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FOMO by Design: How Social Media Is Hacking Our Brains

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Understanding how algorithms manipulate our behavior and what to do about it (play audio)

On my recent birthday, only four of my 711 Facebook “friends” wrote on my wall. It was tempting to assume that people scrolling their news feeds saw it was my birthday and thought “Nah, not interested.”

My rational brain, however, knew it wasn’t my friends who lacked basic decency, but the algorithms that ran their online social behavior. Being an occasional user of Facebook, the algorithm doesn’t freely grant me visibility to others — part-timers like me have to work for it. So I played ball and posted a photo of me enjoying my birthday. My motivations for doing this were mixed — part of me wanted to see how the algorithm would respond, but a bigger part of me irrationally feared I was being shunned and needed validation that this was not the case. Having met the algorithm’s demands, within an hour I was granted visibility on others’ news feeds — now people wouldn’t stop writing on my wall.

Instead of finding the whole thing ridiculous, I felt a strong sense of social acceptance that contrasted deeply with the rejection I had felt just hours before. I felt significant again, and spent the rest of my birthday on my phone reading and responding to all my messages.

This wasn’t exactly The Great Hack, but this kind of preying on our brains’ desire for tribal acceptance happens every day on social media. Not getting any likes on our post can feel as painful to our brain as being cast out from a tribe that ensures our survival. This leaves us vulnerable to manipulation by social media apps, but we don’t have to be.


Avoidance of pain

To the primitive brain, social exclusion is a serious threat to survival, and avoiding it drives our behavior. We seek out new social connections and become sensitive to social cues. This enhanced social awareness then allows us to tailor our behavior, and increase our likelihood of social acceptance. Back in paleolithic times, survival depended on social connections. Was it this basic human need the algorithm tapped into on my birthday?

In the study “Does Rejection Hurt” published in Science, researchers assessed how our brain interprets social exclusion. First, they placed subjects in a functional MRI (fMRI) machine — like a normal MRI that also measures blood flow to different brain regions and gives us an idea of where brain activity is highest. The subjects then played a video game called Cyberball, where they throw and catch a ball to two other players using a two-button response pad, while inside the fMRI scanner. In the first group of subjects, the other two players started throwing the ball only to each other, giving the subject a sense of social exclusion. Anyone who is bad at football will know that painful feeling of no one passing you the ball (it still hurts). They compared these subjects to a second group who weren’t made to feel excluded. The excluded group experienced increased blood flow to the same parts of the brain that light up when experiencing physical pain. The avoidance of pain is one of the strongest drivers of human behavior.

Social media has been shown to induce the same sense of ostracism as those subjects who were excluded in Cyberball. Receiving few or no likes on a post can lead to poorer self-esteem, reduced belongingness, and perceived ostracism. This effect is thought to be mediated by seeing a lack of likes as a “social exclusion signal,” which is going to have profound effects on our online behaviors.

Different people respond differently to receiving likes, some being more sensitive than others. Most appear to be less bothered about the total number of likes and care more about who is liking their posts. We want those close to us to like our awesome selfies, but we especially want those with high social value to like them. Of course, this doesn’t always happen, so how do we cope when our posts are met with radio silence?

When a post receives few total likes, users often attribute this to an algorithm not favoring their post and people simply not seeing it. But this same rational thought process doesn’t seem to occur when we question why certain people haven’t liked it. You’re able to reassure yourself that an algorithm is why your post wasn’t as popular as you’d have liked, but why didn’t your sister like it? Is she upset with you? Maybe she is jealous of how gorgeous you look? We feel most socially excluded when relationally close people don’t like our posts, even though it’s possible that they simply didn’t see them.

If feeling socially excluded drives us to reach out to others and become sensitive to social cues, then soon we’ll fall into a “social-validation feedback loop.” Facebook’s ability to tap into these basic human drives raises concern over the power that one unelected CEO can have, particularly when such powers hold little accountability.


Seeking pleasure

The uneasy feeling that results from phony “social exclusion signals” puts us in a vulnerable state. Social media then baits us with variable rewards, an algorithm might show one post to more people and we end up with an inordinate number of likes on one post and none on another, even though they both featured an almost identical selfie. This is why people spend hours pouring money into slot machines — our brains get hooked by the uncertainty of when a reward will arrive.

Every aspect of social media is designed to pull you in, from infinite scrolling mechanisms and autoplay to the never-ending notifications, and it is easy to get hooked. These methods are so effective you may even get “phantom notifications” — that vibrating sensation you get only to find your phone isn’t in your pocket.

The “like” function, while a relatively new concept, taps into that ancient evolutionary drive to always be on the lookout for signs of social acceptance — as do upvotes, retweets, +1s, reaction buttons, and all the other illusory forms of social value.They are the “social currency” of apps like Facebook and Instagram, and receiving them can activate similar pathways in the brain to financial rewards.The reward seems to be greater depending on who the like is coming from, with those closest to us or of higher social value eliciting a stronger reward. A like from someone of high social status is worth its weight in gold — to the brain at least.

But giving likes activates the same pathways, even when liking posts of total strangers. If someone has liked our posts, we are more likely to like theirs because of the overlapping nature of these reward pathways. The more likes a post has before you click like, the higher the activity in the reward pathways. This is due to “social proof:” The belief that something must be valuable because others say so.This is why it’s easier to turn 10,000 followers into 50,000 than it is to turn 10 followers into 500 — social proof leads to exponential growth, and the socially rich get even richer.

All of this serves to get us hooked and spending more time on our phones instead of real-world social interactions. Why put in all that effort to be sociable when you can just click some buttons and get similar rewards? This effect is only going to be magnified in the current pandemic and the socially distanced world we now inhabit.

If we’re not driven to use social media to avoid the pain of rejection, then we are hypnotized by the allure of social acceptance. But there is another, equally powerful force that glues us to our phones and hijacks our free will.


Relief of FOMO

In the history of our species, the “fear of missing out” has never been greater than it is today. FOMO is that anxious feeling we get when faced with the realization that others are having fun without us. It is a powerful driver of human behavior, from reckless investment decisions to desperate use of social media — it compels us to act. FOMO instills a sense of urgency that can only be relieved by getting involved in whatever we believe we are “missing out” on. Or at least, that’s what our brain tells us.

In a study looking at the social media habits of 2,663 teenagers, FOMO was found to be a strong predictor of social media use. The more prone to FOMO the teenagers were, the more frequent their use of social media, and the higher the number of social media platforms they used. Other studies have linked FOMO in the context of excessive social media use with higher anxiety, depression, and lower perceived quality of life.

FOMO can also reduce our capacity for mindful awareness. It is hard to be in the present moment when you have a persistent concern that others are reaping rewards without you.Even having a conversation while experiencing FOMO is challenging. This is why that friend of yours is constantly checking her phone instead of listening to your riveting tale — a practice known as “phubbing.” This behavior has been shown to negatively affect both professional and romantic relationships.

The popularity of campaigns like the recent #challengeaccepted on Instagram, where women post black and white photos of themselves and tag other women who have made them feel empowered, may be partly explained by their ability to induce FOMO. Imagine seeing a friend of yours accept the challenge and tag someone other than you — if you are susceptible to FOMO, this anxiety may compel you to get involved. If you don’t experience FOMO, you may look at the situation rationally and consciously choose to get involved because you support the cause. While these campaigns can be helpful in building awareness of important societal issues, they also drive social media use and strengthen the “social-validation feedback loop.”


How to regain control of your free will

Social media apps will always try and get into our minds and control our behavior, but this is the goal of any business. “Brain hacking” isn’t new. Since newspapers first started selling advertisements in 1833, businesses have been trying to get into our brains and influence our behavior. What scares us is how effective social media is at this, how insidiously it has made its way into our lives, and how complicit we have been in allowing it to happen. So how can we take the power back?

When dealing with addictive behaviors, there are two main approaches to managing them: the first is abstinence, which is generally the most effective (but most restrictive) solution; the second is harm minimization, which involves continuing the behavior but putting measures in place to reduce the harm it may cause.

Abstinence from social media seems to be increasingly popular, and many tout its benefits. But quitting social media can be isolating, with a legitimate “fear of missing out” on watching your friend’s children grow, or staying in the loop with extended family. If you want to play it safe, abstinence could be the best option.

But the reality is that social media is probably here to stay, so, like a loud and obnoxious neighbor, we should find a way to live together harmoniously. Here are some suggestions on how we might do that:

  1. Limit screen time — use the “screen time” feature in iOS and Android to put a limit on how much time you spend on social media apps. This will interrupt the “social-validation feedback loop” and limit its effect on your brain. One study showed that reducing use to 30 minutes per day had a significant impact on well-being.
  2. Have a social media “detox” — take a break and gain some perspective over your social media use. Try a #ScrollFreeSeptember and see how you feel.
  3. Gain awareness of why you are using social media — the more you understand what is driving the behavior, the better you can eliminate unhealthy habits. Checking your phone whenever you are bored, even if you have no notifications, is a bad habit. Use social media for a clear purpose, like writing happy birthday on my wall, rather than for a dopamine hit.
  4. Put up a “firewall” between you and your screen — most of the rewards from social media are delivered visually, so try reducing the glamour of your newsfeed by putting your phone in grayscale. You’ll be amazed at how boring everyone’s posts look.

Whatever approach you take, when you do get that uneasy feeling of social rejection, the intense anxiety of FOMO, or the pleasant hit of dopamine from all those likes — remember that it is all an illusion created to steal your attention away from the things that really matter. Use social media to stay connected to friends and loved ones, promote your business, and organize events, but don’t use it to fill a void that social media itself has created.

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