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Why Your Brain Thinks You're Scrolling

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Have you ever caught yourself obsessively scrolling for no good reason on social media as if you were hunting for something?  If you have, scientists have an answer for you now:  using social media follows a reward learning pattern which is similar to the same behaviors that animals use to seek the reward of food.

                Researchers from the University of Amsterdam and New York University wanted to dive in deeper to the reason why social media is so addicting.  They believe that through analyzing the behavior of over 4,000 users, they have found that people conform to patterns of posting that correlate to the number of likes the receive.

                When they receive less likes, they post less, and they post more when they receive more attention.  This was then referenced with models that identified the “reward learning” pattern.  The reward learning pattern is most closely exhibited by animals who have learned to maximize their food rewards.  Rats have demonstrated this pattern by learning to interact with buttons and levers that gain them access to the most treats, rather than selecting operations that do not provide as much reward.

                To further test the reward learning pattern hypothesis of social media, the researchers recruited participants to use an experimental platform similar to Instagram where they posted memes or funny pictures.  As suspected, people posted more when they received the most engagements and likes, underscoring that social media is driven by a reward learning pattern.

                As part of the key to understanding what motivates people to use social media, this pattern helps explain why we find ourselves at the mercy of those likes even when we know we shouldn’t be. Now it’s time to find ways to work with this reward learning pattern to help overcome social media dependency and help correct the detrimental self-esteem issues that often accompany it.


Björn Lindström, Martin Bellander, David T. Schultner, et al. A computational reward learning account of social media engagementNature Communications, 2021; 12 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-19607-x


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