How exactly does social media hijack our psychology?
Sean Parker, first president of Facebook – and now a conscientious objector to social media, bravely went on the record when he said the following in the interview:
“God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains. The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them…was all about: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” And that means that we need to give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content…more likes and comments. 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 the vulnerability in human psychology.”
We see it happening in every social setting we find ourselves in. People are physically there, but they are not present. They are on their phones, or have their phones ready to interrupt the real human connection with an online social media update.
We lost part of our humanity, and we did not even notice.
As we evolved, humans have developed a collection of cognitive mechanisms for social validation. Our intricate social chemistry has helped us as a species to win in the planetary game of survival. Complex systems of communication and cooperation with each other have been hard-wired in our brains. Millions of years of evolution crafted them for our benefit.
When our social brains, designed to thrive in the real world, have been relocated into the artificial reality on the screen.
Today our social cues have been digitized into “likes”, “shares”, and “follows”. Optimized for the profitability of the platforms that dish them out. Not for the well-being of the social animals on the receiving end – us.
Since humans have not been designed by nature to socialize virtually, a host of nasty negative side effects sprouted.
We became attention junkies and lost sight of our real self-worth, believing instead in the digitized facade. Our value as an individual was now dependent on bite-size snippets of public opinion – a shaky foundation for such a precious human metric. The sinking sands of envy and comparison plunged people into anxiety and depression. Social skills atrophied.
People are socializing more than they ever did in history, while feeling lonely and isolated at the same time. Real social validation became fake virtual validation. And it does not satisfy us.
Our social brain got hijacked by technology.
Our social needs have not changed. We want what we have always wanted.
Acceptance and approval. Social status and attention.
Only now we can get more of it in minutes in the form of “likes” than we ever did in our previous face-to-face interactions. And we got hooked.
We are never completely sure that we are ok. We need some form of external feedback. Confirmation from others. Indeed, those who are completely oblivious to social feedback might actually have a psychiatric diagnosis.
We respond to social media notifications because they promise an instant boost to our vulnerable ego. We are insecure about ourselves unless somebody assures us that we are fine.
We cannot resist clicking on the message that promises to alleviate the nagging insecurity with positive feedback from others.
The makers of social media apps count on this. Social feedback is the sweet juice of likes, shares and comments that we crave like sugar.
California startup Dopamine Labs says it’s common knowledge in the industry that Instagram exploits users’ craving for “likes” by sometimes strategically withholding them. To make users check the app more often, it only shows a few in hopes that a disappointed user will check again every few minutes. Repeated user engagement is a key to profitability.
Our insecurity drives their traffic.
What made Instagram a smashing success was not its ability to apply filters to make every photo a masterpiece – other photo apps could do that. It was the functionality to instantly share these photo creations with the world on a social network. To show everyone how awesome and talented and successful and happy we are. To inspire envy and confirm that our life is glorious.
Not only am I great – I am better than you.
People are driven by social comparison. We need to keep up with the Joneses. We are clamoring for self-promotion to raise our status in the group. Animals do the same thing in animal groups – become the alpha male at the expense of others. It’s not pretty.
So we contribute tons of content about ourselves to try to win the game of social comparison.
And the platforms reap the benefits of increased traffic and valuable data for their machine learning and targeted behavioral advertising.
Unpredictable Social Rewards
But the public opinion is fickle. People are busy and self-absorbed, and they give us their positive feedback INCONSISTENTLY. You have put your heart and soul in the social media update or a picture, and nobody cares. Yet another one generates hundreds of likes.
That’s the perfect storm of digital manipulation by both social feedback and random rewards.
A trap to engage the user and drive up traffic. We will keep posting and reposting, anxiously awaiting an unpredictable social reward. Maybe it will come, maybe not. But we will come back to the platform to check – again and again.
It’s a slot machine at the casino all over again, and we are all gambling addicts.
It gets worse. Now that you finally got your “likes”, how many? 10? Is that your rating? The measure of your self-worth? Maybe some close friends took pity on you, so you feel bad because the rest of the world clearly does not think much of you. 10,000? You are a superstar, a gift for humanity! You feel awesome!
The value of an individual has been quantified with precision.
And most of us have been found lacking. Well, it must mean we have to try harder and spend MORE time on social media, post MORE about ourselves, if we hope to generate MORE positive social feedback that we value so much!
To see the ticker tape of our individual value go up, driven by the sheer amount of content we post, and the hours and hours of engagement we freely give to Facebook or Instagram or Twitter.
That’s how THEY make money. That’s how WE lose time.
Our desire to drive these social metrics up makes billions of dollars for the social media platforms. We work for them for free, and more often than not get disappointment and frustration in return.
We have handed our self-worth to The Matrix.
Authentic self-esteem is intrinsic. It comes from within. It would not occur to the person who does not use social media to think that their self-worth is an average of ratings given to them by friends, acquaintances, and even strangers online.
As much as we crave the positive feedback, we are terrified of the negative one. That’s our evolutionary negativity bias in action – we tend to pay more attention to the negative clues in our environment. When our ancestors roamed the savanna, this was a useful survival mechanism. Negative social feedback could cost you your life.
Today it generates chronic stress. One nasty comment will drown out a hundred positive ones, and wreck our fragile self-esteem.
On the other hand, complete indifference from your online audience – an absence of social media reactions to your content – feels even worse. No likes. Nobody viewed your picture.
Nobody cares if you exist.
For our ancestors, to be excluded from the group spelled the difference between life and death. Today “de-friending” someone is a big deal, a social downfall, a major blow to one’s reputation.
Negative feedback or lack of feedback online feels like a personal failure. A public display of our low status.
So we put in a lot of effort to prevent this from happening – better pictures, funnier posts, more time and effort invested.
Which adds dollar signs to the bottom line of the companies that engineered those social hacks.
The need to avoid indifference and negativity powers the pressure to present a perfect facade to the world, to be “liked”, while knowing full well we are not perfect.
How does this translate to user engagement and keeping eyes on the screen?
It’s a teenage girl spending hours to take hundreds of selfies, edit them, and post only the “perfect” ones. Сhecking obsessively for likes – every day, every hour, every minute! Removing the pictures that got no likes or generated negative comments. Posting more.
Tons of traffic and data for the platform. Anxiety and depression for the girl.
We live in a society and we need to fit in. We need to find “our people”.
We need to belong.
We need social confirmation that we fit in with our group. We also crave their admiration for our uniqueness and individuality. Social media gives us an illusion of fulfilling both of these needs, and that’s what makes it so addictive.
Tools like Facebook groups provide a digital solution. It is very comforting to know that you belong to the community of like-minded people. You have shared interests. You are connected in the network of mutual support. It’s hard to resist this value proposition.
Social media is not the only realm that harnesses addictive potential of belonging. The ability to socialize online in real time also reinforces video game addiction. Gamers will abandon all real world activities to go on virtual quests with their online teammates – whom they may never meet in real life. Guilds in World of Warcraft, arguably the most addictive multiplayer game in existence, become more important than families to addicted gamers. It’s an escape from reality into the magical world where you are accepted and valued by others for achieving imaginary goals for your gaming community.
Social validation feels real within the game. However, the human cost of such socializing for young men is failure to launch and inability to build relationships in real life.
Give and Take
We are driven to repay a favor. It is a moral obligation. “Likes” are notoriously reciprocal: I give you “likes” because you give me “likes”. If you received a tweet, tweet back and retweet.
People who ignore the rules of reciprocity are socially ostracized. It works even if we do not like the person and do not wish to comply with an online request: every email demands an immediate response. And if you forget to react in a timely manner to your friends’ social media posts and admire their pictures, you must not be a good friend, right?
Social media industry wins by exploiting our human desire to do a favor for a friend, and expect one in return.
“A friend tagged you and 5 others in a photo”
“Your post have been viewed by 10 people”
“You have 7 new friend requests”
“Your picture have received 20 likes”
And a thousand other snippets like these.
This is maddening!
Who followed me?!
Who viewed my post?!
Who liked my picture?!
You have to click to find out. And stay on the screen for a considerable amount of time.
Did you notice that social media platforms always throw these hooks at you? But they don’t tell you the whole story? There is no photo, but here is a notification “You have been tagged!”. No names – just a numerical counter: “5 people liked your post”! “You have been invited – click to see the invitation“! Perfect hook for your social validation hunger.
Who commented/followed/shared your photo – do you want to find out? The platform relies on your curiosity and desire for attention to click through and stay engaged. After all, behind that update is SOMEONE INTERESTED IN YOU!
Your very own social click-bait.
Popular by Association
Tell me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are. We like to emphasize our connection to successful others, because their fame gives a boost to our own social status. We want to make ourselves look good, even if it is a reflected glory.
Look who I know!
We congratulate successful friends on social media, dishing out positive feedback for their accomplishments. The world sees they did a good job, and we bask in their glory, celebrating their success with them – whether we had anything to do with their achievement or not. In the meantime, public celebration of success on social media increases back and forth traffic, user engagement, and keeps everyone on their screens.
Popularity is quite visible, after all, in the number of connections, followers, likes – it has all been quantified. The achievements of the successful are on public display for the world to see.
Bragging about our social media links to anyone famous? Snapping a selfie with a celebrity to post on Instagram? Collecting highly accomplished friends as LinkedIn connections? Count us in.
Our public image is the major driver to “friend” popular others, as well as maximize the overall number of “friends”.
Which is very profitable to social media platforms. The higher the number of users, the higher is the value of the company. The more users and the more engagement between them, the more money their data can be sold for.
The arsenal of social feedback weapons deployed by digital platforms includes Likes, Follows, Comments, Tags, Friending, Number of friends and followers, Instagram and Facebook stories, Snapchat streaks, Claps, Number of views, Shares, Replies, People you may know, Friend requests, Invites, Groups, Events, Emojis, Badges, Pokes, Hugs, Winks, High-fives… The list is endless.
Ever more creative at identifying and pushing psychological buttons of our social brain.
Social Weapons: Facebook
Social Weapons: Twitter
Social Weapons: LinkedIn
Social validation tools work on all of us, no matter who we are. Even if we are painfully aware that they are there not for our benefit, but to drive traffic for the platform. Even if I know that a psychological button is pushed in my brain, I still get the same shot of dopamine as the user completely oblivious to manipulation.
We just cannot exist outside of our evolutionary biology.
And we should not. The principles of social validation are being used against us. Yet, we cannot stop using them – they are the foundation of society. We would not want to live in the world without social feedback – that would be the end of humanity.
What Can We Do?
Our needs for social validation have been satisfied offline for millennia. Yet, when we feel lonely or inadequate, we turn to the new digital tools to satisfy these needs.
Connecting with others does not have to equal browsing Facebook. It is only a habit that hijacked our social nature. Digital social validation is a poor replacement for real friendship and love. A fake pretending to be the real thing.
If there is an offline way to meet social needs, it should be our first choice. Otherwise, we should compartmentalize social media to limited hours of our day, and prioritize real people.
Social customs also need to change. A few decades ago smoking was ubiquitous. Today it is confined to designated areas for the addicted, away from healthy people! Would we ever reach an age of enlightenment when public smartphone use is seen as bad manners – or even illegal? Like with smoking, it might take decades.
Holding a phone while having a conversation sends a clear message: “You are not that important to me”. Keeping the phone face down is no better, it’s still there to hijack your attention with the next buzz. Many studies have confirmed that the very presence of a smartphone diminishes the quality of social interactions – both personal and professional.
Put the phone away when you are with real people.
Whatever it is on that screen, it can wait.