The reason social media is so compelling probably goes back to a simple, eternal truth: human beings like to think and talk about themselves. That judgment is based on new research conducted by psychologists at Harvard, which suggests that disclosing information about oneself activates the same neural rewards center associated with other basic desires like food and sex.
The study, titled “Disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding,” used an MRI to observe the brain activity of subjects who were asked questions about themselves and others -- including, for example, personal food preferences, enjoyment of leisure activities, and so on. This portion of the study found higher levels of activity in the mesolimbic dopamic system, including the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area, all of which are associated with feelings of rewards, when people answered questions about themselves.
In a second part of the study, subjects were given a choice between answering questions about themselves or questions about others, with different monetary rewards attached to each. Although the “pricing” of questions gave subjects the chance to earn more money by answering questions about others, most participants sacrificed potential earnings in order to answer more questions about themselves.
Referring back to earlier studies which were used as models for this study, the authors summed up the results: “Just as monkeys are willing to forgo juice rewards to view dominant groupmates and college students are willing to give up money to view attractive members of the opposite sex, our participants were willing to forgo money to think and talk about themselves.”
A further refinement of the study let subjects share their answers with a friend who accompanied them to the tests, and who could view answers on a computer. Unsurprisingly, even greater importance was associated with sharing information with others, both in terms of neural activity and in the amount of money subjects were willing to sacrifice in order to share. Interestingly, the value placed on sharing information with others averaged just under one cent, “putting a new twist on the old phrase ‘a penny for your thoughts,’” the authors drily observed.