The Skinner box is an experiment from which several basic principles of behavioral psychology have been derived. The setup is simple: a rat, a pedal and food the rat receives whenever it pushes the pedal. If the rat gets the food every time it pushes the pedal, that’s “continuous reinforcement." If it gets the food irregularly, that's “intermittent reinforcement.”
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Countless experiments have proved that intermittent reinforcement produces a more lasting effect, and the most effective intermittent reinforcement (i.e., the one that makes the rat push the pedal most often) is variable reinforcement. That is, sometimes the food is given after the rat pushes the pedal four times, sometimes after two times, sometimes after 10 times. This is a variable-ratio reward – in other words, a cell phone.
Every glance at a phone is like pushing a pedal that you hope will reward you with something interesting – a missed call from someone you wanted to hear from, an important text message, a decisive email, a bombshell headline on Haaretz’s website. Often, very often, nothing happens. But once in a while something significant happens, and this chance enslaves you.
With the decline in cell phone bills, which recently hit an all-time low with deals that cost a big fat zero for calls, text messages and wireless Internet, the Israeli’s addiction to his phone – and on this issue I’m a fairly typical Israeli – has become complete. Every novice dealer knows the effect of giving out free drugs to addicts.
As in Itzik Kala’s song – “Baby, baby / You’re mine / You’re my day / You’re my night / You’re my whole world / Things are great, you’re with me” (lyrics by Shlomo Kishor) – the cell phone, which contains all the wonders of the Internet, has become the center of my life, with its plethora of buttons. I push them with the eagerness of a hungry rat – calls, text messages, email, second email (why discriminate?), news sites, apps, anecdotes and, of course, Facebook.
This was true even years ago, when people would check their email 10, 20 or 30 times a day in the hope of getting an interesting message. And it was true even before that, when people would check their physical mailbox hoping for a letter. The difference is the degree of enslavement: The smartphone means your buttons go with you everywhere – when you’re sitting at home, when you’re walking, when you lie down and when you rise up, as the Shema prayer puts it.
You might say cell phones exist the world over, so what’s special about Israel? It seems Israelis' connection to their phones is especially intimate. Anyone who has ever been abroad knows the feeling that there, aside from technology geeks, people use their phones as they do any other appliance – in measured doses.
But here all the dams have burst. When I ride the bus, I see some passengers using their phones, while others simply caress them and hold them “like a redemptive handrail,” to quote Wislawa Szymborska (though she was talking about poetry). Obsessive-cellular disorder.
So you won’t be astonished to discover that Israel’s smartphone penetration rate is one of the highest in the world, and that according to one poll, Israelis are the world champions in the use of apps, averaging 80 minutes a day. Some 3,500 years after being liberated from Egyptian bondage, and 65 years after being ingathered from every corner of the Diaspora and establishing a state, the people that dwells in Zion is enslaved once again, and no redemption is in sight.
So what can we do? In terms of behavioral psychology, what has been created here is a dependency, and dependencies can be ended. The best way is to end the rewards. If glance after glance at your phone produces nothing, eventually this behavior will stop.
But clearly there’s no reason this should happen. So what’s the alternative? Rehabilitation. I try to put limits on myself – for instance, not to use the cellular network, only the wireless networks. But it doesn’t really help.
Given this colossal failure to disconnect myself, there’s at least a smidgen of comfort in that many people have the same problem. After even my boss publicly announced, in a short column published on the Internet (where else?), that he's addicted to his smartphone and all the other screens around him, I felt some relief. There’s something liberating in the knowledge that we’re all trapped in the same maze.
Before writing this column, I tried to ascertain which (genuine) diagnosis would suit Israel, or Israeli society, if it were on the patient’s couch. In the end, I came up with a disorder that has the following symptoms; consider them and decide for yourselves: 1) great efforts to avoid abandonment, 2) unstable relationships, 3) poor self-image, 4) impulsiveness, 5) suicidal or self-mutilating behavior, 6) affective instability, 7) chronic feelings of emptiness, 8) great anger and difficulty in controlling it, and 9) paranoid thinking.
Did you, as I did, find at least five symptoms that fit Israel (not to mention the term “borderline personality disorder,” which is marvelously apt given our diplomatic situation)? Congratulations, the diagnosis is complete. Now all that remains is the treatment. Happy Independence Day.
The writer is a psychologist.