How social media takes tips from gambling to keep us hooked
How social media taps into the same psychological mechanisms as gambling comes down to anticipation and reward. Namely, anticipation and the uncertainty of reward. This is the crux of what makes both gambling and social media addictive. We eagerly anticipate a reward - either a triple score on the slot machine or likes and comments on our most recent post - and there either is or isn’t a payoff.
“You scroll down on your mobile phone, to see whether there is something new - some new news or a new tweet,” says Raian Ali, who leads digital addiction research at Bournemouth University. “And that is similar to roulette - it's the same surprise element used to keep people gambling. The same elements are used to a lighter extent in social media - the uncertainty and scarcity [of reward].”
Ali notes that the ‘pull to refresh’ mechanism and the following seconds of anticipation on social media are eerily similar to pulling the lever of a slot machine and tentatively waiting to see if you won big.
It’s the variable aspect of the reward that gets us hooked. Take another scenario where this plays out with rats in labs. Studies have examined a setup where rats push a lever to administer a reward - depending on the study it might be either a dose of cocaine or a sugary treat.
In some cases, rats will press the lever and receive the reward whenever they want, in which case the rats will regularly go back to trigger the reward. But introduce a new scenario - the rat presses the lever and doesn’t get a reward, tries a couple more times, and suddenly it's triggered. Now, the reward in response to the behavioural action is variable. In these scenarios, the rat loses it. It compulsively triggers the lever over and over again in an effort to receive the reward - something it never did when the reward was guaranteed.
And like rats hooked up to tubes intravenously spiking their blood with cocaine, ‘likes’ on social media inject a little bump of dopamine into our love-hungry minds. For a moment, warmth washes through our brains - someone out there cares about us. And the intermittent element of the reward turns us into the rat pawing senselessly at the lever to re-trigger that same buzz of pleasure.
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