The Reason Why Social Media Makes Us Act Like Rats

The more a person posts on social media, the more they're behaving like rats looking for food.
Fabienne Lang

A recent study explains that humans who post on social media are conditioning their brains to seek the same rewarding feeling that rats get when they search for food. 

The international team of scientists used a computational model that helped them discover the direct correlation between the number of times a person posts on social media and the amount of "likes" they receive.

The team then compared this to how rats behave when they're searching for food, and being rewarded with that food. Their study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

The scientists' research paves the way for further studies on how social media may be harmful for people's mental health.

How the team linked rats and humans on social media

The two-year-long study saw the researchers analyze a data set of over one million posts from some 2,000 Instagram users, as well as around 2,000 posts from other social media sites. 

Then, 176 volunteers for the study used an online platform that mimicked Instagram's system, posting content and interacting with each other on the site to "like" and be "liked" in return. The researchers manipulated the rates of "likes," unbeknownst to the volunteers.

What the team discovered was that when participants received a higher amount of positive feedback from their posts, they were more likely to post more regularly. 

The reason this behavior is likened to rats is because of how the rodents behave when in a Skinner Box. Created in the 20th century by scientist B.F. Skinner, the box is a tool used to study classic conditioning.

It works by rewarding rats in the box with food after they've performed tasks, such as pressing down a lever.

In the case of humans, the Skinner Box is the internet, the lever is the posting of photos or memes, the reward is the "likes," and the humans are the rats. 

It's a bit of a painful comparison, being likened to a rat, but the sentiment is in the right place. 

The team does point out, however, that their study isn't meant to say humans and rats are the same, or that humans who post on social media are suffering negative effects.

What it does hope to do is pave a path for future studies on the topic of how using social media may potentially cause harm to its users. 

"I think it will provide theoretical links to psychological and neural mechanisms of reward processing. That will help clinicians to understand maladaptive online behaviors," explained Dr. David Amodio, Director of the Social Neuroscience Laboratory at Amodio Lab where the study began, told Newsweek.

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