Study: Social media users behave a lot like animals searching for food

Study: Social media users behave a lot like animals searching for food
New research suggests that the addictive quality of likes and comments on social media is similar to the response of rats and mice seeking food rewards for completing tasks. Photo by rawpixel/Pixabay

Feb. 26 (UPI) -- Is that an influencer or a lab rat? New research suggests the two have more in common than one might think.

According to a new paper, published Friday in the journal Nature Communications, the quest for affirmation in the form of likes and followers on major social media platforms follows a pattern of "reward learning" -- a phenomenon typically used to describe animals seeking out food rewards.


"These results establish that social media engagement follows basic, cross-species principles of reward learning," study co-author David Amodio said in a news release.

"These findings may help us understand why social media comes to dominate daily life for many people and provide clues, borrowed from research on reward learning and addiction, to how troubling online engagement may be addressed," said Amodio, a professor at New York University and the University of Amsterdam.

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The world has never been more online and, increasingly, human interactions are mediated by social media platforms.

Critics have complained that social media platforms encourage addictive behavior, compelling users to seek out online engagement and affirmation, while forgoing healthy in-person interaction.

The use of social media has inspired hundreds of studies and social science experiments, but what exactly drives addict-like behavior remains unclear.

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For the latest study, researchers analyzed the posting patterns of some 4,000 users on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites. Specifically, scientists looked at the temporal spacing of more than 1 million posts.

The analysis showed users post more often when the likes are flowing. When affirmation is harder to come by and the likes dry up, users post less frequently.

Researchers used computer models to compare the behavior of social media users to animals seeking food rewards.

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The models revealed strong parallels between social media engagement and the behavioral patterns of rats inside a Skinner Box, an experimental container in which animals perform actions, like pressing various levers, to receive food rewards.

In separate experiments, researchers had volunteers post memes on an Instagram-like platform. As predicted, the users posted more often when they received more likes.

"Our findings can help lead to a better understanding of why social media dominates so many people's daily lives and can also provide leads for ways of tackling excessive online behavior," said lead author Bjorn Lindstrom, assistant professor of behavioral psychology at the University of Amsterdam.

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