How Social Media Hacks our Brains

“It’s a social-validation feedback loop… exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” – Sean Parker, Former Facebook President

To understand why we spend so much time on social media, it helps to look at Las Vegas slot machines.[1] The aim of these maniacal cash cows[2] is to get gamblers to spend as much money as possible (i.e. as much time as possible sitting at the machine) by tapping into addictive patterns in the brain. Slot machines are engineered to cater to your reward centers in the form of operant conditioning, in which there is substantial variability in terms of reward. This is a highly addictive behavioral pattern because your brain is stimulated by the excitement of intermittent payoffs. 

An operant condition chamber (a.k.a. Skinner box) is used to show how brains are easily wired to repeat behaviors based upon positive and negative reinforcement. In this diagram, we are the rodents, social media is the lever, and Likes are the food.

An operant condition chamber (a.k.a. Skinner box) is used to show how brains are easily wired to repeat behaviors based upon positive and negative reinforcement. In this diagram, we are the rodents, social media is the lever, and Likes are the food.

Facebook has undergone a similar ‘gamification’ by introducing various notifications. The brain associates little red numbers or Likes with a social reward. Interestingly, it’s the anticipation that stimulates dopaminergic pathways in the brain. The notification, not the actual social interaction, releases dopamine.[3]

The brain reacts to it’s built-in social credit system:

Red Notification = Social Credit = Increased Survival = Dopamine Release 

Of course, in every society up until modern times the latter part of this equation held true. However the first part of the equation, Red Notification, is a manufactured phenomenon. In the past, a group may have shown approval for an individual in a variety of ways; giving a “thumbs up” on their photo was evidently not one of them. This stamp of approval from someone, often not even a close friend, has come to mean that the virtual tribe somehow accepts you. 

Recognizing the biological root of our behavior on social media can help us “reprogram” ourselves to be less responsive to its allure. In truth, online relationships often lack emotional depth and provide us little fulfillment.

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Because social validation was at one point so necessary for survival, it’s easy to see why we can become addicted to social media. We feel like we have to be constantly connected to everyone even when we’re not physically nearby, but this often prevents us from being present and focused.


Sources:

[1]https://www.theverge.com/2015/5/6/8544303/casino-slot-machine-gambling-addiction-psychology-mobile-games

[2]Slots account for over half of total casino profits, according to a Nevada Gaming Control Board Gaming Revenue Report: https://gaming.nv.gov/modules/showdocument.aspx?documentid=11031.  

[3]Kent C. Brridge and Terry E. Robinson, What is the role of dopamine in reward: hedonic impact, reward learning, or incentive salience?: Brain Research Reviews, 28, 1998. 309-369. See Psychology Today article on Why we’re all addicted texts twiiter and google.

Liam McClintockComment