Building Happiness Out of Slot Machines

Image by Mark E. Bouton (Creative Commons.)

In the 1950s, B.F. Skinner got a pigeon to spend 16 straight hours pecking at a sheet of plexiglass, at an average rate of 2.5 pecks per second. What could have caused this frenzy? Was the pigeon held at gunpoint? Threatened with the murder of its family? Attempting to break the pecking record?

No. It pecked because this action was rewarded with food pellets at random intervals.

Skinner kept other pigeons too, in pellet-dispensing containers that would come to be known as “Skinner boxes.” In the second group, pecking produced food at predetermined time intervals. These pigeons would go about their pigeon business until it was feeding time, at which point they would casually peck on the plexiglass. Predictability versus randomness made the difference between sanity and psychosis.

Don’t mock the psychotic pigeons; we are much the same. From the simple slot machine to Facebook’s endless scroll, humans inhabit their own Skinner boxes. I am only a pigeon, so I scroll through 99 blurry photographs and poorly targeted ads just to get to that one video of a cat guarding its owner’s phone.

Without pausing to take the cue, I keep scrolling. I am the endless scroll. I’m a narrowed vision, a crazed emptiness, an engagement metric. I’m a shadow of myself.

I am only a pigeon, waiting for treats at the Facebook feed.

I tried to quit, but Facebook had given me a brain itch. Nothing would scratch it: not yoga, not books, not movies. There’s no jackpot in yoga, no scrolling in a book. Every activity I could think of felt boring; in the evening, it was hard to get myself to do anything.

I could have gritted my teeth and picked up a book, but I wondered if I could make things easier for myself. Was there something like a nicotine patch for the social media itch, a harmless substitute that would take my mind off the craving while I transitioned out of the pigeon’s life?

I decided to build a personalized Skinner box.

I put names of evening activities on strips of paper. Mimicking the variable reinforcement of the feed, I included chores (doing the dishes, responding to emails), wholesome pleasures (reading a book, calling a friend), and dopamine hits (ice cream, cat videos). Instead of rationally deciding how to spend my evening, I would draw an item from the box.

A quail is just a round pigeon, right? (A painting from my El Paso series.)

The effect was immediate. Even though I didn’t actually want to do most of the individual tasks, somehow I thrilled at the prospect of randomly drawing from among them. Sometimes, the sense of adventure persisted even if I drew a chore. The very tasks my rational mind struggled to coax me into were magically transformed into treats by the power of the Skinner box.

The next day, I tried simply doing the dishes without the seemingly unnecessary detour of the box. Poof! The adventure was a chore again. Clearly, the box was an indispensable part of the magic. But how did it work? I think it helped me access a different mental space. When I use the box, instead of trying to find the absolute best activity for a given moment, I open myself to possibility. I lean into my adventure-loving, curious side; I harness my inner pigeon.

I had discovered something better than a nicotine patch: a way to joyfully addict myself to the things I actually want to do.

I applied this discovery when working on a series of landscape paintings based on photographs from El Paso, Texas. When I started the project, rationally choosing which photo to work from felt like the evening fiasco all over again: no choice seemed particularly appealing. This time, I knew what to do: it was time for a handcrafted Skinner box.

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Using a random number generator, I picked one of my top 130 El Paso photos. It was a dud: an abstract, nearly monochrome closeup of the desert floor after a snowstorm. I tried copying it, but it seemed stupid to aim for a realistic representation of something that didn’t even look like anything to begin with.

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From photo to abstraction.

Besides, I’m not a monochrome kind of person. So after a few frustrated marks, I started focusing on the brushstrokes instead, transforming the image into an abstract color field. It’s not my absolute favorite painting, but I learned more about paintbrush and color use than I would have from a “better” source photograph.

I reach for the random number generator every morning… and wake excited to paint. By combining the predictability of painting at a fixed time with the addictive power of randomness, I have turned myself into Pavlov’s pigeon, drooling at the regular appearance of the Skinner box.

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Come to think of it, I had been harnessing the addictive power of randomness in my art way before I knew about Skinner boxes.

Like the pigeon whose treats come at predetermined intervals, if I know precisely what I want a painting to look like, I lose my interest. To combat this ennui, I build stochastic surprises into my process. I’ll often prepare my canvases with a layer of random colors and textures. Searching for affinities and tensions between underpainting and model, I open myself to happy accidents. I find delicacies at every corner: shades of yellow and pink in the model’s skin which echo the underpainting; a figure 8-shaped silhouette which can be made to dance with swirling brushstrokes.

The magic of underpaintings.

I don’t like certainty. What propels me is curiosity, a sense of adventure, a hope that the next pellet is just around the corner. When I make things, I try to leave room for such treats. This is why I rarely outline my posts. The first draft of the essay you’re reading was a random collection of anecdotes about, er, randomness. Before draft #2, I had no idea that any anecdote except the first would mention Skinner boxes. Writing gave me the very gift I’m trying to pass on to you: a new mental framework.

Many posts fail to deliver such kernels. As any pigeon knows, this only makes the search more enticing.

As much as it was a revelation, the “Skinner box” framing isn’t perfect. The gaze of the Facebook-scrolling pigeon is frenzied and narrow, focused on a single, distant point. Intent on the upcoming reward, she barely notices the dozens of mediocre posts running through her feed, frantically scrollingscrollingscrolling. Unlike Facebook, creative randomness expands my vision. When I make things, I am excited, sometimes brimming with exuberance — but never out-of-control frantic.

What makes the difference? It’s pretty easy to tell whether a Facebook post is a treat or not — but discovering whether a photograph is good source material for a painting requires attention and exploration. (If you’re inventive enough, anything is good source material.) Instead of treats, the Artist’s Box dispenses puzzles. Crack them the right way, and you’ll unlock the delicious core. That requires constant alertness, and since a treat can appear at any moment, I’m motivated to keep going.

A recent vacation really brought home the power of putting ambiguous treats in your Skinner box.

I love daydreaming about upcoming travel. Wanting my trips to live up to these dreams, I plan… and I plan, and I plan. I make sure I end up in the right place at the right time, seeing the sunset at the Grand Canyon and the sunrise in Zion.

Of course, nothing is ever exactly as planned. During a trip to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, my partner felt some knee pain and needed to stay in the car and rest, so I agreed to substitute a short solo hike for the long and scenic one I had dreamed of.

As I started walking, volcanic rocks loomed against an otherworldly yellow. The blustery landscape suited my sulky mood. By the time I reached the trail’s end — an underwhelming drip of waterfall, seen from above — I had traded disappointment for a sense of adventure. Since I had some time to spare, I decided to go exploring. I crossed over the creek, thrilled by the (minuscule) danger of slipping and plummeting down the waterfall. The view on the other side wasn’t any better, but the sense of adventure was its own reward.

Then I wandered off up another hill, idly searching for a more sweeping vista. There was no view here either. Instead, a museum opened up at my feet. Bowls of volcanic rock served up air bubbles. Tongues of lava seemed to cool before my eyes. Lichens and sulfur rivalled the abstract expressionist’s brush. It was one of the highlights of the week-long vacation.

Off-trail treasures.

When I returned to the trail, to my amazement I saw that it had been strewn with equally magnificent stones all along. I never had to go off-trail to see such marvels.

Oh, but I did: off-trail is a state of mind.

The pigeons with predictable feeds wander off to do other things when it’s not feeding time. Similarly, when I plan a hike with a clear treat at the end, my attention wanders before the climax. But if the treat could come at any time — and if, moreover, what counts as a treat is as much a matter of how you look as a matter of where you are, then I will walk through the landscape open-eyed — and gasp.

All of my Skinner boxes eventually stop working. I have enough of a feel for all of the tasks in my evening box that “use the box” now feels almost like its own predictable activity, forcing me to keep adding more items. And sometimes, I opt for the radical act of… rationally deciding how to spend my evening. It’s a little like putting my Skinner box inside another Skinner box — the big box sometimes delivers the small box, and sometimes the instruction “do what you think is best right now.”

Though it needs regular maintenance, the slot machine is a powerful tool. You can’t decide whether or not to become a pigeon; randomness will always be addictive. But you can build better Skinner boxes. You can addict yourself to Twitter — or to creativity. You can engineer a slot machine that will shrink your world — or one that will open it wide, then fill it to the brim with possibility.

You can see more of my paintings on Instagram. And if you’d rather learn about my art (and thoughts) in a less addictive way, sign up below to get my posts delivered to your inbox.

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