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Even rats take selfies now (and enjoy them)| GuyWhoKnowsThings

When Agustín LignierA professional photographer in Paris, he was in graduate school, began to reflect on the meaning of taking photographs in the modern world: Why do many of us feel compelled to photograph our lives and share those images online?

It wasn't a novel question, but it took Lignier to a surprising place, and before long he found himself building what was, in essence, a photo booth for rats.

He was inspired by BF Skinner, the famous behaviorist who had devised a testing chamber to study learning in rats. The Skinner box, as it became known, dispensed food pellets when rats pushed a designated lever.

It became one of the best-known experimental paradigms in psychology. The scientists found that reward-seeking rats became pros at lever pressing, pushing the bar down again and again in exchange for food, drugs, or even a mild electric shock directly to the brain's pleasure center.

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 photo. The resulting images were immediately displayed on a screen, where the rats could see them. (“But, honestly, I don't think they understood it,” Lignier said.)

The rodents quickly became enthusiastic button pushers. “They're very smart,” Lignier said. (She named the white rat, which turned out to be the smarter of the two, Augustin, after him. She named the brown and white rat Arthur, after his brother.)

But after this training phase, the rewards became more unpredictable. Although the rats were still photographed every time they pressed the button, the candy only appeared occasionally, by design. These types of intermittent rewards can be especially powerful, scientists have found, keeping animals glued to their experimental slot machines while they wait for their next jackpot.

In fact, in the face of these unpredictable rewards, Augustin and Arthur (the rats) persisted. Sometimes they ignored the sugar even when it arrived, Lignier said, and kept pressing the button anyway.

For Lignier, the parallel is obvious. “Digital and social media companies use the same concept to keep the viewer's attention for as long as possible,” she said.

In fact, social media has been described as “a Skinner Box for the modern human being”, doling out periodic, unpredictable rewards (a like, a follow, a promising romantic partner) that keep us glued to our phones.

Or maybe being able to keep us busy pressing buttons is its own reward. In a 2014 study, scientists concluded that many human volunteers “preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves rather than be left alone with their thoughts.” We may prefer to sit and push whatever levers are in front of us (even those that might make us feel bad) than to sit with ourselves in silent contemplation.

But that's precisely the kind of thing that might be too uncomfortable to sit and contemplate. Especially when there are rat selfies to marvel at – “I found them cute and fun,” Lignier said – and an endless stream of Instagram photos to review or even occasionally enjoy.

Produced by Antonio de Luca and Matt McCann

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