Social Media Fulfillment or Just Constant Anticipation of a Reward?


Over winter break, I read a book called The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal.  While it was more focused on how we as human beings seek out rewards, it made me think about my social media usage and why we are so addicted to constant online activity.  A few studies helped to illustrate what happens in our brains as we mindlessly scroll through our feeds.  In 1953, two scientists by the name of James Olds and Peter Milner accidentally discovered the brain’s “pleasure” system in rats.  They were trying to replicate previous studies that sent shocks to the fear region of the brain, and expected that the rats would do anything to avoid the shock stimulation.  The result they found was quite the opposite,  as Old and Milner’s rats kept running to the corner of the cage to be shocked.  The rats would run in any direction to be rewarded with a shock.

What was happening?  Funny enough, Olds was trained as a social psychologist, not a neuroscientist, and had implanted the shock electrode into the wrong area of the brain.  The scientists thought they had found was the pleasure system.  The experiments evolved, and in a new study they starved the rats for 24 hours, then placed them in a tunnel with food at the end.  What they found was that if they shocked the rat on its way to food, it stopped dead in its tracks, waiting for the possibility of another shock over the guarantee of food a few steps away.

A similar study was replicated in humans in the 1960s.  Even when patients were hungry and brought food trays during the experiment, they continued to self-administer shocks to themselves instead of indulging in the food.  Hilariously, one patient protested when the experiment was over and the experimenter tried to end the session!  Another study participant continued to administer himself shocks over 200 times after current was turned off, hoping for the shock reward to return.

Olds and Milner hadn’t discovered the pleasure system after all.  What they found was the reward system.  The reward system is the brain’s most primitive motivational system, evolved to propel us towards action.  Each and every stimulation gives our brain a hit of dopamine, telling our brain to “Do this again, this will make you feel good!”  Every stimulation encouraged the rats (and humans) to seek more stimulation, without actually bringing satisfaction.

In 2001, a Stanford Neuroscientist named Knutson put participants in a brain scanner and watched their brain activity as they were conditioned to expect a reward.  When they saw an opportunity to win money, the brain’s dopamine center lit up.  When they actually won the money though, the area of the brain was quieted.  The rewards system lights up with the anticipation of a reward, not the actual reward itself.

Our entire world is filled with simulations, turning us into creatures who constantly seek the rewards of happiness.  Our brains become obsessed with the “I want!”  How can we look at this in terms of social media?  Modern technology has a profound effect on this primitive motivation system.  These systems are exactly what makes it impossible to put down our devices.  The anticipation of social media rewards are endless—we check our inboxes for new messages, anticipate incoming texts, check for Facebook notifications, search google for answers, check our Instagram likes, and check our snap chats from our best friends! How will we ever escape if our devices hold us captive, searching for the reward?  For more information on social media “addiction”, check out this article on  Psychology Today.

I think it is up to us to reflect on what will actually bring us fulfillment.  We have a choice to pay attention to our actions.  Sometimes I stop myself when I am mindlessly checking my Facebook pages for likes and notifications.  Social media is a powerful tool when we have specific goals in mind, but has the potential to allow our most primitive brain circuitry to take over.  I think we have have to find a way to distinguish the promise of rewards from real happiness and fulfillment that CAN be created in an online world.  These primitive brain circuits are essential in how we function, as a life without wanting is void of all motivations and fulfillment, but in the world of social media, we should be asking ourselves how we can use social media to bring real fulfillment and positive change to our lives.  The alternative is that we are just using our rat brains to seek an expected reward which gives us a quick hit of dopamine!

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One Response to Social Media Fulfillment or Just Constant Anticipation of a Reward?

  1. sydhavely says:

    I think you’ve hit on a truly significant attribute of what makes up the social media response, why we seem to have our iPhones umbilically attached. The provide a primordial brain and social response. They trigger something both hormonal and mammalian in us (as you say, rats are vulnerable to the pleasure/reward brain function as we are). Two events come to mind from your post–the reward system of of a guy texting on a boat who misses an incredible whale surfacing two feet from him and the other when Dick Vermeil resigned as Eagles head coach after losing the Super Bowl in ’81 saying he was burnt out, “the highs were no longer high enough and the lows were too low,” he said, his reward system temporarily short-circuited by exhaustion, fatigue, over-work, and depression. Great post, Nikki, and good luck at the NCAA’s.

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