Why Facebook is Like a Slot Machine

Why Facebook is Like a Slot Machine

Facebook is addictive.

I know this, you know this, and almost anyone who has been on the internet in the last ten years knows this.

Brain imaging studies have shown that the neural responses in Facebook-addicted subjects exhibit some similarities with those displayed by cocaine or gambling addicts.

But why is it so addictive? What about it drives us to go and refresh our news feed half a second after we just read through it?

My response to that question has always focused on the interplay between social behavior and habit formation. We evolved as social creatures, and built into us at an instinctive level is a desire to know about and interact with our peers. Facebook lets us tap into our social sphere with barely any effort, and our brain rewards us each time we do so with a little burst of dopamine. This leads to the formation of a habit where every time we open up a web browser or hear our phone buzz we instantly get an urge to check Facebook.

I heard an interesting thought today that addressed the phenomena at a slightly different level, helping me to understand what gives Facebook that added little addictive boost.

In short:

Facebook News Feed = Variable Ratio Operant Conditioning

For those of you a bit rusty on your Psych 101, I’ll elaborate.

Operant Conditioning is the theory that learning behavior is affected by an action’s consequences, e.g. positive or negative reinforcement or punishment.

In the mid 1900’s, Dr. B.F. Skinner showed that not only can the learning process for a behavior be affected by rewards or punishment, but that the scheduling of said factors plays a large role. In a laboratory setup where rats were given food pellets upon pressing a lever, he experimented with a variety of different reinforcement schedules. Varying groups of rats were given the pellets every time the lever was pressed, at a fixed ratio of presses (e.g. one in four), or at totally random presses (‘variable ratio’). Surprisingly, it turned out that the variable ratio group learned the behavior the strongest and retained it for the longest period of time.1

This is the same principle that makes slot machines the most addictive form of gambling. The players at the machines are the same as the rats, pressing the lever and getting instant but variable rewards.

Which brings us to Facebook. How often do you check a Facebook notification only to find that it was some random person commenting on a photo you don’t care about, or talking in that giant group chat that you really should leave but haven’t gotten around to yet? What percentage of news feed perusals turn up a truly interesting post?

These days my feed tends to look like this:

My Facebook Feed

The very paucity of quality content serves to ensure that I keep coming back for more.

But enough of psychology. It’s time for me to go find some of that red stuff.


  1. Ferster, C.B., & Skinner, B.F. (1957). Schedules of reinforcement. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.