When Augustin Lignierprofessional photographer in Paris, was a postgraduate student, he began to think about the value of taking photos in the modern world: why do so many of us feel compelled to photograph our lives and share those images online ?

It wasn’t a new question, but it led Mr. Lignier to a surprising place and, soon after, he found himself building what was essentially a photo booth for rats.

He was inspired by BF Skinner, the famous behaviorist who designed a test chamber to study learning in rats. The Skinner box, as it came to be known, dispensed food pellets when rats pushed a designated lever.

It has become one of the best-known experimental paradigms in psychology. Scientists found that reward-seeking rats became pros at the lever, pushing the bar down again and again in exchange for food, drugs, or even a gentle electrical zap directly to the pleasure center of the brain.

Mr Lignier built his own version of a Skinner box – a tall transparent tower with an attached camera – and released two pet store rats inside. Each time the rats pressed the button inside the box, they received a small dose of sugar and the camera took their picture. The resulting images were immediately displayed on a screen, where the rats could see them. (“But honestly, I don’t think they understood it,” Mr. Lignier said.)

The rodents quickly became enthusiastic pushers. “They are very intelligent,” Mr. Lignier said. (He named the white rat, which turned out to be the more intelligent of the two, Augustine, after himself. The brown and white rat he named Arthur, after his brother.)

But after this training phase, the rewards became more unpredictable. Although the rats were always photographed every time they pressed the button, the treats only arrived once in a while, on purpose. These types of intermittent rewards can be particularly powerful, scientists have found, keeping animals glued to their experimental slot machines while waiting for their next jackpot.

Indeed, faced with these unpredictable rewards, Augustin and Arthur – the rats – persisted. Sometimes they ignored the sugar even when it arrived, Mr. Lignier said, and continued to press the button anyway.

For Mr. Lignier, the parallel is obvious. “Digital and social media companies use the same concept to hold the viewer’s attention for as long as possible,” he said.

Indeed, social media has been described as “a Skinner Box for modern humans”, doling out periodic, unpredictable rewards – a like, a follow, a promising romantic match – that keep us glued to our phones.

Or maybe being able to stay busy pressing buttons is its own reward. In a 2014 study, the scientists concluded that many human volunteers “preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves rather than to be alone with their thoughts.” Perhaps we would rather sit down and pull every lever in front of us—even the ones that might make us feel bad—than sit with ourselves in quiet contemplation.

But this is precisely the sort of thing that might be too uncomfortable to sit and contemplate. Especially when there are rat selfies to admire — “I found them cute and funny,” Mr. Lignier said — and a never-ending stream of Instagram photos to browse or even, occasionally, enjoy.

Produced by Antonio de Luca And Matt McCann

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