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Lab rats, pet dogs and notifications

I was re-watching one of the earlier episodes of The Big Bang Theory earlier this week and in this episode, Sheldon tries to modify Penny's behaviour into something more desirable to him by giving her a piece of chocolate every time she does something right - like not sit on his seat, or go out in the hall to take a phone call.

While this was clearly a play on some of the research done on behaviour reinforcement, it is true that we have made huge advances in understanding human behaviour and reinforcement of good behaviours through rewards, limiting undesired behaviour through punishments, and through this, have a better understanding of how our brains work and how we function as individuals.

Most of these research experiments are first done on rats. Rats are caged and then provided food when they show desired behaviour or denied food when they show undesired behaviour and through this, their normal behaviour is modified.

This concept might be very familiar to dog owners as they have to undertake such training of their dogs to ensure that the dogs don't end up making a mess in the house and wait till they are taken out for a walk in order to poop.

Of course, these don't just apply to dogs and rats. As in the episode of The Big Bang theory, it is true among humans as well. Although we don't see this kind of training in an obvious way, nearly every internet application today applies this theory to drive user behaviour.

When we see a notification that someone liked what we posted on Facebook or Instagram, and open the app to see who it was, this theory is in place. While notifications is an all prevalent phenomenon, there are also many other cases where you see this - the maintaining of the streak on Snapchat or Duolingo, the daily refill of Super-likes on Tinder, the unlocking of a discount for referring a friend to use an app, the unlocking of a discount for making a booking, creating an account, and so on.

Every app that we use is full of design that reinforces our behaviour of returning to the app at regular intervals and to engage more with the features.

Just like the owners of the pet dogs caged in the house think that they are showering love on their dog and treating it very well, the app-makers also think that they are showering love on their users by making their lives simpler or better.

And in many cases, they are.

But just like many pet dogs can't run away from their owners and fend for themselves in a comfortable way, we can't stop using the apps and still be as connected and effective at what we do.

In that sense, we are as tied to the apps as the pet dogs are to their owners.

At least, we have the choice of picking what apps we want to be tied to. But, that is getting harder by the day as the dominant apps are beginning to monopolise the market leaving us precious few options outside of them.

All so that they can know more and more about us through the ways we interact with their products.

Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, has forayed into a startup, Inrupt, that is based on a project coming out of MIT, called Solid, with the mission of restoring rightful ownership of data back to every web user.

So far, we have been gladly giving away our data in return for simple conveniences (like watching cat videos and free email). And as more people begin to raise concerns over how this data is being (and can be) used, Solid and Inrupt might provide an alternate universe where those concerns are addressed in a meaningful way.

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