Pigeons, smartphones, gambling and free will

Updated: Feb 6, 2019

A pigeon in a 'Skinner Box'

This pigeon is hungry. It's figured out that pecking the panel marked 'Blue' will get it a food pellet - delivered automatically down a shoot. But, the thing is, the food pellet doesn't arrive after every single peck. The first one isn't released until 6 pecks on the panel, then the next one isn't delivered until after 14 pecks, the next one after 9 pecks, etc – with each number of pecks needed for the next food pellet varying at random.

This reward schedule is known as ‘Variable Ratio reinforcement’ - it's when a reward is given at varying intervals determined by a random number of actions. And it's incredibly addictive. Why? Because you know for certain that, if you just keep going, there’s a reward coming. What’s more, that reward could always arrive the very next time you perform the action.

This is exactly how gambling works: you know that if you spin a roulette wheel enough times, eventually your number will come up, and it could always be on the very next spin (…but usually it isn’t).

Now apply this to your smartphone. You know that if you keep checking it, at some point you’ll be rewarded with a notification that someone has liked your post or sent you a message. That’s addictive, just like waiting for a pay-out on a roulette wheel or a slot machine. It means you’re going to keep performing that ‘check-in’. And it’s constantly drawing your attention back to the app.

BF Skinner was the psychologist who identified Variable Ratio Reinforcement. He was convinced that free will is an illusion – we think we have it, but actually we are no more than a conditioned animal, performing actions according to our reward system. Although this is pretty extreme there are many people who feel they are addicted to gambling – who have lost control – who would agree with him. If you’re still sceptical, consider the finding that 17% of young adults admit to having checked their smartphones during sex.

Once your mind is conditioned to expect rewards from your smartphone it moves things up a level – just the thought of your smartphone is enough to generate the pleasurable reward feelings. This leads to craving. You can check this out yourself by taking your smartphone out, leaving it on the desk in front of you and staring at it. If you find it difficult to resist picking up the smartphone, you’re feeling the craving that is built on anticipating the rewards you might get from checking your messages and posts.

If you find it impossible not to pick it up you’ve proven that Skinner was right – you no longer have the freewill to decide where to direct your attention.


Skinner, B F. Science and Human Behaviour. 1965.

The Attachment Problem: Cellphone Use In America. SureCall.com. [Online] Sure Call. [Cited: Oct 22, 2018.] SureCall.com.