Can We Avoid the Feedback Loop of Social Media?

feedback-loop-social-mediaA few recent news items involving Facebook got me thinking about the effects of social media on professionalism. Perhaps some of these problems are related to social-validation or dopamine-driven “feedback loops.”

Social Media Exploits Weakness in Human Psyche

Last month, two former Facebook executives disavowed the virtues of social media and condemned the work of Facebook as damaging to our brains.

Former Facebook president Sean Parker expressed fears over what the social network is “doing to our children’s brains.” It was developed to be addictive, he stated, describing Facebook as a “social-validation feedback loop” that exploited weaknesses in the human psyche.

Chamath Palihapitiya, who left Facebook some six years ago, blasted social media as undermining the ethics and civility of our society.  The quote that has been making the rounds is:

The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse. No cooperation. Misinformation. Mistruth. And it’s not an American problem. This is not about Russian ads. This is a global problem. So we are in a really bad state of affairs right now, in my opinion.

Too Much of A Good Thing?

Palihapitiya also said that people building Facebook in the early days knew in the back of their minds that the platform could be abused, but ignored their instincts.

“I feel tremendous guilt,” Palihapitiya said. “In the back, deep, deep recesses of our mind, we kind of knew something bad could happen.”

It’s as if the former Facebook execs already knew about the announcement that came out last week. Facebook announced a new app for the 6-12 year old set: Messenger Kids. The rationale essentially is that most children in this age group were already online. They were just using devices meant for older people. Messenger Kids, however, would give parents more control.

(Most social media sites prohibit the under age 13 set from using their services due to the cost and work involved in complying with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act which prescribes what an operator must do to protect children’s privacy and how to seek verifiable consent from a parent or guardian.)

Social Media Activates The Neurotransmitter Dopamine

So what exactly is the social media effect on the brain? Social media, like many social stimuli, activates that part of the brain that perceives reward reinforcement, the neurotransmitter dopamine.

Mauricio Delgado, associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J., says “The same brain areas [that are activated for food and water] are activated for social stimuli. This can be a smile, someone telling you you’re doing a great job or you’re trustworthy, or you’re a nice person, or even merely cooperating with somebody. All of these social ‘reinforcers’ are abstract but show similar activity in the reward centers of the brain. This suggests that, perhaps, if you’re getting positive feedback in social media – ‘likes’ and shares and retweets – it’s a positive ‘reinforcer’ of using social media, and one that allows you to, a.) get the positive effects of it, and, b.) return to it out seeking more social reinforcement.”

You don’t actually have to go through the physical action of clicking “like” to feel the rush, Delgado explained. Often the anticipation, such as the sound of your phone buzzing, will provide a dopamine rush that causes you to check out the outcome, to see what it is. That type of reinforcement is something that you come to seek out. And when you share those things that naturally give you a dopamine kick – your workout, a dinner date – you get a second shot of dopamine from the sharing and “liking” aspect. “It’s a daisy chain of dopamine,” says Prof. Delgado.

Further, because dopamine is tied to anticipation more than reward, when anticipation is met with disappointment, the brain learns to refrain from engaging with that content. Dopamine codes a prediction error when a reward is better or worse than expected. If the outcome doesn’t match the anticipation, then that’s going to impact how you encounter that condition the next time around. It’s called reinforcement learning.

Be Intentional When Using Social Media

So there may be a biological reason behind the tendency people have to seek out content that reinforces their current worldview. We refrain from engaging with content that does not meet our expectations because we don’t want to be disappointed. But we “like” and share content that gives us a high.

I guess the takeaway here is that we should be aware of this reinforcement learning. And to counteract its power, we should intentionally expose ourselves to content that we don’t necessarily anticipate we will like or want to share. Such a purposeful task may be doable for adults, but can we expect our children to grasp such an exercise?

Perhaps then we will force ourselves to expand our thinking instead of merely reinforcing it. We need to be open in order to problem solve. Life is too complicated for us to be caught in a feedback loop.

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Jayne Reardon
As a prior trial lawyer, Jayne leads lawyers to embrace the transformative possibilities of future law practice. As a prior disciplinary counsel, Jayne is passionate about promoting the core values of the legal profession. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and the University of Notre Dame. Jayne lives in Park Ridge, Illinois with her husband and those of her four children who are not otherwise living in college towns and beyond.
Jayne Reardon

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