Dr. Suprakash Roy appears in The Best Seller, a novel by Arunabha Sengupta.

A cyber conscious mender of minds, he is interested in the effect of the modern world of the internet and social networking in changing human behaviour.

The following are a demonstration of how the doctor's own mind works, extrapolated from the novel.

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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Of Rats and Men in the Cyber World

There have been a few requests of elaboration of the phenomena I called the ‘roulette of red notifications’ in my last post when talking about the helpless addiction to the social networks.

While most readers – some grudgingly – have agreed that social networking and constant communication is a sort of dependence and craving similar to substance abuse – something I have called addiction to the packets of data, what is difficult to understand is the relationship between FaceBook and gambling?

There have been studies on the stimulations in the brain correlated to the relative amount of time spent in front of the social networks with similar measurements in cocaine and cannabis addiction. Most of the data is still in experimental stage. Too early for pronouncement of judgement other than for the purpose of publishing hurried papers.

However, I am more inclined to see this addiction in lines of the lure of the casino, the clanking of chips  and the clatter of dice.

Of course, the general populace navigating the FaceBook, Orkut, iPhone and so on are not really playing for millions – making or losing money. Why then do I claim the gambling connection?

The answer can be found within something termed ‘schedule of reinforcement’ by behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner.

In an experiment involving the old reliable rats favoured by scientists, Skinner constructed something called the Skinner Box.  In this set up, a hungry rat would have to press a pedal a number of times to be rewarded with food pellets. The experiment was controlled to find the effect of fixed schedule of reinforcement – in which a pellet was served for a fixed number of presses on the pedal, and a variable schedule of reinforcement – in which the ratio of presses to pellets was random.

It was discovered that variable reinforcement schedules were better for motivating rats. The frenzy of activity increased when the reward was unpredictable. In particular, when the reward ceased, the rats under the fixed schedule of reinforcement stopped working immediately, while the ones under a variable schedule continued. Hope does play a big role.

In the human context, it is akin to having a fixed percentage of sales as bonus pay and as opposed to a variable percentage. The ratty behaviour is replicated in the human world with motivation increasing with the randomness of rewards.
This is the ancient lure of chips, dice, cards and horses kick in. The random rewards that may be attained through gambling, with the welcome clanging of coins disbursed from the slot machine.

Now, let us trade the rat for the mouse infested world.
A recent post on FaceBook by a friend read “I never thought Likes would become so important in our lives.” It rings true like the writing on the Wall it actually was.

The likes, posts, comments , messages – all the red notifications of FaceBook – do not follow a regular pattern. With each refresh, the rewarding visual and intellectual stimulation happens at varied rates, each reward promising gratification of entertainment and social status and acceptance. The same principle applies for emails coming into the mailbox. Whether or not one expects an important mail, a note, a notification – the refresh button is clicked on and on – until the minds become automatons, addicted, waiting for satiation – just another click, and further stimulation if something new crops up – if not, then ... well another click before quitting .

Late into the night. With red, sleep deprived eyes searching for that small red pop up – someone is out there communicating, caring enough to recognise your presence. The unscheduled returns making one cling on to the hope of interaction - hope that a combination of friends and connections in the cyber world will soon collaborate into a socially satisfying jackpot.

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About Me

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A novelist and cricket historian, Arunabha Sengupta is the author of three novels and the Chief Cricket Writer on cricketcountry.com. In his novels he deals with the contemporary world with acerbic humour. In his cricket writings he covers the history and romance in the game, while his post graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces