In early August 2007 I wrote a post called My Thoughts On Facebook in which I outlined why I had deleted my account.
I reactivated my account a few months later and engaged in the social media world to a certain degree for about 8 years. I stopped posting to Facebook a couple of years ago when I became aware of how the platform made me feel – mostly crappy – after taking an inventory of how my day to day actions were contributing to my sense of well-being. For the record, I do not blame Facebook for my actions nor do I hold them accountable for how I interacted with the site. I was always free to act otherwise and they did not evolve the brain chemistry that makes the quest for “likes” so addictive.
When it got right down to it, I had to answer the questions “why am I doing what I am doing?” and “should I continue to do what I have been doing?”
Many of the people I know use Facebook for the reasons it was created – to stay in contact with other people in a way that gives them control of when and how deeply they get involved. They are busy and finding the time to meet up with friends is tough and usually unnecessary. Most of the connections serve to download whatever updates are needed just to make sure nothing important slips through the cracks, and this is what Facebook is really good for. It’s a semi interactive medium that allows all of our friends to read whatever they feel like that we are inclined to share. “Here’s pictures of a wedding, a vacation, a child’s concert performance, a cat video I found funny, etc….”
This is something that I still use it for, except I don’t post anything about my own life any more. My wife tags me in pictures and that is about it. I’m happy to stay up to date with the on goings of people I know, and I’m honestly happy that their lives are progressing as lives do. Those people have the opportunity to see where I have been with Heather, which is about all I do that I think is worth sharing – here I am with my favorite person doing something we decided to do, planned out, and made happen.
My problem with Facebook, and I literally mean my problem with it in terms of me judging myself, is that it plays on the most insecure parts of my personality. I had found myself posting for “likes” and then feeling good or bad depending upon the responses of other people.
After my dad died, I was a little lost and set about posting a lot in an attempt to generate some sense of belonging or connection. At the time I knew what I was doing and was fine with giving a few months to it because I felt so aimless. It’s hard to say if it served that purpose given that human beings move through grief and maybe I would have felt better anyway but I’m willing to be charitable and say that in the months following his passing that Facebook did afford me the opportunity to reach out and engage the world in a way that contributed to the rebuilding of my happiness. And if it had ended there I think I would still be active on the platform.
It was my quest for “likes” that I identified as problematic; specifically, the transactional rules I had manufactured that governed my engagement. On the face of it there shouldn’t be any complexity here. Posting a quote that I found that was interesting or a thought that I had that I believed was inspirational are not a cause for sadness or social turmoil, and for a lot of people these things are one and done. Socially well-adjusted people will either post the things and deal with whatever comes of them, having no emotional response one way or the other along with no need for a particular response, or else they will just not post them because none of it matters all that much. I was not one of those people. I noticed myself considering “likes” as a growing part of my life. It wasn’t enough for me to get a kick out of reading something or having an interesting thought, I needed OTHER people to get the same kick or acknowledge a kick of sorts. In the very lamest sense, the quote or the idea was not the source of joy that it once had been, the reward came from other people liking or commenting. And the moment I noticed myself deleting posts that didn’t do either of these two things I realized that I had crossed some boundary into the realm of behavior that wasn’t working for me in terms of happiness.
I don’t recall the date, but I recall the moment when it dawned on me that my behavior was not what I wanted or needed it to be. When you hear yourself think “okay, that didn’t work, I have to delete it so people don’t know that it was there” and watch your hand click “delete post” a switch has flipped. Again, I don’t blame anyone but myself nor do I believe that most people develop the same maladaptive behavior. It was me and that is all I am talking about here.
There is NO reason why my happiness should depend upon the decision other people make to check a “like” button about my musings UNLESS I had conditioned my brain to respond that way. Given that relying on other people for anything, let alone actions that will lead to my happiness, is a pointless exercise that leads to unhappiness and resentment, along with it being the effective non consensual enrollment of other people in a contract they don’t even know exists, the question had to be asked, “what the hell was I doing?”
That is much more interesting, and something that I would not have taken the time to figure out had I remained engage in the pursuit of approval on social media. In fact, my life changed directions the moment I asked that question.
Why do people do the things that they do? The superficial answer to that question is usually going to be a post hoc rationale for an action. This is fine when that is the actual reason for doing something. But how often is that?
Not very often. The truth of the matter is that we don’t actually have to do most of the things that we do – there is no compelling or life preserving reason to participate in nearly every social interaction we engage in. Most of our communication is pointless in terms of it doing anything useful. It is made up of talking about things that don’t matter, about people, about how things that are as opposed to how we engineer them to be, back stabbing, or conversations about subjects that we don’t know anything about and cannot contribute to. With the exception of work and child rearing, how many of your thoughts, internal or said out loud, make a difference? Do any of them change anything? If so, which ones and why? And of all that remain, why did you think and then say them out loud?
I’m more than willing to create a bucket called “thinking out loud” to throw these pointless utterances into because thinking is a complex thing and sometimes the physical matter we add to a thought by saying it out loud gives it an energy that makes it actually real / useful when trying to uncover the truth of something. A lot of what I say is actually an attempt to think; in much the same way that my writing is a way of thinking. Writing is better than speaking for this because the words have a much longer half-life and the ability to reread them causes them to be more “real” – both have an impact on the objective world in so far as each takes brain activity and converts it into something with more mass – air and sound waves with talking and physical movement that creates a visual representation of the thought – which give us an opportunity externalize the stimuli and receive it as though it is coming from outside of us.
So with the exception of communication from these three categories – child rearing, work, and thinking – what is the point of the rest? I’ll maintain that there really isn’t one, at least not one that can universally be viewed as helpful. Most of what remains will be in the realm of useless speak or back biting, that serves as validation that we are alive, worthwhile, and connected to other people or to make us feel more secure in our connection with other people by denigrating those who are not there to defend themselves.
My Facebook quest for likes satisfied this. I wanted to feel connected to others and worthwhile and relied on the influx of “likes” as proof of these things. When the likes didn’t come, didn’t come quickly enough, or were not in the numbers I wanted, my quest was not satisfied. The experience is not a flat emotional experience. Getting the likes was rewarding – I had trained my brain to release reward chemicals in response to them. Initially a like was all that was needed, but over time it needed to be more than one and by the time I found that I wasn’t feeling good about being on Facebook the likes needed to arrive very close to the time of posting and needed to cross a threshold number within a certain time frame. Let’s say they needed to start within 10 minutes and needed to hit 10% of my friends list within 4 hours. A post that was liked by 2% didn’t give me what I was looking for, and instead of feeling like nothing, it felt like the absence of something good.
This should sound very similar to addiction, particularly what you might have read about cocaine addiction. Everyone who takes the drug reports that they feel at least good but probably fantastic the first few times they take it. And of course they do, it stimulates the release of dopamine, among other things, which is one of the primary reward chemicals the brain releases. Under non drug situations, the release of dopamine is associated with a change in the internal environment that is perceived as the occurrence of a conditioned stimulus. In learning theory, classical conditioning is the learning that occurs when a reward is closely paired in time with a stimuli that is benign (not innately rewarding). The result of this pairing is that the reward will be released when the stimuli is experienced. Pavlov uncovered this type of learning when he noticed that dogs began to salivate when they heard the sounds that preceded their daily feeding. Since the salivation occurred before the food was given, he realized that the reward was not required to trigger the behavior. The language around the entire thing can be slightly confusing but the conditioning process is real and the discovery shined a big light on what was going on in the brain. What was actually going on became less important than what the animal believed was going on – the raw sensory data mattered less than how the brain interpreted the raw sensory data.
My addiction to likes is a version of this that only differs in terms of the complexity of the perceptions – the unconscious meaning that I was putting on likes. Almost all of the learning happened unconsciously and without my awareness. I think I liked the feeling of social validation and approval although there was nothing intrinsically rewarding with seeing a thumbs up icon appear, or a larger and larger number appearing to the right of it. This was simply visual information. The heavy lifting was being done by unconscious thought processes that extracted / manufactured the meaning. The release of reward chemicals was also done unconsciously and based on the output of a process that interpreted the likes as social validation. None of this was anything that I was aware of as it was happening and it only became obvious months or years later when NOT getting the likes as quickly as I wanted them created a negative experience.
Again, NOT getting likes isn’t a thing that actually exists. However the brain is able to interpret the absence of something as a negative when it has learned to expect something positive. The lack of likes did not trigger the release of dopamine. Since my brain expected this reward, not getting it was experienced as a negative.
The big upside to “likes” addiction when compared to drug addiction is that you only experience the negative withdrawal symptoms when an anticipated reward is received. When I stopped posting, nothing changed other than the elimination of some rewards and some negative experiences when my posts were not received the way I was anticipating. I did not notice the times when I did not get rewarded and did not NOT get rewarded. This is very different from cocaine which is reported as one of the toughest drugs to withdraw from.
Understanding this process is important for a few reasons. When we introduce an exogenous chemical that triggers the release of reward chemicals, our body starts to down regulate the production of the impacted reward chemical because it tries to maintain homeostasis. With Cocaine and dopamine, each person has a natural level of dopamine inside the reward centers of their brain. When they take cocaine, the concentration of dopamine increases. Initially, this will feel great, but since the increase pushes levels above the upper threshold of what is natural, the body adapts by decreasing dopamine production to restore homeostasis. If, which isn’t usually the case, the person does not increase their cocaine consumption, their brain will find a level of dopamine production that reflects the normal level. They won’t feel high anymore, just normal. This is called tolerance and it is the manifestation of the brains attempt to keep things within a very specific level of operation. If the cocaine is stopped, the brains decreased dopamine production will result in a lower than normal level of dopamine which will be experienced as a negative by the person.
Dopamine and other naturally occurring reward chemicals are considered action creating or action promoting because they will motivate the person to take whatever action they have paired as the conditioned stimulus. In my case it was the quest for “likes” but in the case of a cocaine user it will be drug seeking and taking behavior. The reason why my quitting Facebook cold turkey did not cause me any withdrawal was because I hadn’t done anything to down regulate my natural dopamine production. My brain was operating as it naturally did. It manufactured the normal amount of dopamine and released it in response to the things it had been conditioned to release it to. The only tolerance that had occurred was the learned tolerance to the number, frequency and speed of “likes.” My brain was doing what it always was doing and that is to grow accustomed to rewards in so far as to grow the magnitude of the stimuli that was required to trigger the release of the dopamine.
This is different from chemical tolerance because my brain was still capable of manufacturing and releasing a normal quantity of dopamine. It just doesn’t do it in response to the same amount of stimuli as before. It is a type of behavioral tolerance or stimuli tolerance – it is completely perceptual and based off of brain activity. Chemical tolerance is the brain changing how it functions to reduce the amount of the dopamine that is manufactured. It has nothing to do with perception (mental activity) and is a completely biological response to changes in the physical internal environment.
The other reason why it is important to get a good understanding of the Pavlovian conditioning of reward activation to perception is that it reveals a lot about how human beings find themselves locked into acting in ways that do not objectively reflect their best interests. I am grateful that I set about trying to get likes only to find that there was a growing need for them in order to experience whatever positive outcome I was getting. Had I not journeyed down this path it might have taken me a lot longer to notice what was going on and, therefore, what had always been going on. It was just very easy to notice the changes in my response given the immediacy of things that happen on the Internet.
It is fair to say that my brain operates in more or less the same way as everyone else’s brain, which is more or less the same way that every brain has operated for millions of years. Not that pre-modern man thought about getting “likes,” just that they had a brain that would release reward chemicals in response to things that it wanted to repeat; in the same way a dog’s brain gets it to do the things that preceded a reward before. This is both exceptionally simple and remarkably powerful.
Much of its power comes from the fact that it is both unconscious and automatic and this renders us almost completely incapable of stopping it. The opposite is not true, we CAN consciously impact it – we have the ability to teach our brains that any benign or neutral stimuli is rewarding simply by rewarding / triggering a reward within close temporal proximity to the stimuli. In fact, given our power of perception and our ability to have conscious thought, there is almost NO limit to what we can condition our brains to believe is rewarding because the idea of future reward serves as a sufficient proxy for actual reward. We can learn to delay gratification almost indefinitely so long as our brain has sufficient experience with finally receiving a reward for something that it delayed.
There is a lot of talk about the marshmallow experiment that deals with delaying reward. The initial reports from the study seemed to reveal that children who were able to delay gratification at an early age were able to carry this ability with them into adulthood and, as a consequence, had better behavioral outcomes. Children at a particular age were given the choice of one marshmallow now or two marshmallows in 5 minutes. Some of the children would just eat the marshmallow immediately while others would hold off for the larger reward later. Children in the second group were said to have the ability to delay gratification and were viewed to have better impulse control and they appeared to have fewer behavioral issues later in life. The narrative here makes sense, but subsequent studies reveal a more detailed picture that isn’t as cut and dry.
Children who were able to delay gratification could very easily be flipped into non-delayers if during the initial trial their waiting was not rewarded with the promised larger reward. This is an important finding because it complicates things dramatically. The researchers did not have control or complete knowledge of everything that happened before the study. While it might seem that some children were incapable of delaying gratification, it is possible that they had just learned that there is no such thing as delaying gratification based on their previous experience. If a reward is available now and a greater potential reward might be available later if they wait, experience has shown them that there never is a greater future reward, there is only a reward now or no reward at all.
The brain will reach a particular age that context will begin to factor into things meaning that a child of a particular age won’t be flipped into an immediate gratification seeker by a dishonest actor and will simply identify the dishonest actor as being someone who cannot be trusted. This means that there is an age / maturity threshold at which point the brain will be able to parse the context for specific information that will allow them to make a tight rule about who cannot be trusted vs. a general rule that no one can be trusted. It would not surprise me that, before this age, the dishonesty of a primary care giver would have a catastrophic effect on the long term trust strategies developed by a child.
All of this is said to explain that rewards are not a simple topic or that the rules that apply to dogs necessarily apply to humans. The larger the brain, the more complicated and robust the rules can be. And as an individual gains more experience and forms more long term memories, these rules can be shaped by things that are not real, have never happened, and are not even in the realm of possibility.
This is where Facebook and my quest for “likes” was given room to grow. Social acceptance is a thing that human beings are coded to identify and something that we likely find rewarding. The initial rewards may not be dopamine fueled, but it would stand to reason that they would be sooner or later. Once that happens, dopamine will be released in response to any form of perceived social validation coming from any perceived source. And after my brain got used to getting it, it would begin to need more and more of it in order to trigger the reward. This is why I started to dislike my time on Facebook and why I found getting off of it to be a positive. There was no withdrawal, just the creation of freedom as I no longer felt the drive to think up something profound to post in an attempt to harvest “likes.”
From what I gather, I am not alone in finding the potentially rewarding nature of Facebook likes to be more than a little disruptive to the day to day experience of being alive. Most of the social media sites have altered their business model to become attention capturing and holding over something else. People who are a lot smarter than me are working on the problem of how to keep people engaged with the sites / platform by stoking whatever emotional triggers serve to hold their attention most tightly. They don’t care about doing good or about helping people make the most of their time on the planet. They care about keeping users attention while generating as many clicks as possible. Social validation, outrage, humor, in-group / out-group thinking, etc….. it doesn’t matter. The attention of potential users is what is critical because this is what they will use to generate money.
I don’t blame Facebook or other social media platforms. It isn’t their fault they have figured out that third party companies will pay them a lot of money if users remain connected to the platform. And it isn’t their fault that they have figured out the way that peoples brains work and are using it to generate a lot of money. I’m kind of grateful actually. As much as it might seem like it was a big waste of time, I wouldn’t have taken the time to figure out what I was doing or why I was feeling the way I was had I not had the opportunity to do those things and feel that way. Facebook actually helped me wake-up to what was going on in my brain by forcing me to ask some very important questions.
Why do I do what I do? Well I don’t know, but at least some of the time I know it is for the dopamine. The rest of it, maybe because it makes me angry or outraged, maybe because it once got me something I thought I liked, and maybe because I’m not all that different from the rest of the living beings on the planet and do what I have done before and just normalized.
I have no idea what role Facebook and other social media platforms will play in my future but I’m pretty certain that I’m going to have a better idea of how they are trying to get me to do it. And I think that is actually a lot more fun and interesting than anything else. Knowing and accepting that I am the product and the fuel in their business model gives me a lot more control of how mindfully I engage it, and in setting the limits of what I’m willing to do and for how long.