Learning Theory and Facebook Likes


As I study veterinary behaviour and study how animals learn I see evidence of learning theory in action all the time.

Just take Facebook for example.

For a behaviour to continue it needs reinforcement. For users of Facebook this is what that little thumbs up “like” button is all about. Every time a photo or post receives a “like” you are spurred on to contribute more. To up the ante. To get more “likes.” People may think it is superficial or silly, but it follows the laws of behaviour. In essence you can’t help but be motivated by the positive reinforcement of the little thumbs up. When a behaviour is positively reinforced with a “like” the behaviour is encouraged and the learner even keener to see if they can get a repeat pat on the head. Compare this with a mean-spirited comment which acts as a “punisher.” (A punisher is anything that makes a behaviour less likely.) A churlish comment attacking your post might mean a retreat from the using of Facebook – a wounded learner. Think of the dog who doesn’t come when called if all it gets is a berating from its owner.

When we want animals (and children) to engage and learn we would do well to remember what is motivating. It is not inspiring to be told you are not working hard enough, or you could do better. It is motivating to hear the American phrase “Good Job”, or “Thatta boy.”

I wonder if Mark Zuckerberg knew much about Learning Theory (he did study psychology so probably yes is the answer) when he designed Facebook with its little “like” button, or whether it just came naturally to him to praise the efforts of his peers. Because the “like” button is a generous thing. Push it often. Don’t be surly about it. It doesn’t cost you. It makes the author of the post know the post was read and received with pleasure. It means they will post this way again. Just as the dog who has the best recall will return from across the oval for the snippet of liver treat. Those “like” buttons are powerful reinforcers.

But controversy exists over who really came up with the “like” button first and a Dutch company claims to be the inventors. Rembrandt Social Media has sued Facebook, asserting that the “like” button violates two patents granted to Joannes Jozef Everardus van Der Meer in 1998. But of course no one can own the idea of “liking.” It is what we humans do – we have opinions on things and we want to express them to one another. As a completely social animal it is no surprise that Facebook is such a success. People may bemoan the lack of real intimacy in today’s world but to me Facebook is a testament to the craving that people have to connect with one another.

What seems good about the Facebook “like” button is that there is no nasty alternate “dislike” button. You just say nothing if the content of a post doesn’t appeal. Just slide on past. Just as you ignore the barking dog or the dog that jumps on visitors. “Extinction” is the practice of ignoring a behaviour with the intention of it not receiving any positive feedback, it will eventually die away. What if your posts never received a Like? After many repeated check ups on your posts you would eventually tire of checking in. You would do so less often. Having no “likes” decreases the amount of time someone spends on Facebook and therefore acts as a negative punisher – absence of reward causes behaviour to decrease. Then one day you would wake up and you would not even recall your password. Facebook would have become a place of inconsequence for you.

And then there is the “share” button. This may be the most positively reinforcing button on Facebook. For a “share” denotes special love of a post. Not only do you “like”, but you “like” it enough to go that extra mile and “share” it on your page. When you ask a child to share there is a feeling of losing some of what they have and of having to divide it amongst a hoard of others. Sometimes just sharing with one is hard. Sharing leaves you with less of what you want. If there are eight people eating cake, how much do you get each? Many a mother has lamented the child who has trouble sharing their toys. Isn’t this a reason for play dates? Learning to share. But we all know the value of sharing as we grow up. There are share plates of food at restaurants which invite conviviality and conversation, there is sharing a bottle of wine, there is sharing the bed. And now in the age of the internet there is sharing information, ideas, images and, of course, words. As far as Facebook goes “sharing” is multiplying, not dividing. It is expanding and sending forth, propagating and spreading. I like to think of it as a “seeding” button. Wind and birds pick up kernels – taking them far and wide – the seeds are scattered, deposited in fertile soil and the germination begins.