Psychology behind the “likes” in social media

We’ve all done it. We take an amazing photo – of ourselves, our child, or even our dinner – and we post it to Facebook or Instagram for everyone to admire. Now, depending on how patient you are you may wait an hour to see how many likes your photo receives. For those desiring instant gratification you may check it after only 5 minutes.

We tell ourselves we are above caring what people think of us, but most of us would have to confess that we really like to be liked. More specifically, we derive satisfaction from having other people like our posts on social media.

But recent studies found that the pleasure to be “liked” might not be exclusively self-directed. Researchers at UCLA set out to find how the brain responds when we like the posts of other people (i.e. when we give likes rather than receive them).

58 participants were asked to submit several of their own previously posted photos to be installed in an internal social network resembling Instagram. Each photo was accompanied with a number of likes supposedly assigned by other participants in the study. While inside an MRI scanner, each participant viewed all 148 photos in succession, and either clicked “Like” or “Next” before moving on the next photo.

At the end of the experiment, MRI data revealed that liking a photo activated the same reward circuitry in the brain as receiving likes from others. Providing positive feedback to others by clicking the “Like” button beneath a social media post is just as rewarding as having other people provide that same positive feedback to us.

So why do we keep going back? Social media gives us a high – a real, physiological high. “It’s a reward cycle, you get a squirt of dopamine every time you get a like or a positive response on social media,” explains psychologist Emma Kenny. “It’s like a hit, similar to the way you feel when you have a drink. The social media like triggers that reward cycle and the more you get it, the more you want it,” she says of the theory that’s been scientifically researched in depth.

But what happens when virtual likes become more important to a person than being liked in real life? Emma Kenny notes that behavior like this can affect a person’s outlook of themselves. “If you believe that other people’s opinions are facts, your esteem will be low, your confidence will be terrible and you’ll constantly seek approval. If you’re somebody who deletes posts because they’re not getting the feedback you desire, that’s when it becomes worrysome,” she explains.

Social media Selfie

“With young women, the pursuit of perfection is becoming a major problem,” says Kenny. “When you’re reliant on social media, it can increase insecurity issues and create a sense of paranoia. It can increase depression and enable us to feel like other people’s lives are so much better than ours. Instead of using it as a tool of aspiration, positivity and motivation, we use it against ourselves. We believe we are less than, have less than, and will be less than everyone else, because we can see all these other opportunities out there that we’re not able to engage in.”

Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at mental health charity Mind, says: “If you’re feeling vulnerable or are spending too much time on social media, it might be worth taking a break for a bit or set aside some time each day to do something else like reading a book or doing some physical exercise.”

The online world is not actual reality. It can put on a good show, but it’s nothing in comparison to the real thing. If we all put as much effort into our real life relationships as we did our online ones, we’d probably find ourselves a lot better off.