Artist trained rats to take selfies to make their point on social media

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As it happens5:59Artist trains rats to take selfies to make their point on social media

When Augustin Lignier built a photo booth for rats, he was actually trying to focus the lens on humanity.

The French artist trained two pet store rodents to take selfies in exchange for treats. But over time, he says, they began doing it purely for fun.

He says it’s not unlike the way people interact with social media — initially for the likes, but ultimately just to trigger a flood of feel-good chemicals in our brains.

“It’s to reflect our behavior, the way we behave online,” said the French artist. As it happens host Nil Köksal. “How we take images and why we take images, and why we interact with different devices, like phones primarily and apps.”

A transparent rectangular box with four levels.  The upper and lower levels contain wiring.  In the middle, two levels are connected by a small pink ladder.  Attached to the box are a camera and lighting system.  A white mouse is perched directly in front of the camera lens, on the second highest level, pressing down on a small level connected to a wire.  Below him, a brown and white mouse climbs the ladder.
Artist Augustin Lignier constructed a modified Skinner box for his rats. (Augustin Lignier/augustinlignier.com)

For its installation Selfie ratsLignier acquired two male rats from a pet store, which he named Augustin and Arthur after himself and his brother.

Rather than subjects, he said he viewed the creatures as “collaborators.”

“To me, they’re really artists, you know? They’re performing in front of the camera,” he said. “They look cute.”

The installation dates from 2021, but has received renewed attention after being featured in the New York Times this week.

He built his own version of a Skinner box, a device designed by behavioral scientist B.F. Skinner to conduct learning experiments on rats.

In the original Skinner box experiments, rats pushed a lever to dispense food pellets. In Lignier’s dressing room, when Arthur and Augustin pushed the lever, a camera took their photo and displayed it on a screen in front of them.

At first, he said, pressing the lever also dispensed a sugar cube, rewarding selfies with candy.

“Then they start to associate an action with pleasure,” Lignier said. “And they start playing with it more and more.”

On the left, a brown mouse peeks out from the corner and stares at the camera while pressing a plastic lever with a small pink paw.  To the right, a white mouse pushes the same lever with its chin, looking sideways at the camera and dangling one hand over a small, clear plastic ledge.
At first, Lignier says the rats took selfies to please themselves. But ultimately, he says they did it just for fun. (Augustin Lignier/augustinlignier.com)

After the rats were trained to increase the sugar level, Lignier changed the parameters of the experiment. Sometimes taking a photo gave a sugar cube, and sometimes it didn’t.

Nevertheless, the rats continued to press the button, taking dozens of selfies. After a while, he says they pretty much stopped eating sugar, even when it came out.

“Every time they press a button, they get pleasure in their brain,” Lignier said. “That’s why they keep going.”

Side-by-side photos of rats pressing a plastic lever while raising their noses in the air.  On the left, a brown and white rat uses both hands to push, while on the right, an all-white rat pushes with one hand while leaning the other against its glass enclosure, like Rose in Titanic.
Like all social media professionals, Arthur and Augustin took selfies from different angles. (Augustin Lignier/augustinlignier.com)

Lignier says the installation draws a connection between how rats use the photo box and how humans use social media. At first, he says, humans are incentivized by measurable rewards, namely likes or other engagement on posts.

But social media can be fickle, and these rewards are intermittent at best. Many behavioral experts and researchers have said that what really gets people scrolling and posting is dopamine.

Dopamine is a chemical produced in the brain when we do something pleasurable, such as eating, exercising, and having sex. It motivates us to continue this pleasurable behavior, which is why it is also linked to addiction.

In an interview with the Guardianaddiction expert Anna Lembke, author of Dopamine Nationcalled the smartphone the “modern-day hypodermic needle.”

But while Lignier says Selfie rats is meant to make us think about what determines our behaviors online, it is not necessarily a scathing critique of Internet culture.

“Big tech companies shape our behavior,” he said. “But we can still have fun and enjoy it.”

Arthur and Augustin took dozens and dozens of selfies, trying different angles like true social media pros. But Lignier says they didn’t seem to get any satisfaction from the images themselves.

“I try to show them the images on the screen, so they can see their own selfie immediately after taking the photo,” he said. “But they don’t recognize each other, you know.”

When his beloved collaborators finished their modeling jobs, he says he sent them to his mother’s house in the south of France to live out the rest of their short lives in peace and comfort.

They have since died, he said, and are buried side by side in his mother’s garden.

Side-by-side images of rats looking at the camera while pressing a small plastic lever.
Lignier said he considered the rats his “collaborators” and “interpreters.” (Augustin Lignier/augustinlignier.com)

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