Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Why and How We "Like"

A new study in Psychological Science did something no one has done before (to my knowledge) - examined social media usage while participants were undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The study used 32 adolescents (between the ages of 13 and 18), and underwent the fMRI while viewing a simulated Instagram environment. They submitted some of their own pictures and viewed other pictures as well (which were actually publicly available Instagram images). They were also told that 50 other adolescents had viewed these pictures previously, which allowed participants to know the size of the audience (and what constituted many likes or few likes). In actual fact, likes were assigned by the researchers for the purpose of the study.

Participants viewed images through goggles and were given two buttons - one to "like" the picture and the other to move on without liking. They each saw a total of 148 pictures: 40 of their own, 42 depicting risky behaviors (e.g., drinking, smoking), and 66 neutral (nonrisky) images. Pictures could be assigned a "popular" number of likes (23 to 45) or "unpopular" number of likes (0 to 22). These ranges were used to reduce participants' suspicion that the number of likes was being assigned, rather than occurring naturally.

Overall, they found participants were more likely to "like" an image that was perceived as popular. This makes sense from a social capital viewpoint. Social capital refers to the resources we are able to access through relationships with others. Connecting with others is beneficial to our survival, and, not coincidentally, it feels good to connect with other people. And as I've blogged about before, one way we connect is through mutual interests and likes. So it makes sense that the reverse is also true; we try to connect with others by liking the things they like.

But the really cool thing about this study is what they found out about brain responses. Through the fMRI, they were able to look at brain activity while participants examined the pictures. Overall, they found greater brain activity when participants viewed popular images. For specific types of images, they found that participants showed:
  1. Greater activity in the visual cortex when viewing neutral images with many likes, which researchers suggest is because "participants may have scanned popular images with greater care."
  2. Greater activity in the left frontal cortex and reduced activity in areas of the brain related to response control and inhibition when viewing risky images with many likes
  3. Greater activity in a variety of areas (including those involved in reward learning and motivation) when viewing their own images with many likes.
What implications do these findings have? For one, participants showed less activation in parts of the brain that inhibit behaviors when viewing popular risky photos, suggesting that they may be more inclined to imitate those behaviors if they are viewed as popular. For another, seeing one of your own images receiving many likes is rewarding, which I suppose is not terribly surprising, but also motivating - perhaps to post more images and content on that topic. And if that image or topic is related to risky behaviors, we may be more inclined to engage in those behaviors.

The authors end their article by stating that these findings not only have implications for social media researchers, but anyone studying social interaction - because it has been difficult to accurately simulate social interaction in fMRI. Thanks to the ubiquity of social media use, these interactions are being viewed as similar to other types of interactions, at least by the public if not by researchers. So this small study on Instagram likes may have some interesting ramifications for the entire field.

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