@B.F.SkinnyMan: Why B.F. Skinner Would Love Food Snapchats and Instagram Fitness Culture

       We’ve all been in this situation before. You’re out to eat with a group of friends or colleagues, maybe you’re even on a date, the food has arrived and what is the reaction of the person sitting across from you? Do they take a second to appreciate the labor that went into this culinary creation or maybe take a big whiff to welcome the complexity of flavors into their system? Of course not. Rather, the phone gets whipped out, the tuna tartare or crème Brûlée or whatever becomes encapsulated in a violent flash of white light and is then uploaded to Snapchat, Instagram, etc. I don’t like this person, in fact, I don’t think anyone does, and I say this fully admitting to the fact that I’ve been guilty of doing this very thing. That said, I cannot help but think if B.F. Skinner were around today, he might encourage this behavior, or at the very least provide a justification for its existence. But before you get to claim that the American Psychological Association’s (APA) “#1 Most Eminent Psychologist of the Century” is justifying your excessive food photographing behavior, first, some background.  

       The human body is wildly inept at dealing with the 21st century. After hundreds of thousands of years being shaped by our environment, our species took it upon itself to flip this continuum. We now shape our environment. Ten thousand years ago it seems, human beings decided to settle down and grow their food instead of spending the entirety of the day chasing it. An explosion of technological advancements commenced, ultimately culminating in the drastically different world that we see today. All these changes have, of course, greatly altered the lifestyles that we live today with one important caveat. Our bodies, evolutionary speaking, haven’t really had time to catch up. Enter, the evolutionary mismatch.  The idea that our bodies and brains have yet to catch up to our current environment is not a novel one and has been used to explain a number of troubling behaviors in politics, personal relationships, and diet. When it comes to the latter, here is the major take away. For almost the entirety of our species existence, sweet, salty, and/or fatty foods were rarities. As carbohydrates, sodium, and lipids are absolutely necessary for our bodies to function properly and finding food containing such was particularly difficult, we developed incredibly salient sensory reward systems for those flavors to promote the eating of foods that contained those nutrients. Think about it, there’s nothing inherently special about a sugar molecule that makes it taste so good. Rather, our brains have been shaped by millions of years of selective pressures that make us perceive that molecule as tasty, which motivates us to consume more of it. The problem with this setup is obvious, our stone age brain craves nutrients that normally were a rarity, today however, acquiring sweet, fatty, or salty food is no difficult task.

        As B.F. Skinner would’ve pointed out, there is also another problem at work here.  Skinner, known as the father of behaviorism, was instrumental (pun intended) in popularizing the notion that reinforcement following behavior would strengthen or inhibit that particular behavior.  Here is where our problem lies. We currently have a brain that gives us instant positive feedback when we eat “unhealthy” foods, thus encouraging that behavior, and little positive feedback when we eat let’s say a beet. What makes matters worse is that the association that the cheeseburgers you’ve been having for lunch twice a week are what’s causing you to not be able to fit into your favorite pair of jeans will never be formed because these types of associative relationships are highly dependent on occurring closely in time (temporal contiguity as we call it). Likewise, even if you feel great two hours after having eaten a salad for lunch your brain won’t make that association either (the window for contiguity is very small), nor will it make the association that your ability to walk up the stairs without working up a sweat is because of all the time you’ve spent at the gym recently. In a nutshell, our brain doesn’t receive any immediate positive feedback for eating healthy foods or exercising because those were never behaviors our ancestors needed any additional motivation to perform.  So how can we get instant positive feedback on our healthy choices to promote their future occurrences?

       Here is where I must concede there might be some good in uploading your meals to social media with the qualifier that these be healthy meals. Social media platforms are some of the few arenas that provide instant feedback (outcomes) to users’ behavior. For many people, seconds after a post is uploaded, the likes, comments, and views pour in, and these outcomes have been well documented in lighting up our neural reward circuitry. Simply put, uploading pictures of your healthy food will likely result in instantaneous positive reinforcement and that’s really good for motivating the behavior that precedes that it.

       This same logic follows for uploading photos of oneself while exercising or posting about exercise routines and #gains. As I mentioned earlier, all of the positive benefits associated with getting proper exercise, of which there are many, do not occur soon enough after the exercise event for your brain to make the connection that those actions resulted in those positive health outcomes. Again, our ancestral relatives never really needed any motivation to stay fit or especially to burn off stored fat and nor did they need motivation to choose the healthier food option out of an array of other tempting choices. Thus we do not have any built-in cognitive programs to help us with these particular problems that we face today. We can however, hijack our general learning mechanisms in ways that promote these needed healthful behaviors.

       There are likely many valid concerns related to creating a dependency on such feedback sources and especially how that might affect ones sense of self and/or the promotion of narcissistic tendencies. From a purely behavioral standpoint however, using social media as a means of providing instant positive feedback to encourage behaviors that often do not receive such feedback surely makes sense from a theoretical standpoint, seems like a reasonable solution to consider when thinking about issues of dieting and exercise, and might also explain the existence of the food photography and Instagram fitness culture we currently see today.