The Skinner Box society

Alix Paultre, Editorial Director, PSD



Alix Paultre, Edirial Director, PDS

The Skinner Box (properly called the “operant conditioning chamber”) was created by B. F. Skinner while he was a graduate student at Harvard University. Used to study conditioning, it has been used as a metaphor when discussing drugs or other addictive behaviors. The addictive behavior in this case is the development of a culture of device-focused people who phase the world around them out of focus in order to participate in the virtual world accessible in the palm of their hand.

The worldwide operant conditioning chamber

Long in infancy but accelerated exponentially with the introduction of smart devices, the virtual society was once tethered to wirebound desktop computers accessed by a limited number of technical insiders. Addictive behavior in that crowd was simply considered an aspect of the subculture, as mainstream society in those days ostracized that group anyway. It was easy to ignore the societal threat.

With the advent of smart phones and the delivery of a world-class computer into the hands of anyone with the resources to obtain it, the ability to get lost in a virtual world became a mainstream reality. It is rare to spend time with friends or family (or even total strangers) for any length of time before whipping out a smartphone to check messages, show people pictures or recent social media activity, or log into a game to ensure they use their daily crystal allowance.

According to, Analyst estimates for mobile application downloads in 2013 ranged from 56 to 82 billion. There are just so many apps out there that it has become literally impossible to tally all of the ones available from mainstream as well as fringe providers. This is obviously a good business, but it also underscores the growth of things that people spend a significant amount of their lives on that has nothing to do with “real” reality.

Paying attention

This loss of attention span is a very real life-threatening danger, as automotive fatalities have demonstrated. Federal estimates suggest that distraction contributes to 16% of all fatal crashes, leading to around 5,000 deaths every year, and a recent AAA Foundation in-car study showed that teen drivers were distracted almost a quarter of the time they were behind the wheel. If these numbers were attached to a beverage, that drink would be illegal, or at least heavily regulated like alcohol.

Driving isn’t the only dangerous activity we take part in while immersed in our games and tweets. A recent item in the Washington Post points out that according to the Safe Kids Worldwide advocacy group, young people walk and use cellphones more than other age groups. About half of students ages 15 to 19 say they use a cellphone when walking to school. Adults are no more responsible, but I must admit I have less sympathy for an adult that walks into a pole than a kid that walks into traffic.