An obsession with ‘likes’ on social media akin to animals seeking food rewards, new study reports

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  • Social media platforms can lead some people to become obsessed with earning 'likes' and 'shares'
  • Social media use has never previously been linked to the way our minds process and learn from rewards
  • A group of researchers found that it is driven by a search for reward, like animals seeking food

Social media has revolutionised human life in many ways in just a few years. Everything has its pros and cons, and one of the negative aspects of social platforms like Facebook is that it can make people more prone to depression, anxiety and other psychological disorders.

Other studies have indicated that social media can cause narcissistic tendencies in teenagers and anti-social behaviour in young adults. In a new study, a group of international researchers explain that our use of social media, particularly our efforts to maximise the number of "likes" we receive, follows a pattern of "reward learning".

Reward learning is a long-established psychological concept, suggesting that behaviour may be driven and reinforced by rewards.

The study concluded that this type of behaviour on social media shows parallels with the behaviour of animals, such as rats, seeking food rewards.

"These results establish that social media engagement follows basic, cross-species principles of reward learning," David Amodio, a professor at New York University and the University of Amsterdam and one of the paper's authors explained in a news release. Amodio and colleagues wanted to find out what actually drives people to engage, sometimes obsessively, with others on these platforms.

He added that their findings may help researchers understand why social media has come to dominate daily life for many people, and, in doing so, provide clues, borrowed from research on reward learning and addiction, to how troubling online engagement may be addressed.

The paper was published in Nature Communications.

Preference for social media over basic needs

According to their paper, in 2020, more than four billion people spent several hours per day, on average, on platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

This widespread social media engagement has been likened by many to an addiction, they wrote, in which people are driven to pursue positive online social feedback, such as likes, over direct social interaction and even basic needs like eating and drinking.

A separate 2015 study found that the constant stream of likes, shares, and retweets on social media can activate the same reward area in the brain triggered by addictions to chemical compounds, such as cocaine, according to Live Science

Getting closer to the answer

The researchers of the recent study directly tested whether social media use can be explained by the way our minds process and learn from rewards.

The team therefore analysed more than one million social media posts from over 4 000 users on Instagram and other platforms, and, interestingly, found that people space their posts in a way that maximises how many likes they receive on average. This means that they posted more frequently in response to a high rate of likes and less frequently when they received fewer likes.

Taking it a step further, they then used computational models and found that this behavioural pattern conforms closely to known mechanisms of reward learning. 

Parallels with reward behaviour in rats

Their analysis also suggested that social media engagement is driven by similar principles that lead animals, such as rats, to maximise their food rewards in a Skinner Box – a commonly used experimental tool in which animal subjects, placed in a compartment, access food by taking certain actions (such as pressing a particular lever).

They wrote: "The intense popularity of social media is often attributed to a psychological need for social rewards (likes), portraying the online world as a Skinner Box for the modern human."

But that’s not where they stopped. The team wanted to corroborate these results with an online experiment. This involved studying human participants who posted funny images with phrases and received likes as feedback on an Instagram-like platform.

The results of this experiment were consistent with the study's analysis, as it revealed that people posted more often when they received more likes, on average.

"Our findings can help lead to a better understanding of why social media dominates so many people's daily lives and can also provide leads for ways of tackling excessive online behaviour," said Professor Björn Lindström, the lead author of the paper.

READ | How you use social media could affect your happiness

READ | Phone call anxiety: Why so many of us have it, and how to get over it

READ | Could social media use during Covid-19 increase depression and secondary trauma?

Image credit: Getty Images

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