What really drives our behaviour on social media? Every day, people can spend several hours scrolling through content on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others, despite any negative effects. 

In an attempt to answer this question, a study led by Björn Lindström from the University of Amsterdam examines whether social media engagement is a form of reward learning. Reward learning is a concept which suggests that an increase in a reward decreases the amount of time between actions that precede the reward. This study was published in Nature Communications on February 26, 2021. 

On the importance of this study and how it can help people, Lindström told ScienceDaily, “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.” 

There have already been several studies that liken the number of likes a post receives to a reward mechanism. The number of likes a person’s post receives can affect how they feel about that post. People increase the time they spend on a social media site after posting, possibly anticipating a reward (i.e., more likes). People are also more willing to engage with other people’s posts after others engage with their posts. All these findings suggest a relationship between social media and a reward mechanism. 

The researchers analyzed over one million posts from over 4000 people on a variety of social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. They found a relationship between the number of likes posts received and how frequently people posted: if a person’s posts received more likes, they posted more often. If their posts received fewer likes, they posted less often. Through computational models, Lindström found that this pattern resembles reward learning, which is also a process non-human animals such as rats use to obtain the maximum amount of food in the Skinner box. The Skinner box is an experiment during which an animal has to perform an action to obtain food.  

“These results establish that social media engagement follows basic, cross-species principles of reward learning,” said David Amodio, one of the coauthors of the study from the University of Amsterdam and New York University.

To support their findings, the researchers experimented with an online platform similar to Instagram, with 176 participants. People could post memes and like other posts. They found that on average, people who received more likes on their posts posted more frequently.

In the study, the researchers note in their paper that “naturally, there are many possible reasons for posting on social media in addition to reward seeking, ranging from self-expression to relational development. While our research focused on how social rewards explain behavior, it does not preclude the potentially important roles of other motivations.”“These findings may help us understand why social media comes to dominate daily life for many people,” said Amodio, “and provide clues, borrowed from research on reward learning and addiction, to how troubling online engagement may be addressed.”

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