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Now even rats are taking selfies (and enjoying them)

Now even rats are taking selfies (and enjoying them)

When? Augustin LignierWhile in graduate school, a professional photographer in Paris, he began to ponder the point of taking photographs in the modern world: why so many of us feel compelled to take photographs of our lives and share those images online. ?

It wasn't a new question, but it put Mr. Lignier in a surprising place, and he soon found himself building a photo booth for the rats.

He took inspiration from the famous behaviorist BF Skinner, who had designed a test 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 most famous experimental paradigms in psychology. Scientists found that reward-seeking rats became lever-pressing professionals, repeatedly pushing the bar down in exchange for food, drugs or even a brief electrical zap directed directly to the brain's pleasure center.

Mr. Lignier built his own version of the Skinner box – a tall, transparent tower with an attached camera – and left two pet shop rats inside. Whenever the rats pressed a button inside the box, they got a small dose of sugar and the camera captured their picture. The resulting images were immediately displayed on a screen, where the rats could view them. (“But honestly, I don't think they understood it,” Mr. Lignier said.)

Rodents soon became enthusiastic button pushers. “They are very smart,” Mr. Lignier said. (He named the white mouse, which proved to be the smarter of the two, Augustin after himself. The brown and white mouse he named Arthur after his brother.)

But after this training phase, the rewards became more unpredictable. Although the rats were still photographed whenever they pressed a button, by design the treats came infrequently. Scientists have found that these types of intermittent rewards can be particularly powerful, keeping animals glued to their experimental slot machines as they wait for their next jackpot.

Indeed, in the face of these unexpected rewards, Augustin and Arthur – the rats – persisted. Sometimes, Mr. Lignier said, they would even ignore the Chinese when they arrived, and keep pressing the button anyway.

To Mr. Lignier, the parallels are obvious. “Digital and social media companies use the same concept to hold the audience's attention for as long as possible,” he said.

Actually, social media is called “A Skinner Box for Modern Man,'' Every now and then, handing out unexpected rewards — a like, a follow, a promising romantic match — is what keeps us glued to our phones.

Or perhaps being able to keep yourself busy pressing buttons is its own reward. In A 2014 studyThe scientists concluded that many human volunteers “preferred to give themselves electric shocks rather than be alone with their thoughts.” Maybe instead of sitting with ourselves in quiet contemplation we would rather sit around and push whoever is in front of us – even the ones who might make us feel bad.

But this is exactly the kind of thing that can be very uncomfortable to sit around and contemplate. Especially when there are rat selfies to marvel at — “I found them cute and fun,” Mr. Lignier said — and an endless stream of Instagram photos to scroll through or, sometimes, even enjoy.

produced by Antonio De Luca And matt mccann



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