Rats’ photo booth makes a point about humans and social media

Jan 29, 2024

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

Rats’ photo booth makes a point about humans and social media

Jan 29, 2024

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

Join the Discussion

Share on:

rats photo booth selfies

French artist Augustin Lignier has created a unique and thought-provoking installation Selfie Rats. He trained two pet store rats to take selfies in exchange for treats. Over time, the rats started taking selfies for the sheer pleasure of it, making a powerful point about humans and social media.

Speaking with CBC, Augustin shared that he bought two male rats (so he wouldn’t end up with a bunch of baby rats if they were the opposite gender). He named them after himself and his brother, Arthur. He built them a box that’s essentially a Skinner box used in psychological experiments. So, before we move on, let’s elaborate on that first.

The Skinner box

The Skinner box, also known as an operant conditioning chamber, is a key tool used to study and understand the principles of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is all about learning through doing. Put very simply, actions that lead to pleasant things (treats, praise) get repeated, while those that lead to unpleasant things (punishment, no reward) fade away. It’s like training a dog with treats… Or checking Instagram for the dopamine rush of likes. Interestingly enough, this is among the things I’m currently studying for my Psychology 101 exam this week. :)

Anyhow, the Skinner box was invented by Burrhus Frederic Skinner, of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century. It’s an enclosed chamber, containing manipulatable elements like levers, keys, or buttons. The box isolates the animal subject from external distractions and control of the environment. It’s typically equipped with devices to record the animal’s responses and the delivery of reinforcements.

So, how does it work? Animals perform actions (pressing a lever, pushing the button, etc.) to receive desired rewards like food or water. The researcher can control the timing and type of reinforcement based on the desired behavior they’re studying. By modifying the reinforcement and observing the animal’s responses, they can understand how consequences influence learning and behavior patterns.

Selfie rats skinner box
Original:  AndreasJS, Vector:  Pixelsquid, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Selfie Rats project

Augustin’s installation used the principles of operant conditioning, specifically through a modified Skinner box. In his case, pushing a lever triggered a camera, and the rats received a treat: a little bit of sugar. Eventually, rats associated the action with the pleasure of taking selfies. And this is where it gets interesting.

Once the rats were trained to push the lever for sugar, Augustin modified the experiment by changing its parameters. Sometimes, taking a picture would result in a piece of sugar, while other times it wouldn’t. However, the rats kept pressing the button and taking dozens of selfies. Arthur the rat even broke the machine twice. After a while, the critters lost interest in eating the sugar, even when it was dispensed. “Every time they push the button, they have pleasure inside their brain,” Lignier said. “That’s why they keep going.”

Rather than subjects, Augustin saw the rodents as collaborators. “For me, they’re really like performers, you know? They perform for the camera,” he told CBC, adding that they looked cute. It’s worth noting that the cute rats weren’t harmed in the experiment. After they were done posing for Ratstagram, Augustin sent them to his mother’s house in southern France. Their short lives have ended since, and they are buried in his mother’s garden, side-by-side.

Similarity to humans

The core message of Selfie Rats lies in its comparison between the rats’ behavior and human social media habits. Just like little Augustin and Arthur were seeking the pleasure of taking selfies, humans often open social media apps for the dopamine rush of likes and engagement. And it happens even when the rewards are intermittent, unreliable, or even non-existent. And don’t be surprised, this definitely isn’t the first psychological experiment done on animals that can be applied to humans. Many psychologists have done it, including the aforementioned B. F. Skinner.

Agustin’s project highlights the potentially addictive nature of social media and its influence on our behavior. And it’s not Augustin who has pointed out social media addiction. Remember, in October 2023, 33 US states sued Meta over “deliberately addicting children to social media.” Eight more states have joined since then, as well as Maryland and Seattle public schools. There have also been several individual lawsuits against Meta over children’s addiction, mental health issues, and suicide.

But not everything is bad news. While Augustin’s project prompts us to reflect on what motivates our online actions, it’s not meant to be a harsh criticism of internet culture. “Big tech companies design our behavior,” he said. “But we can still have fun and enjoy it.” Choose what you consume, stay critical, and be (self-)aware.

[via CBC]

Filed Under:

Tagged With:

Find this interesting? Share it with your friends!

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

Join the Discussion

DIYP Comment Policy
Be nice, be on-topic, no personal information or flames.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

One response to “Rats’ photo booth makes a point about humans and social media”

  1. Len Kaufman Avatar
    Len Kaufman

    Skinnerian psychology is in my background. I used to work with mice and rats as a psych research assistant before going into photography. it’s worth mentioning that intermittent reinforcement is even more powerful in eliciting behavior than 1:1 reinforcement.