Social Media Is Making Us Behave Like Rats, According to Study

If you find yourself posting more and more content on Instagram because of the "likes" you receive, that's because your brain is apparently being conditioned to behave like that of a rat seeking food. At least, those are the findings of a new study conducted by an international team of scientists.

Rat computer
Is social media making us behave like rats? Getty

Using a computational model, the scientists found a direct correlation between the frequency with which a person posts and how many "likes" their posts receive. In a paper recently published in the science journal Nature Communications, the team likens this behavior to the food reward-based behavior seen in rats in a Skinner Box. Developed by the scientist B.F. Skinner in the early 20th century, the Skinner Box, or "operant conditioning chamber," is a tool that studies classic conditioning. It's a variation of a puzzle box that rewards a small animal—often a rat—in experiments with food when it performs certain tasks, like pressing a lever. In the new study's scenario, the Skinner Box is the internet, the lever is posting something like a popular meme or funny comment, and humans are the rats.

"When you post something, you're excited about getting 'likes' from other people. With more 'likes,' the better you feel about it, and perhaps the more likely you are to post again," Dr. David Amodio, a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University, said to Newsweek. Dr. Amodio is also a professor of social psychology at the University of Amsterdam, and the Director of the Social Neuroscience Laboratory at Amodio Lab. That lab is where the study began when the paper's lead author, Björn Lindström, hypothesized the link between social media and reward learning.

"We worked on the study off and [on] across two years, from conception to final results. The real conceptual breakthroughs—developing the computational model and having the first results—happened across a couple of intense months in the winter and spring of 2019," Björn Lindström told Newsweek via email, in reference to the laborious and time-consuming research involved. "We developed the experimental study about a year later, in order to verify the causal relationship (that likes actually drive posting), and wrote up the manuscript about the same time."

Joining Amodio and Lindström on the study were the University of Amsterdam's David Schultner, Martin Bellander of Sweden's Karolinska Institute, Boston University's Allen Chang and the University of Zurich's Philippe Tobler. They began by analyzing a data set comprised of more than one million posts from around 2,000 Instagram users, along with approximately 2,000 more users from various online forums. They then brought in 176 participants for the experimental study. These participants used an online environment designed to mimic Instagram. They could post memes and other content, while interacting to both receive and give "likes."

"We manipulated, unbeknownst to the participants, whether they were getting a high rate of 'likes' or a low rate," Dr. Amodio explained. "What we found was when they received the higher rate of 'likes,' they posted more often."

So, what does all this mean? Is social media devolving us to the point where our brains will eventually be indistinguishable from rodents? Dr. Amodio notes, their study's purpose wasn't designed to label the results.

"The work itself doesn't attempt to describe any negative effects," he said. Instead, he hopes other researchers will use the work as a tool when looking into social media's potentially harmful consequences. "I think it will provide theoretical links to psychological and neural mechanisms of reward processing. That will help clinicians to understand maladaptive online behaviors."

Lindström speculated a little further. He wrote in an email, "It is possible that because rewards ('likes') on social media are so readily quantifiable compared to offline social rewards, some social media users might come to be disappointed by the lack of clear rewards provided offline and as a consequence prioritize online environments."

In other words, particularly zealous fans of social media may find themselves preferring to stay inside a cyber Skinner Box.