Hormones Matter TM

Is Social Networking as Rewarding as Sex?

July 2, 2012  |  Lisbeth Prifogle


You can learn a lot about someone based on their posts, tweets, updates and other social networking tools. There is the obsessive narrator, “OMG I just had a bagel and boysenberry cream cheese for breakfast,” “I’m in line at the grocery store and I have to pee soooo bad,” “Vacuuming!” Then there are the my-life-is-so-much-cooler-than-it-was-in-high-school-so-now-I-have-to-brag-and-make-it-sound-even-more-amazing-than-it-probably-really-is, “I just went skydiving and now I’m going to a [insert whoever is cool right now] concert!” or “I just met [insert random celebrity] at the airport, OMG!” There are the Debbie-downers, “Ugh, could god punish me any more than he is? I mean seriously, can anything possibly go worse because it’s clearly never going to get better at this point. FML” There are the I’m –so-witty-I’m-going-to-post-clever-comments-that-only-a-handful-of-people-as-clever-as-me-will-understand posters, “Purple penguins tap dance while earth worms snooze in the tantric tundra trampoline park.” And then there are the rest of us who probably do a mix of all of the above.

Why is it so appealing to post random facts or experiences to an online community of hundreds of people you may or may not know? According to a new study conducted by Harvard researchers Diana Tamir and Jason Mitchell, because it feels good.

Have we Forgotten the Tale of Narcissus?

Narcissus needs to make room in his river, because according to this study, “Humans devote 30–40% of speech output solely to informing others of their own subjective experiences” (I can think of a few dates that were overachievers in this department). When online, however, we blow poor Narcissus right back out of the river; research revealed that over 80% of social media posts are “announcements about one’s own immediate experiences.”

I have often commented to friends and family that it is a shame that we have these amazing tools at our fingertips to pass information, start grassroots campaigns, revolutions, truly change the world and while some people/organizations manage to do that, most talk about our favorite subject: ourselves. I have often wondered what the result of social media will be in younger generations who are posted online from the day they are born (be honest – how many of you have posted pictures of your newborns?). It has already drastically changed the world of recruiting and business networking, college and professional schools; can we even imagine what cyberspace will do to dating and marriage? Who knows maybe it will lower the level of divorce if we take a moment to read what our spouse/partner posts about him/herself?

The Same as Sex?!

Perhaps my cynicism of the growing online world is just the cantankerous Luddite in me. Then again, the study found that people would pass up monetary reward in order to talk about themselves (they obviously weren’t as broke as I was in college). It reveals (and headlines have gone wild with this one) “humans so willingly self-disclose because doing so represents an event with intrinsic value, in the same way as with primary rewards such as food and sex.” Furthermore, “Self-disclosure was strongly associated with increased activation in brain regions that form the mesolimbic dopamine system, including the nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmental area.”

Apparently the test subjects have not discovered OMing or the science behind orgasms.

And of course, all snarky comments aside, this study was important to understand the social behaviors and evolution of the society we live in. The researchers concluded:

In an ultimate sense, the tendency to broadcast one’s thoughts and beliefs may confer an adaptive advantage in individuals in a number of ways: by engendering social bonds and social alliances between people; by eliciting feedback from others to attain self- knowledge; by taking advantage of performance advantages that result from sharing one’s sensory experience; or by obviating the need to discover firsthand what others already know, thus expanding the amount of know-how any single person can acquire in a lifetime. As such, the proximate motivation to disclose our internal thoughts and knowledge to others around us may serve to sustain the behaviors that underlie the extreme sociality of our species.
For more information the published results of the study can be found here.