Since beginning this blog about a month ago — Visions of a Noble Prize for Blogging dancing in my head! They’ve got one of those, right? — I’ve noticed that one of my greatest motivators is checking my stats. I loved seeing the countries light up in varying colors, the number of visitors and views increase, and the sources that my visitors found me by. I was always super disappointed when those numbers didn’t move and sought ways to attract more visitors to my blog. After all, this blog is a community service! (Let me know in the comments about your experiences with social media and those little alerts about interacting with other people out there somewhere in the ethers and nethers of the InterWebz!)
It wasn’t until reading Wendy Weir‘s blog entry, My Facebook Life, on her sensitive and insightful blog, Greater Than Gravity, that I realized I had had a similar experience when I first started on Facebook. Okay, it continues to this day. There is no greater thrill than seeing the little numbers of notifications, messages, or friend requests when you’re checking in to Facebook. And, let’s face it, I leave Facebook open all day, so I can respond as soon as that little number shows up on the tab! Does that make me a social media slut? Sadly, I guess so.
I was so proud of my blog when I first started writing it that I would post links on discussion forums. This really worked well for driving visitors. But, then some unhappy person posted a comment requesting moderation because “blog whoring” was against the rules. Although, I never heard from the moderator, I apologized to the forum and quit the practice.
Such an ugly term, blog whoring. People can be so cruel. I much prefer the gentile and sophisticated, pimping my blog.
But, all of this got me to thinking about the psychology behind this sort of obsessive checking and re-checking that so many of us using social media seem to do. Our entire lives begin to revolve around the post, responses to the posts, and the next post. And, what a perfect storm when you could have a dialogue with someone!
Reward Circuit LIES!
My first thought was the reward circuit and dopamine, the love molecule. It had to be that every time I saw one of those indicators increase, I got a little spritz of dopamine in my reward circuit, and it felt so good that I wanted more more more!
But, that is wrong. The brain is ridiculously complex. Ridiculously. 100 billion neurons. 100 trillion connections between those neurons. Nothing in the known universe is as sophisticated as the human brain. Forget the Jeopardy champion computer. Forget Big Blue. Forget all them computers that can out do us. Know why? They ain’t got what we got. They ain’t three pounds. They ain’t self cooling. They ain’t mobile. They ain’t self powering. One day, one imagines, a computer might be, but until that day, the human brain is the pinnacle of evolution the crown of creation.
To really get this, we need a deep dive into the brain. You’re gonna need an aqualung unlessin’ you’re one of those Chejudo pearl diving ladies.
We’ve all heard that the Internet, in general, can be addicting. After all, people use the InterWebs much like they use alcohol, drugs, shopping, gambling, and sex. But, if the InterWebs is addicting, then the InterWebs addicts are gypped. Unless it’s porn, the InterWebs ain’t as much fun as any of those other addicting things, and even then, porn can wear thin. Either that or I’m getting old. (Weigh in on the comments and let me know what you think about InterWedz addictions, your experience, or any thoughts on other addictions. Inquiring minds, like mine, want to know.)
Broadly speaking, addiction is defined as a “compulsive, uncontrollable dependence on a substance, habit, or practice to such a degree that cessation causes severe emotional, mental, or physiological reactions.” Mosby’s Medical Nursing & Allied Health Dictionary in Byun et al
Well, this Byun et. al. fellow or shellow writed themselves a paper real good about all of the bajillions of studies, okay only 39 studies, done on the unfortunate souls who are wasting their lives chasing click-bait and consulting the Googles about the medical term for boogers (Stop right there because there ain’t one. I know weird, right? But if you find one, put it in the comments!). This kind of study is called a meta-study. They found these things:
- They found that there is massive confusion or at least a lack of agreement on what the definition of InterWebz addiction actually means.
- The most often used definition couldn’t be used to tell the merely distressed from the addicts.
- The InterWebz is for doing all the communicating nowadays in the modern fascinating world we live in and so cannot be addicting.
Weird right? It seems like if you lose your job, your spouse, and financial solvency because you can’t resist the click-bait and finding out what that one weird trick is to keeping your job, spouse, and financial solvency, you might be an addict, but not if it is the Internet causing all of your problems because it is just too damn boring of an addiction to have. You should get something sexier.
All right, so the whole idea of Internet addiction is a bust because it is a means not an end. You can be addicted to porn; you can be addicted to shopping; you can be addicted to gambling, which can all be done over the InterWebz, but you can’t be addicted to the InterWebz itself. Hunh!
But, but, but, but, I have ta have ta look at my stats, man. I am jonsin’ for a peek at them stats. Can’t you just give one little look? I can pay you! You know I’m good for it!
Motivation & Dopamine
Okay, so the addiction literature is lame, but clearly there is something going on here. What is it? What about my idea of the reward circuit fueled by dopamine?
Salamone and Correa did a review of the findings on the mesolimbic dopamine system the misnomer, reward circuit. The popular literature, meaning the media and press, has focused on dopamine’s role in pleasure, reward, addiction, and Pavlovian learning. And, it has under emphasized its role in aversive processes and motivation.
What is the mesolimbic dopamine system? It is a series of brain structures located in the midbrain. The nucleus accumbens is the primary dopaminergic area with signaling beginning in the ventral tegmental neurons something something nucleus accumbens playing a role in motivation something something the substania nigra and striatum something nucleus accumbens disentanglement dopamine aversive motivation impairment something something… there ya see? It’s simple. (If you get any of this, put it in the comments, why don’tcha?)
What’s clear is that the ventral tegmental neurons have traditionally been called the reward neurons and the entire mesolimbic system, the reward circuit. This labeling overlooks its role in motivation. In fact, the connection to reward and pleasure seems to be the product of early findings that could not detect the distinct areas where these effects were taking place or how they were linked.
Studies have fairly conclusively shown that if this dopamine circuit is disrupted, the pleasures resulting from drug abuse remain. In fact, many addicts report that their drug use is no longer pleasurable, but they cannot stop anyway. If you scan the brains of roulette players, you find just as much activity in the nucleus accumbens for a near miss as for a hit! This finding suggests that the nucleus accumbens is not dedicated to pleasure and reward, but to anticipation of reward and pleasure (Bell in the Observer).
Wanting & Liking
There are two systems: the wanting system and the liking system. The wanting system is dopamine based and the liking system, opioid, but they are interactive. The wanting system keeps you going back for more. The liking system becomes sated. Because the dopamine system is the big mean bully in this neighborhood, it ignores the signals from the liking system that we are done and keeps right on awanting (Weinschenk in Psychology Today).
Those pesky dopamine neurons are anticipating rewards and, of course, they are excited by larger than predicted or expected rewards and are inhibited by smaller than predicted or expected rewards. When larger than expected rewards come rolling in, we do more of what got us the big payoff and smaller rewards we do less of what got us the tiny rewards! (emphasis added) (Hikosaka in National Review of Neuroscience).
That damned dopamine loop can keep you wanting wanting wanting more more more, so checking your social media for likes, comments, notifications, or whatever your particular platform does. Couple this with the variable reward schedule, meaning an unpredictable frequency of reward, and boy you are as good as hooked!
Unlike addiction, though, it is easy enough to kick the habit — going cold turkey doesn’t result in any of the ugly symptoms. If you do something that removes the social media — go on vacation where there is no InterWebz.
So, all you bloggers out there working so hard to drive visitors to your site. You aren’t addicted to the views, likes, followers, and comments, you just WANT them. Tell us about your experiences with kicking the Internet in the comments!