when it wanted to eat. On the other hand, when the rat pressed the lever and nothing ever dispensed, he ignored the lever

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  1. David Greenfield, “The Addictive Properties of Internet Usage,” Internet Addiction: A Handbook and Guide to Evaluation and Treatment, ed. Kimberly S. Young and Cristiano Nabuco de Abreu (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2011).

  2. Ibid.

  3. Ibid.

  4. Sam Warain, “Game Design Secrets: 3 Powerful Components to Hook Your Users,” Feb. 9, 2022,

  5. Morgan Mandriota, “All About Gaming Disorder,” updated Jan. 4, 2022,

  6. Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), p. 194.

About the author

Betsy Mayer is the managing editor of Last Generation magazine.