In one of my favorite psychology courses at Harvard, we learned about something called a Skinner Box. A Skinner Box is a type of chamber that allows you to study the behavior of a small animal. In one experiment with the Skinner Box, we looked at the effects of giving small animals a reward at a random time versus a predictable time. When mice could predictably press a lever and out came food, they quickly learned only to press the lever when hungry.
But something interesting happened with the other group when the reward was randomly given. Those mice would literally keep pressing the lever until they died. When the scientists studied the brains of these mice, they found that during the random occurrences of getting a “surprise reward,” dopamine levels in the brain would rise – almost like doing a hit of drugs – and thus, the mice were actually growing addicted to pressing the lever in hopes of a hit.
And really, aren’t our mobile phones the same sort of thing? We don’t know when we’re going to get a new text message, a new email, a new Retweet, or a new Facebook message. These little bursts of communication are our own little form of “random rewards,” and we're growing addicted to continually looking at it at all times.
Here are some tips for regaining control over your smartphone: