A couple of million years ago our days were spent foraging for food and dodging big-toothed beasties. We were programmed for survival; our four primary needs being:
- shelter, and
- relationships – to keep us safe (community) and keep the human race going (procreation).
Consequently, our bodies and brains developed two key systems: a system to avoid harm, and a system to seek pleasure.
These days we’re more likely to be chased by a tax man than a tiger. If there’s not enough food in the fridge we can order take away. And there’s a plethora of opportunities for procreational activities.
Our lives have evolved beyond recognition. Yet our brains’ wiring is still remarkably similar. Structurally, it hasn’t changed much in 40,000 years. And this is what’s causing our social media addiction.
It all comes down to hormones
The system to avoid harm is pretty obvious. The brain is a don’t-get-killed device: when we’re confronted by a fierce creature or scary situation, it readies us for combat or a swift exit – the fight or flight response – by shooting adrenaline and cortisol into our bloodstream. You can see how this was a fine evolutionary device when we were back on the Serengeti: nowadays there’s generally less at stake.
The system to seek pleasure means our ancestors brains were hardwired for novelty and things that stimulated their minds and senses. This released two feel-good opioids into their bloodstreams: dopamine and serotonin. Not only did this reward them by making them feel amazing, it also served an evolutionary purpose. Fatty or sugary food not only tastes great, it’s also nutrient-dense, so their bodies could survive in winter. Sex is fun, so the human race continued. New experiences are exciting, so they continued to travel, discover lands and evolve us into the species we are today.
Of course, trial and error played a big part. This intermittent reward schedule (IRS) meant that even when things didn’t go to plan they could still remember how damn good it felt when they did, so they continued to seek out potentially pleasurable behaviours. As we do today.
Social media addiction works in much the same way.
The need to be part of a tribe
Being part of a community is a crucial element in our evolutionary make up. The lone wildebeest is far more likely to become the lion’s dinner. Life’s safer in a group. That’s why we’re governed by the need to belong, to be part of something. We find clanship in many ways – gaming, art, sports, family, and shared beliefs or interests.
Social platforms and groups provide this sense of belonging. It doesn’t matter if you’re only virtual friends, you’re still in the gang. However, we also need to know our place: this is social comparison theory and it’s about the need to compare and contrast ourselves with others. Much like our ancestors, everyone has a role to play and it’s always better if it’s close to the centre rather than floundering on the edge like the baby gazelle who can’t keep up with the rest of the herd.
So we do what we need to get into and stay in a good position. We use social media to portray ourselves in the best light possible. If we’re successful, we’ll feel great. Every like, comment or share takes us one step closer to that coveted pole position, secreting a little more dopamine and serotonin, making us feel great, helping reinforce our sense of self-worth.
Scrolling scrolling scrolling
Likewise, we scroll through our news feeds for reassurance that a) we’re part of the community and b) we’re maintaining our place.
We’re also seeking out new stuff: interesting titbits of information that reward us with a rush of dopamine.
Much of what we see along the way will be superfluous – no reward, no hormonal hit – but every so often we’ll see something that makes us go, “Yes! I belong! I’m still great!” or “Wow, that’s novel! I can’t wait to share it with my gang!” and lo and behold those addictive little opioids give us that lovely, longed-for rush.
But the euphoria won’t last forever, and once the hormones dissipate we’re desperate for another hit.
So we keep scrolling, commenting, posting and refreshing.
Selling to Neanderthals
Brands can capitalise on this by ensuring they’re feeding the primal brain with interesting, novel, relevant or exciting updates. Posts that make our inner addict sit up and listen. Posts that make us feel a valued part of the community, that give us the high we’re craving.
Which ones get the most interaction or garner the most responses? They’ll almost always be those that stimulate our ancestral desires.
Perhaps the news you’re delivering isn’t so good: fear-inducing updates will grab attention, shoot out the stress hormones and pretty much guarantee action will be taken (unless your readers run), but you’ll need to balance the adrenaline with a big hit of the good stuff in order to keep them coming back for more.
Because, if your audience subconsciously equates your brand with feeling good, it’ll be more inclined to continue engaging with your updates, recommending your brand and spreading the word.
Put that iPhone down
Yet, we’re not designed for constant brain chemical bombardment. It’s overwhelming us. We’re busier and unhappier than ever before. There’s too much stimulation. We’re overwhelmed by choice.
Social media’s intermittent reward schedule is similar to gambling. It’s a legal high. And with all the stimuli surrounding us on a daily basis, it’s hardly any wonder we’re addicted. Our brains are to blame for all that time we spend on Facebook when we’re supposed to be working, for the onset of RSI in our thumbs. It’s not our fault.
The solution? Drop the device. Go outside. Take a moment to sit and enjoy the life uninterrupted. Settle those hormones and quiet the mind.
You’ll feel fantastic for it.
Just as soon as you write one more witty update.