Are we being conditioned to keep using Facebook?

Pavlovian insights and social media

5 minutes to read
Margaret Steenbakker

Even though Facebook is bad for us, we keep coming back. Do we dare think of ourselves as kennel dogs then, who’ve been trained to drool at the sight of the Facebook logo?

A study by the Dutch Bureau for Statistics recently showed that eight in ten people, aged 12 and up, use some form of social network in The Netherlands. This means that 80% of the Dutch population uses some kind of social medium, whether that's WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter or another platform. This means that social media can have a lot of influence on people's lives, as has been shown by another study by the Dutch Bureau for Statistics, which indicated that 47% of Dutch youths felt like social media had a negative impact on their lives. Among the things most affected is the ability to concentrate on a task that needs to be done. 

However, social media also have their positive sides, such as being able to stay in touch with people you don't get to see very often. Our perception of the digital is closely connected to the notion of touching: staying in touch with old or new friends, family members and colleagues, or getting in touch with new people. However, being active on social media also means allowing companies to get in touch with you, via big data.

Is Facebook Big brother?

Being online means providing media, such as Facebook, with your personal information. This information can then, in turn, be used to specifically target all of us with advertisements that suit our age, location, interests and even our personal beliefs. Recently, I've been getting an awful lot of advertisements for Tilburg's local literary festival Tilt, for example. It's not difficult to understand why: I fit their demographic perfectly, as they want to attract a younger audience for literature.

Private information is willingly put on the line by consumers, because they feel they benefit from doing so.

This targeting of posts, advertisements and content in general to fit your interests and personality creates a 'bubble', which in turn means that you only get to see things you already like, instead of also being confronted with information you may not like. The algorithm monitors your likes and based on that information decides what posts should show up in your feed. In other words: being on social media, you no longer have the control of what you will and will not see in your own hands; you have given up the power to make autonomous decisions on what will show up in your feed. This can be seen as a somewhat worrying development, as more than half of social media users use these platforms to get up to date on current events.

Facebook's panopticism

The main way the algoritms know who to target for certain posts is by information we largely provide ourselves, which is then collected by the medium, e.g. big data. It uses the information in our profiles, the things we like, the things we post and the posts we share. Even the most trivial information, such as whether you've recently bought cold medicine, can be used to specifically target you with advertisements. The fact that the website is aware of this means that it has the power to track most of our online actions, effectively behaving like the Big Brother to our Winston Smith. Big brother knows everything and can't be fooled, just as Facebook knows everything we do online and can't be fooled either. 

This essentially places our online behaviour under constant supervision, without us ever being truly sure if we are being watched at this very instance. This is similar to the idea of the Panopticon, on which the French philosopher Michel Foucault has written in his Discipline and Punish. The design of prisons has obviously changed a lot throughout the centuries and the panopticon is one possible layout for a ‘prison of the future’. In it, prisoners are aware of the fact that they can be watched 24/7. However, they can never tell if they truly are being watched or not. This is possible through the panopticon's architecture, consisting of ‘at the periphery an annular building; at the centre, a tower;’ (p. 200). Both the building and tower have strategically placed windows, which allow for constant surveillance of the prisoners contained in it. The power structure this creates is quite obvious:

Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power […] the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so (p. 201).

Interestingly, this constant possibility of being watched, causes the prisoners to internalize the rules to which they are subjected and conform to them. Foucault uses this as a metaphor for the way in which society functions. In society too, there are power structures at play, and we, as a people, have internalized them for the most part. Those who have not are labelled as dangerous.

The Pavlovian design of Facebook

However, Foucault published Discipline and Punish many years before the rise of social media. Since then, things have changed quite substantially. Indeed, Facebook and other social media definitely carry power structures in them. What's changed is that these aren't necessarily internalised by the user anymore. 

Instead, it's become a matter of personal choice. Private information is willingly put on the line by consumers, because they feel they benefit from doing so. One could even go so far as stating that we've been conditioned to do so. After all, what's the difference between Pavlov's dogs and human beings who've learned to put their privacy aside for the benefits that social media have to offer them?


In the clip above, the narrator says the following: "then just seeing the food dish or even hearing the footsteps of Pavlov or his assistant, was enough to trigger this built-in reflex." The same seems to apply to the use of social media: using them means that you've learned to put your privacy aside and whether you do it consciously or unconsciously, the fact that you do it remains the same. 

The things Facebook and social media have to offer to you elicit a positive association or reflex, which makes you come back time and again. Even though social media also have negative effects, as the study from the Dutch Bureau for Statistics showed, people keep on coming back for more, because they’ve been trained to do so. Do we dare think of ourselves as kennel dogs then, who’ve been trained to drool at the sight of the Facebook logo?