Monday, October 5, 2015

This is your brain on Facebook.

Social media has revolutionized the way we communicate with one another. Part of the tremendous success of social media platforms, such as Facebook, is that it enables individuals to receive rapid social feedback which is highly rewarding. There is a complex neural network in the human brain that responds to rewards. In particular, the nucleus accumbens is a structure in the brain that has repeatedly been identified as the neural structure that processes rewards that motivate human behavior such as food and money. In fact, the magnitude of activation of this brain structure when viewing photos of food will predict how much a person eats. However, there has long been a debate about whether primary biological needs such as food are motivated by the same neural networks that motivate social needs.

In order to better understand how our brain processes social rewards, a team of psychological scientists from the Freie University in Berlin, Germany conducted a study examining how the brain responds to social and monetary rewards. To do this, the team recruited 31 young adults (ages 19-31). These individuals came into the lab twice. First, they completed a questionnaire describing their regular use of Facebook, including questions about how many friends they have, how many minutes per day they spend on Facebook, and how connected they feel to Facebook. Then, participants were asked to participate in a 15 minute video interview. During this interview the participants briefly introduced themselves, then answered questions such as "Do you like living in Berlin?" and "Please pick one problem facing modern German society and briefly state your opinion on the matter." and "Please think of a creative work, such as a film, book, song or artwork. What is it and why do you like it?" The participants were told that their videos would be evaluated by 10 independent reviewers.

A few weeks later, participants returned to the lab for a brain scan, or fMRI. During this scan, the participants completed two tasks. In the first task, they played a random money game where there were three boxes on a computer screen, A, B, and C. Each box had a different value associated with it. The participant chose a box, and then were told how much money they won. The game required no skill or learning, each value was randomly assigned to a box during each trial, and the research team was only interested in the activation of reward structures in the brain when they saw how much money they won on each trial. In the other task, the participant saw series of photos of either themselves or another individual. In the task they were to indicate whether the photo was their own, or of someone else. Then a word was displayed under the photo. The participants were told that these words were used by the reviewers of their video to describe them. Some of the words were highly positive and complimentary, while others were not. In this task, the research team was interested in the activation of reward structures in the brain when they saw highly positive words about themselves.

They found that the nucleus accumbens activated both when the participant won the most money and when the participant received a positive word describing them. They also found that the magnitude of activation in response to positive social feedback predicted how much the participant used Facebook, while the magnitude of response to winning money did not. For neuroscience nerds like me, this is quite interesting because it shows that the nucleus accumbens responds differently to different types of rewards and stands is opposition to arguments that a reward is a reward is a reward.

The results of this study can be interpreted in a couple of different ways. These data definitely show that, for the average person, positive social feedback activates the neural structure that responds to reward and motivates future behavior, the nucleus accumbens. Further, the activation of this structure in response to social feedback predicted how much the participants used and were connected to Facebook. This is important because it means that any person running a business can benefit from the neural salience of social reward. In the example of Facebook, the masses show their approval by "liking" what others do. More likes = better e-reputation = happier social brain. Another interpretation of the present study's data is that some people are more sensitive to social feedback than others, that sensitivity is rooted in the functioning of the nucleus accumbens, and people who are sensitive to social feedback use Facebook more than those who are not. Either way, we as a field are learning every day, with every new study, how important the social world is to our neurobiology.

Unfortunately, this study is largely limited by issues of causality. Receiving social feedback doesn't cause Facebook use, and also the authors don't directly address comparisons between neural responses to monetary versus social rewards. Wouldn't it be fascinating if someone were to tackle the important marketing question of whether attention or money was more effective as a business strategy. For example, would the average customer prefer 10% off products or 10% more likes on everything they post on social media. This study might suggest that in this digital world, likes might be more valuable than a dollar.


Meshi, D., Morawetz, C., & Heekeren, H. R. (2013). Nucleus accumbens response to gains in reputation for the self relative to gains for others predicts social media use. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 7.

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