Build Your Own Rat Park (A Better Approach to the Internet)

This is a post by associate editor Blake Madden.

In July of 2013 Alexis Madrigal wrote an article for The Atlantic titled “The Machine Zone: This Is Where You Go When You Just Can’t Stop Looking at Pictures on Facebook”. Calling on research from MIT anthropologist Natasha Schüll, Madrigal makes overt what some of us Facebook users already fear but are afraid to admit: It often functions a lot like a a slot-machine, and we are the blue-haired little old ladies pulling the lever to infinity.

According to Comscore, the average Facebook user spent about 400 minutes a month on the site this year. What Facebook users and slots players have in common is a significant amount of time spent in what Natasha Schüll calls “The machine zone”. From Madrigal’s article:

What is the machine zone? It’s a rhythm. It’s a response to a fine-tuned feedback loop. It’s a powerful space-time distortion. You hit a button. Something happens. You hit it again. Something similar, but not exactly the same happens. Maybe you win, maybe you don’t. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. It’s the pleasure of the repeat, the security of the loop.

If Facebook fills the same role for us that a slot machine does, then is it too far a stretch to call the “The Internet” at large a casino?

In order to thrive, both need our continued attention as much as our money.  Bright colors and headlines with outrageous

Despite all our Internet rage, we are still just rats in a cage...

Despite all our Internet rage, we are still just rats in a cage…

promise draw us in. An absence of clocks helps us to stay. In the case of ‘sweepstakes cafes’ – essentially internet cafes that offer slot-machine like virtual gaming while skirting the legal definition of “gambling”- the lines between internet and casino are non-existent. Even Google asks us if we’re “feeling lucky?”

We could approach this model of ourselves as gamblers in two different ways. The first is with the romantic zeal of the blackjack card-counter, who endeavors to “beat the house”.

Instead of letting the internet slowly sap our time and attention with Top 10 Lists and status updates, we could realize the insane advantages we sometimes have over the house and capitalize accordingly.

The internet can teach us how to cook Kung Pao chicken, or build an elevated garden out of wooden pallets, or build a soundproofed room within a room, often in a matter of minutes and for free. Thirty years ago, you might have had to drive to a library and go digging for this information, or pay a professional to teach you (if you could find and afford one specific to your task). These are clear advantages we can all exploit in our relationship with the internet. These are the games we can win.

If we do see ourselves as internet gamblers, then the second realization to make is that at best we may have some troublesome habits, and at worst we may be addicted.

Worse still, even if we could admit to a certain compulsion within our own Internet use, “the internet” is unfortunately not something we can usually just go cold turkey over and do without. Many of us have jobs that require us to be on the internet at least in some capacity at least part of the time. The temptation to browse constantly stares us in the face. And we succumb to it all too often.

Are we simply doomed to becoming Buzzfeed zombies? That depends on what you believe causes bad habits –the behaviors we can change before they become a problem.

The Meaning of Rat Park

Psychologist Bruce Alexander had a problem with the tests his colleagues had been running on rats.

In the 1960s, rat cages — often called “Skinner Boxes” after the seminal and sometimes controversial behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner — were only slightly larger than the rat itself.

These were rats that were kept in solitary units, despite being highly social animals by nature. They were given no space, no interaction, and no daily routine other than ingesting whatever stimulus was made available to them, be it a pellet of food, or in some cases, a drop of a highly addictive drug like morphine.

As Alexander puts it:

“Under appropriate conditions, rats would press the lever often enough to consume large amounts of heroin, morphine, amphetamine, cocaine, and other drugs in this situation… The results seemed to prove that these drugs were irresistibly addicting, even to rodents, and by extension, to human beings.”

At first, Alexander agreed with the thesis, but over time came to find it “a bone-cracking, joint-popping contortion of normal reason”.

Not only did the treatment of the rats seem unnecessarily cruel to Alexander, but to him it proved little more than the obvious fact that if you robbed a creature of everything that made it what it was, it would take whatever it could find to fill the gaping hole inside itself. It wasn’t that addiction gave them no choice, it was that having no choices led them to addiction.

Alexander and three colleagues at Simon Fraser University wanted to see if rats provided with a healthy, active lifestyle would develop the same habits with morphine if given the same opportunities with it, in addition to so many more additional ways to fill their time.

The four scientists constructed what they called “Rat Park”:

The original "Rat Park"

The original “Rat Park”

“This required building a great big plywood box on the floor of our laboratory, filling it with things that rats like, such as platforms for climbing, tin cans for hiding in, wood chips for strewing around, and running wheels for exercise. Naturally we included lots of rats of both sexes, and naturally the place soon was teeming with babies. The rats loved it and we loved it too, so we called it ‘Rat Park’.”

What these scientists found will astound you! (Sorry, couldn’t resist):

“We ran several experiments comparing the drug consumption of rats in Rat Park with rats in solitary confinement in regular laboratory cages. In virtually every experiment, the rats in solitary confinement consumed more drug solution, by every measure we could devise. And not just a little more. A lot more… It soon became absolutely clear to us that the earlier Skinner box experiments did not prove that morphine was irresistible to rats. Rather, most of the consumption of rats isolated in a Skinner box was likely to be a response to isolation itself.”

The team’s initial research gained some attention and traction, but little notice from the larger scientific community that studied addiction. “Rat Park” was eventually closed as the team moved on to different individual pursuits, and even Alexander readily admits that the Rat Park research was not extensive enough to make definitive claims about the nature of addiction one way or another.

Graph comparing caged rats' morphine usage vs. the morphine usage of rats in Rat Park

Comparison of caged rats’ morphine usage vs. the morphine usage of rats in Rat Park (“social” rats, represented by the dotted lines)

But it was enough to ask the question: Are our bad behaviors only a result of the actions we do take, or also of the ones we don’t?

As I write these lines, I am at the tail end of a relaxing vacation on the sunny beaches of Mexico.

Monitoring my own internet and social media usage, I can say I’ve spent maybe 1/10th of the time online here that I would spend online at home. The reasoning seems obvious to me, as it might seem to you: It’s a vacation; there’s more to experience, and due to the short amount of time I have here, I want to ‘get my money’s worth’. In addition, the experiences themselves are so much different than those of my daily life, regardless of whether they are entirely novel, or just different cultural iterations of what I’m already used to.

Is it too far of a stretch to suggest that if we have the opportunity to spend our time seeking out as many novel and rewarding experiences as we hunger for, and we make the most of those opportunities around us, we’re much less likely to fall into our worst habits?

Bruce Alexander’s research with Rat Park may not be enough to prove the causation of addiction, but studies do suggest that filling our time with the right people and activities makes us more likely to be happy. Alexander’s main point is that our understanding of addiction is flawed because we look only at the addictive behavior and scream ‘Bad thing! Stop it!’ instead of looking at the good environments and behaviors we could be building for ourselves instead. Habits that might make addictive behaviors, well, a nuisance to our positive healthy lifestyle.

It only takes a little common sense to realize that it is virtually impossible to shoot heroin while jogging, swimming, or engaged in an activity with friends; that if every time you wanted to smoke a cigarette you did ten jumping jacks instead, you would never smoke; and that it’s impossible to spend an entire dinner with a loved one while mesmerized by social media (errr… nevermind).

As the saying goes: “The Devil will find work for idle hands to do.” (And if you really feel like wasting time on the internet, you can try to Google the original accurate quote like I did before giving up and just quoting The Smiths.)

In each moment, the way we apply our energy is a zero-sum game: When we give it to one thing, we can’t give it to another. If we give all our energy to the good things, we simply won’t have any left for the bad, and may just fall into bed at the end of the day exhausted and smiling.

To reduce the amount of time we spend on the internet (or engaged in any other questionable habit), we can’t simply tell ourselves to stop. If we’ve already internalized it as part of our daily routine — if we’ve committed to putting ourselves in that cage —admonishing ourselves won’t help.

Instead, we need to build our own Rat Parks by fostering the ideas, activities, and relationships that keep us healthy and productive in the first place. By doing more than we think we can, we’ll do less of what we know we shouldn’t. The time just won’t be there to waste.

My girlfriend is trying to quit smoking after 20 years. She says she knows the secret, but isn’t sure it can help her now: “Don’t start. Then you never have to worry about quitting.”

Research suggests there may be another way: Start something better instead.

Blake Madden is a writer and musician who lives in Seattle.

This entry was posted in All Stories, Featured Stories, Guest Posts, January 2014, Rants and Raves. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
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