A colleague and I were working on a project and decided to take a break and head over to Peet’s for a cappuccino. When I brought our drinks to the table, my associate – we’ll call her Jennifer – was banging away pretty intensely on her iPhone. Just then, an image popped into my mind. I considered letting it go, then thought, nah, I can’t resist.
“Hey Jen, you know what you look like just then?”
She looked up from her phone, curious. “What?”
“Well,” I said, “You look sort of like a lab rat in a Skinner box.”
“Don’t take that the wrong way,” I said.
“Why should I?” said Jen, “You just said I look like a rodent? How could I possibly take that the wrong way?
“Sorry, that’s not exactly what I meant,” I said, trying to recover. “It’s not you. It’s just that, whenever I see people thumbing like crazy with their eyes glued to one of those things, that’s what pops into my mind.”
“A rat. That’s what pops into your mind? A rat?”
“Not just a rat. A rat in a Skinner box experiment.”
“Don’t you know what a Skinner box is?”
“No. Should I?”
“Well, yeah. It’s a famous animal conditioning experiment. This guy Skinner trained lab rats to press a lever whenever a light came on – they got food as a reward. Before long, they got really good at it.”
“Right, I remember that from college psych. I just didn’t know what it was called,” she said. “But what’s that got to do with what I was doing?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “What were you doing just then?”
“I was on Twitter. I was tweeting.”
“Ah,” I said. “Same thing.”
“As what?” She said, sounding a little annoyed, “Same thing as what?”
“The Skinner box.”
“I seriously doubt that.”
“It’s true,” I said. “OK. Tell me this. Why do you tweet?”
“It’s a news feed.”
“I know that. What I’m asking is why do you tweet?
“Um … to get followers. To build my social network. My personal brand.”
“But what does that do for you? I mean, how many years have you been using Twitter? In all that time, after all those tweets, retweets, favorites, pics … has any good really come of it? Anything that matters? Maybe a few click through to your site, but then what? Does any real business come of it? I mean, where’s the ROI, Jen?
“Hmm. I’ve never really thought about it,” she said, “Now that you mention it, it does sort of tug at me. Whenever I get some free time, I like to see who’s retweeting me, who’s following me. I tweet; they tweet back. It’s sort of like a game. It’s fun, I guess.”
There it was. The truth. For most of us, there really isn’t any ROI for much of what we do on social networks. And there’s actually little benefit to most of the time we spend with our eyes glued to our smartphones, as well. So why do we do it? There are two reasons. One is sociological, but the primary reason is biological and biochemical.
Part of the human brain is called the limbic system. One of its primary functions is to reward and reinforce behavior associated with survival of the individual and the species using powerful neurotransmitters. And nearly all those survival behaviors involve being around people.
That’s why we evolved as social creatures. That’s why we have friends, groups, organizations, villages, and civilization: strength and safety in numbers.
But here’s the thing. The limbic system is primitive. It’s millions of years old. And it doesn’t know the difference between socializing with real people – which wasn’t very common back when we lived in caves – and social networking, which we can now do at the touch of a button. And since it’s easy and it feels really good, we do it.
If that sounds at all like the rats in a Skinner box, then you get the point. It is the same mechanism: Animal conditioning. Our brains are conditioned to seek out others. Our limbic systems reward and reinforce that behavior when we do. And since we can do it at the touch of a button, we hit that button over and over, whenever we can.
But in the modern world, that function serves no purpose. We’re all relatively safe. Food, friends and potential mates are plentiful. That particular function of the limbic system is like a vestigial organ. The great irony is, the more time we spend online, the less time we spend with real people in the real world, so the more isolated and less socialized we actually become.
Fortunately, we’ve evolved since we were cavemen. And while the limbic system is still in full effect, we now have frontal lobes – the part of the human brain that’s responsible for rational thought. So we don’t have to mindlessly keep pressing that lever over and over to get a reward. We can overrule that primitive behavior with logical reasoning and discipline.
But you still have a choice to make. Today, millions of people are using that sophisticated part of their brain to rationalize the massive amounts of time they waste online – ironically, becoming less socialized and less connected. That’s the societal reason I mentioned earlier: Everyone’s doing it so it must be good.
Well, everyone is not doing it. All the successful and accomplished people I know have little time to waste online. And the vast majority of CEOs don’t use social media.
You don’t have to behave like a lab rat in a Skinner box. The choice is yours.
Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive and author of "Real Leaders Don't Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur." Learn more, contact Tobak or follow his new blog at stevetobak.com. Any opinions expressed are those of the columnist.