Lots of studies have worked toward figuring out what exactly goes on in our brains when we’re participating in social media—specifically, Facebook.
A recent one discovered a strong connection between Facebook and the brain’s reward center, called the nucleus accumbens. This area processes rewarding feelings about things like food, sex, money and social acceptance.
When we get positive feedback on Facebook, the feeling lights up this part of our brain. The greater the intensity of our Facebook use, the greater the reward.
Another fascinating study recorded physiological reactions like pupil dilation in volunteers as they looked at their Facebook accounts to find that browsing Facebook can evoke what they call flow state, the feeling you get when you’re totally and happily engrossed in a project or new skill.
Why we “like:” Identity, empathy and practicality
Perhaps the most easily recognised currency of Facebook is the “like.”
According to Facebook:
“Like” is a way to give positive feedback or to connect with things you care about on Facebook. You can like content that your friends post to give them feedback or like a Page that you want to connect with on Facebook.
When the Pew Research Center surveyed thousands of Americans about their social media lives, they discovered that 44% of Facebook users “like” content posted by their friends at least once a day, with 29% doing so several times per day.
So what makes us like, or not like, a particular status, photo or page? Is there a method to liking? Here are some reasons why we like:
It’s a quick and easy nod
Maybe the easiest way to figure out what the like means to us is to stop using it. That’s what Elan Morgan did in a 2-week experiment she chronicled on Medium. Here’s what she discovered:
“The Like is the wordless nod of support in a loud room. It’s the easiest of yesses, I-agrees, and me-toos. I actually felt pangs of guilt over not liking some updates, as though the absence of my particular Like would translate as a disapproval or a withholding of affection. I felt as though my ability to communicate had been somehow hobbled. The Like function has saved me so much comment-typing over the years that I likely could have written a very quippy, War-and-Peace-length novel by now.”
To affirm something about ourselves
One element of Facebook that we may not realize is how often we use the Like to affirm something about ourselves. In a study of more than 58,000 people who made their likes public through a Facebook app, researchers discovered that Likes could predict a number of identification traits that users had not disclosed:
“Feeding people’s “likes” into an algorithm, information hidden in the lists of favorites predicted whether someone was white or African American with 95% accuracy, whether they were a gay male with 88% accuracy, and even identified participants as a Democrat or Republican with 85% accuracy. The ‘likes’ list predicted gender with 93% accuracy and age could be reliably determined 75% of the time.”
To express virtual empathy
And sometimes we like in order to show solidarity or unity with a friend or acquaintance and their way of thinking. Social media can be a way of gaining “virtual empathy”—and that empathy can have real-world implications.
A study reported in Psychology Today showed that spending more time using social networks and engaging in instant message chats predicted more ability to be virtual empathic and that virtual empathy was a good indicator of being able to express real-world empathy.
Because it’s practical/we’ll get something in return
When it comes to how we choose to like brands and companies, the motivation is a bit simpler. A Syncapse study found that most people seem to make these decision based on practical reasons, like wanting to receive coupons and regular updates from companies they like.