The Skinner Box: Why Instagram Will Never Remove Likes

Reading time: 2 min

In the 1930’s American psychologist B.F. Skinner developed an experiment.

He placed a rat inside a box and within that box was a lever. Upon first entering the box the rat would explore his surroundings. Eventually it would press the lever and a food pellet would be released. 

Over time the rat learned the cause and effect. It began pressing the lever again and again. 

Rat in The Skinner Box

The Skinner Box experiment demonstrates what’s known in psychology as operant conditioning. 

Skinner explained it as, “a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behavior. Through operant conditioning, an individual makes an association between a particular behavior and a consequence.”

The rat learned that hitting the lever (behavior) led to food pellets being released (consequence). If you look closely, you can find examples of operant conditioning in your own life.

Think about what happens when you post to Instagram. Are you refreshing the app to see the likes and comments roll in? What does it feel like when you get a lot of likes? Is it rewarding? 

Last year Instagram announced they were going to experiment with removing likes. 

CEO Adam Mosseri explained that the removal of likes was one step toward making Instagram the safest platform on the internet. 

Instagram was “going to put a 15-year-old kid’s interests before a public speaker’s interest,” and that they “will make decisions that hurt the business if they help people’s well-being and health.” 


So what happened? 

What are the results of Instagram’s experiment to remove likes?

Nothing has been announced, but we can look to Skinner’s experiment to draw conclusions. Skinner discovered the rat is no fool. Over time it stops pressing the lever if no food pellet is dispensed.  

Instagram is the Skinner Box. It needs you coming back. As a result it lives by the like and dies by the like.

Likes are the food pellets Instagram trained us users to expect. 

You might think it’s great to share your photos, but what you’re really seeking out is that engagement. We want that dopamine rush that comes from positive reinforcement. We expect it.

So, what should Instagram do?

If they want to remove likes but still keep their users, they’ve got two options:

  1. They create a new skinner box – a new reason for people to keep coming back, to click, to interact. They need a new reward.
  1. They rethink the platform as something they can monetize without the need for your constant presence and attention.

Whatever they choose, we can all learn from this. 

We must recognize what truly motivates us in our activities online. Only then can we make the right steps towards changing and controlling our own behaviors. 

Posted in: