Facebook, Twitter and other Social media are 'brain candy'

By Phil Green (z3331757), Anouk Aleva (z3432069), Cecilia Robinson (z3393600), Michael Berger (z3258469) and Jamie Dracup (z3218566)

Source of the LA Times Article: http://articles.latimes.com/2012/may/08/business/la-fi-tn-self-disclosure-study-20120508
Based on following paper: http://www.pnas.org.wwwproxy0.library.unsw.edu.au/content/109/21/8038

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The use of social media is growing each month (Online Marketing Agency, 2011). There are already 175 million tweets on Twitter a day, 2.7 billion likes on Facebook and 15 photos get uploaded onto Instagram per second (Infographic Labs, 2012). Recently scientists have begun to investigate the fascinating topic of why social media is so incredibly popular. Recent internet surveys indicate that 80% of posts to social media sites consist simply of self-disclosure, specifically announcements about one’s own immediate experiences (Tamir & Mitchell, 2012). The article ‘Facebook, Twitter, other social media are brain candy, study says’ was published on the Los Angeles Times website on 18th May 2012 and reports on a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in May 2012. The study was carried out by Diana Tamir and Jason Mitchell and titled 'Disclosing Information About the Self is Intrinsically Rewarding'. The research investigated why so many people share their everyday thoughts, movements and opinions through social media (Netburn, 2012). According to the authors, the act of disclosing information about oneself activates a reward system in the brain. This results in a pleasurable experience, similar to that which we receive from natural rewards such as food or sex.

Considering social media's popularity and wide impact on society, this topic is of immense importance (Online Marketing Agency, 2011). The activation of the aforementioned neural reward system could explain the increasing usage trend, which has been witnessed in recent years. There have also been reported instances of the use of social media becoming an addiction (Kuss & Griffiths, 2011), prompting the development of a Facebook Addiction Scale (Andreassen, Torshem, Brunborg & Pallesen, 2012). This shows that excessive posting to social media can become a serious problem. It is possible that the activation of the reward pathways in the brain, by self disclosing on social media, can be linked to the development of this addiction, similar to drug addictions (Grilly & Salamone, 2012).

Neuroscientific Context

The study by Tamir and Mitchell (2012) experimentally examines the connection between self-disclosure and reward within an online social media framework, seeking to explain the prolific rise in the usage of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. According to the article, approximately 80% of posts to social media consist of announcements about one’s own immediate experiences. The authors explain that at nine months of age, human infants will try and draw others' attention to parts of the environment they think are important; this can be seen as an early form of self-disclosure. In addition, adults in all cultures attempt to pass on their knowledge to others. Based on this, the authors argue that human's may have an intrinsic motivation to self-disclose and that it may be possible that the reward systems of the brain are recruited in order to reinforce this behaviour (Tamir & Mitchell, 2012).

Reward System in the Brain

A large concentration of neurons synthesising the neurotransmitter dopamine have been identified in the ventroanterior midbrain, specifically the ventral tegmental area (VTA), the substania nigra and the nucleus accumbens (Schultz, 2002; Tamir & Mitchell, 2012).
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This system is known as the mesolimbic dopamine pathway, where the dopamine producing neurons project to a number of important brain areas, including the prefrontal cortex, which has been implicated in decision making processes (Milner, 1964; Bechara et al.,1997). The nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmental area (VTA) have been shown to respond consistently to the presentation of natural rewards, as well as reward-predicting stimuli; indicating that these brain areas are likely to be critical for the identification and utilisation of important rewards and events in the environment (Schultz, 2002; Hernandez & Hoebel, 1988). Example of such rewards are food and mating opportunities.

Study linking self-disclosure to the reward system

An overview of all the used study methods can be found in Table 1 at the end of this section. They will be discussed in detail in the following paragraphs. The study by Tamir and Mitchell (2012) examines the link between self-disclosure and brain activation in the nuclues accumbens (NAcc). It examines the different processes that might affect this link.

In study 1a participants either disclosed their own opinions or judged the opinions of others, while in study 1b participants disclosed their own perceived personality traits or judged the traits of others. The results of study 1a showed increased activation in the NAcc when participants disclosed their own opinions compared to when they judged the opinions of others. In study 1b increased activation in NAcc and VTA was seen in response to participants disclosing their own perceived personality traits compared to judging the traits of others. These results are shown in Figure 1.

Study 1.jpg

Figure 1: Results of study 1a & 1b - Bilateral NAcc activation

Previous results indicate that self-disclosure activates the NAcc and VTA, the reward system, more than judgements of others do. However, the authors stated that these brain areas have also been shown to respond to non-rewarding stimuli. Therefore study 2 was designed to behaviourally examine whether self-disclosure is experienced as being more rewarding than evaluating non-rewarding stimuli, namely the responses of others. In study 2 participants were given the choice to self-disclose, answer questions about another person’s opinion or answer a factual question. Randomised pay-off rewards were allocated to each choice and it was found that participants overall were willing to give up some amount of these pay-off rewards (~$0.63 per trial) in order to have the ability to answer the self questions and self-disclose. Additionally, when pay-off amounts were equal, participants chose to answer question about themselves rather than questions about others 69% of the time.

Despite the aforementioned results, the activation of the reward pathways can also be due to merely thinking about the self; i.e. thinking about oneself (presumably in a positive light) is experienced as rewarding (Tamir & Mitchell, 2012). If true, this would mean that self-disclosing is not necessary for reward system activation (Tamir & Mitchell, 2012). In this way, the results of studies 1 and 2 may have simply been a result of participants having the opportunity to self-reflect, and not a direct result of self-disclosure. Study 3 was designed to examine this by adding another factor to the previous design; that being shared vs. private conditions; participants responded to either self-private, self-shared, other-private or other-shared questions. The self trials were found to elicit greater activation in the NAcc and VTA compared to the other trials (averaging across shared and private), while the shared trials also elicited greater activation in the NAcc and VTA compared to the private trials (averaging across self and other). This provides evidence for two separate mechanisms by which self-disclosure is rewarding – the act of self-introspection as well as the act of disclosing information to others. In this way the effects are compounding; self-reflection is experienced as rewarding, but even more so when these introspections are communicated to others (Tamir & Mitchell, 2012). The results are shown in Figure 2.

Study 3.jpg
Figure 2: Results of study 3

Finally, study 4 examined the possibility that participants simply choose the self option more often because it was easier to answer. Assumedly because participants have more information to draw on, and these questions would require less cognitive effort than answering questions about another. However, when participants were given the option to answer a self question, other question or rest passively, participants still chose to answer a self-shared (69%) other shared (67%) or self-private (62%) over resting passively. A summary of the different study methods and their results can be found in Table 1.

Participants disclosed their own opinions or judged the opinions of other
Self-disclosure increased activation in NAcc
Participants disclosed their own perceived personality traits or judged the traits of others
Self-disclosure increased activation in NAcc & VTA
Participants answered questions about themselves, others, or a factual question. Random
monetary pay-offs assigned to each choice on each trial.
Participants willing to give up on average ~0.63c per
trial in order to answer questions about the self, and
when pay-offs were equal chose to answer self
questions 69% of the time.
Participants answered questions about the self or other, and their responses were either
shared or private.
Increased activation in the NAcc and VTA when
answering questions about the self, as well as when
responses were shared.
Participants given the choice to answer questions about the self or other,
with responses private or shared, or rest passively.
Participants chose to answer a self-shared (69%) other
shared (67%) or self-private (62%) question over resting passively.
Table 1: Study methods

Self-disclosure and Social media

Both the news and the journal article argue that the activation of the reward system in response to the act of self-disclosure to others is one of the possible explanations for the increasing use of social media, as well as the propensity for people to comment on their everyday experiences in these mediums.

However, Nadkarni and Hofmann (2012) found that besides sharing information about oneself, the need to belong is also an important motivation to use social media. Another important point to address is the possibility for users of social media to display their idealised, rather than accurate, selves through their profiles. This has been referred to as the idealised-virtual identity hypothesis and has been tested by several studies (Back, Stopfer, Vazire, Gaddis, Schmukle & Egloff, 2010; Amichai-Hamburger & Vinitzky, 2010). A study by Zhao, Grasmuck and Martin (2008) found that Facebook profiles appear to present socially desirable identities that individuals aspire to have offline but have not yet been able to achieve. Facebook users who show a mismatch between offline and online behaviours might attempt to compensate for any perceived or actual deficiencies in social contact and peer-relations. Studies have also explored the correspondence between interpersonal impressions made online versus face-to-face (Weisbuch, Ivcevic & Ambady, 2009). It was found that impressions formed from personal webpages provided perceivers with valid information about the webpage author’s likability in the offline world. The contrast between the results suggesting a contradiction between offline and online personalities, and the results indicating people share valid information is suggested as an area for further research (Nadkarni & Hofmann, 2012).

Tamir and Mitchell (2012) state that self-disclosure on social media has a positive connection to the reward system in our brains. The study does not however report on results that show that there is a different outcome for people with low-self-esteem. Opposed to what one might expect, it was found that although people with low self-esteem considered social media an appealing venue for self-disclosure, the low positivity and high negativity of their disclosures elicited undesirable responses from other people (Forest & Wood, 2012). They tend not to benefit from self-disclosure on social media sites as they tend to post negative information which is largely ignored by their peers. When these individuals post positive information however, it is rewarded by their peers, perhaps in order to encourage this positive behaviour. It is important to point out that these results from the study by Tamir and Mitchell (2012) gives the impression that self-disclosure on social media is beneficial for everyone.

Addiction to Social Media

Since the reward system is activated in response to self-disclosure to others, it is also important to consider the possibility of excessive social media usage within an addiction framework. Many pharmacological addictions such as illicit drugs, also recruit the mesolimbic dopamine pathway, described as the reward system above, in order to deliver their effects to the individual (Schultz, 2002). Therefore it is reasonable to suggest that excessive Facebook usage may result in an addiction being formed. Currently the only behavioural addiction that is formally recognised as a psychiatric disorder is pathological gambling, although many researchers are now suggesting that other behavioural addictions should also be considered such as shopping addiction or online addiction (Andreassen, Torshem, Brunborg & Pallesen, 2012). Posting to social media has also been considered as a sub-category of online addiction, and this has led to the recent development and validation of a measure designed to measure Facebook addiction: The Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale (Andreassen, Torshem, Brunborg & Pallesen, 2012).


This article was published in the Los Angeles Times, a daily newspaper published in Los Angeles, which between it's printed editions and it's website (www.latimes.com) reaches almost five million people per week. As such its target audience is very broad, including multiple racial groups, a wide range of ages, both genders and a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. The Los Angeles Times is targeted primarily towards residents of the west-coast of the United States, however its internet edition is far more widespread both within and outside of the United States. As social media is so widespread, with an extensive range of implications including financial, societal or health concerns, it can be assumed that this specific article is also pitched at a broad audience. This broad audience has several important implications for how the scientific information is presented.

Perhaps the most significant implication is that highly technical information, which will likely only be understood by those with specific tertiary level education, should be limited. The article does an excellent job of pitching information appropriately. It includes enough technical information to represent the study well and educate the audience, without including so much that the audience will either not understand or will simply lose interest. Examples of this include correctly identifying specific brain regions associated with reward, including the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area. It also correctly mentions intrinsic rewards such as the sensation of pleasure in the brain that we receive from food or sex. One drawback is that it does not contrast this type of reward with instrumental rewards as Tamir and Mitchell (2012) do, which has important theoretical implications. Overall, the article gives a good summary of how the research was carried out, the most important neural areas involved and the technology used in the study, without being overly confusing for a broad audience. This information is also articulated in a fairly unbiased manner, which is often a serious issue with the media’s reporting on scientific studies.

Critique on the article

The article states that the researchers have arrived at the answer to why so many of us are compelled to share our every thought, movement, like and want through social media. This implies that the hypothesis of human self-disclosure being intrinsically rewarding can completely explain social media. In reality, Tamir and Mitchell (2012) specifically mention other theories of motivation, such as instrumental rewards, which may also contribute to the social media phenomenon. While Tamir and Mitchell’s (2012) hypothesis gives much more importance to intrinsic over instrumental rewards as motivators of social media behaviour, the article does not discuss this. Failing to discuss and contrast motivational theories means that the article fails to educate the audience on a key aspect of the study. Issues related to the publication type such as the concern of whether a theoretical discussion would be particularly interesting to the readers, as well as the requirement for brevity that many articles must deal with, likely impacted the decision to not cover this part of the study. They also mention Harvard, representing the logical fallacy of “appeal to authority”. This is likely meant to give the study weight in the eyes of the public, who may not understand the technicalities of scientific publication.

As the previous paragraphs have outlined, the quality of information in the article is high. It is largely in line with current accepted understandings in neuroscience, and is not overly affected by bias and pitches its information well, considering its broad audience. It does however make some mistakes, which are likely caused by the limitations inherent in commercial publications such as the Los Angeles Times. It fails to contrast the motivational theories of intrinsic rewards versus instrumental ones, which was a key factor in the study. Overall the article does a very good job and while there are some areas that could be improved upon, this does not overly detract from the quality of the article.


All research was conducted using the PsycINFO database through the UNSW library to search for journal articles related to self-disclosure and social media. Examples of keywords used include 'Facebook', 'social media', 'self-disclosure' and various combinations of these. Appropriate articles from peer-reviewed journals were then downloaded and briefly read, and any relevant to the wiki were used and referenced appropriately. Some articles were also sourced from the reference lists of other articles that were used.

Based on feedback regarding the clarity of the description of the article and the lack of figures, we added a summary table of the experiment as well as some result graphs from the paper. This was done in order to make this section easier to read and understand, as well as more visually engaging.

Feedback regarding subheadings was also acted on, with the neuroscientific context section in particular featuring multiple subheadings to break up the content and make it easier to navigate. In this section we also edited the sentence lengts which we were given feedback on. Issues regarding in-text references were also addressed.

Unfortunately some feedback, especially those regarding further description and explanation, as well as suggestions for related areas of research that could be discussed were unable to be addressed given the word limit. However we have tried to discuss more information related to social media usage and possible addiction elements as we believe these are the most important and closely related areas to the topic of interest.


Amichai-Hamburger, Y. & Vinitzky, G. (2010). Social network use and personality. Computers in Human Behaviour, 26, 1289-1295.

Andreassen,C. S., Torsheim, T., Brunborg, G. S. & Pallesen S. (2012). Development of a facebook addiction scale, Psychological Reports, 110 (2), 501-517

Back, M. D., Stopfer, J. M., Vazire, S., Gaddis, S., Schmukle, S. C. & Egloff, B. (2010). Facebook profiles reflect actual personality, not self-idealization. Psychological Science, 21, 372-374.

Forest, A. L. & Wood, J. V. (2019). When Social Networking Is Not Working: Individuals With Low Self-Esteem Recognize but Do Not Reap the Benefits of Self-Disclosure on Facebook. Psychological Science, 23(3), 295-302.

Grilly, D. M. & Salamone, J. D. (2012). Drugs, Brain and Behavior (6th), New York: Pearson

Hernandez, L. & Hoebel, B.G. (1988). Food reward and cocaine increase extracellular dopamine in the nucleus accumbens as measured by microdialysis, Life Sciences, 42, 1705-1712.

Infographic Labs (2012). Twitter 2012, retrieved 28th August 2012, http://infographiclabs.com/news/twitter-2012/

Infographic Labs (2012), Facebook 2012, retrieved 28th August 2012, http://infographiclabs.com/infographic/facebook-2012/

Infographic Labs (2012). Rise of Instagram, retrieved 28th August 2012, http://infographiclabs.com/infographic/here-comes-instagram/

Kuss, D. J. & Griffiths, M. D. (2011). Addiction to social networks on the Internet: a literature review of empirical research, International Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 8, 3528-3552

Nadkarni, A. & Hofmann, S. G. (2012). Why do people use Facebook? Personality and Individual Differences, 52, 243-249.

Netburn, D. (2012). Facebook, Twitter, other social media are brain candy, study says, Los Angeles Times, retrieved 28th August 2012, http://articles.latimes.com/2012/may/08/business/la-fi-tn-self-disclosure-study-20120508

Nguyen, M., Bin, Y.S., Campbell, A. (2012). Comparing online and offline self-disclosure: A systematic review, Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking, 15, 103-111.

Online Marketing Agency (2011). 2011 social media statistics show huge growth,retrieved 28th August 2012, http://www.browsermedia.co.uk/2011/03/30/2011-social-media-statistics-show-huge-growth/

Schultz, W. (2002). Getting formal with dopamine and reward, Neuron, 36, 241-263.

Tamir, D. I. & Mitchell, J. P. (2012). Disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109 (21), 8038-8043

Weisbuch, M., Ivcevic, Z. & Ambady, N. (2009). On being liked on the web and in the “real world”: Consistency in first impressions across personal webpages and spontaneous behaviour. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 573-576.

Zhao, S., Grasmuck, S., & Martin, J. (2008). Identity construction on Facebook: Digital empowerment in anchored relationships. Computers in Human Behaviour, 24, 1816-1836.

Group Details

Research: All
Introduction: Anouk
Context: Phil and Cecilia
Analysis: Michael and Jamie

Appendix: All

Research: 14th August
Key points/outlines: 31st August
Rough draft: Early - Mid September

1. Minutes from first meeting: Meeting 1.docx(03/08/12)
Present: Everyone
Planned: 17/08/12 after class

2. Meeting 29/08/2012
We had a group meeting in the library at 4PM to discuss our overall thoughts on the project, since we had all had a chance to think about it.
We finalized who was doing what and decided on deadlines.
Overall it was an insightful and productive meeting.
Present: All members except Michael (extenuating circumstances)

All subsequent meetings (3 - 4 separate meetings) occurred as brief meetings in or immediately following classes, or through other forms of communication such as online. We heavily employed facebook as a means of communication for several of these meetings!