The developer Rameet Chawla found out when he built a script that liked every photo that passed through his Instagram feed.
He grew his followers by about 30 a day
He got invited to more parties
He got stopped on the street by people who recognized him from Instagram
He got message after message from friends encouraging him to post more. He said it was “almost like they were frustrated, like they were longing for something to like in return.”
The likes, comments and posts we share on social media can often seem inconsequential, but they matter. They tap into some of the very elements that make us human, our addictions, desires, anxieties and joys.
What if we could understand the psychology of social media and use that knowledge to bring customers closer, give them more of what they want, and create better relationships?
Last month I had the supreme privilege of talking about just that at Mozcon, a super fun and crazy informative marketing conference put on by our friends at Moz.
I’d love to share some highlights with you here, in case it could be handy for your own social media efforts!
Social media biology: Dopamine and oxytocin
The pull of social media addiction isn’t all in our heads. It’s quite real, thanks to two chemicals our brains produce: dopamine and oxytocin.
Scientists used to think dopamine was a pleasure chemical in the brain, but now we know what it actually creates is want. Dopamine causes us to seek, desire, and search.
Dopamine is stimulated by unpredictability, by small bits of information, and by reward cues—pretty much the exact conditions of social media.
The pull of dopamine is so strong that studies have shown tweeting is harder for people to resist than cigarettes and alcohol.
Then there’s oxytocin, sometimes referred to as “the cuddle chemical” because it’s released when you kiss or hug.
Or … tweet. In 10 minutes of social media time, oxytocin levels can rise as much as 13%—a hormonal spike equivalent to some people on their wedding day.
And all the goodwill that comes with oxytocin—lowered stress levels, feelings of love, trust, empathy, generosity—comes with social media, too.
As a result, social media users have shown to be more trusting than the average Internet user. The typical Facebook user is 43% more likely than other Internet users to feel that most people can be trusted.
So between dopamine and oxytocin, social networking not only comes with a lot of great feelings, it’s also really hard to stop wanting more of it.
Social media actions: Why we post, share, like and comment
Next, let’s look at some of the major activities we do online and find out what psychological strings are being pulled with each of them.
why we post
It’s not news that we love to talk about ourselves.
Humans devote about 30–40% of all speech to talking about themselves. But online that number jumps to about 80% of social media posts.
Why? Talking face-to-face is messy and emotionally involved–we don’t have time to think about what to say, we have to read facial cues and body language.
Online, we have time to construct and refine. This is what psychologists call self-presentation: positioning yourself the way you want to be seen.
The feeling we get from self-presentation is so strong that viewing your own Facebook profile has been shown to increase your self-esteem.
What’s also interesting for marketers is that the most prominent way we tend to work on self- presentation is through things—buying things and acquiring things that signify who we are.
things to identify ourselves
Think: Clothes, games, music, the logo on your laptop right now.
The intensity of emotion people can feel for their favorite brands as a result of this is incredible. An experiment showed volunteers two types of photos: the logo for a brand they loved and pictures of their partners and closest friends.
Their physiological arousal to the logo was as intense as the arousal of looking at a picture of their closest friend.
Things—and by extension, brands—are a huge part of who we are.
What I take away from this is to work really hard to figure out what is aspirational about my brand that my customers can identify with.
Brands that can create aspirational ways for their community to interact with them not only create social media opportunities but also the chance to move beyond likes into something lasting.
why we share
If we like talking about ourselves so much, what would make us share something of someone else’s?
Passing information on is an impulse that we’re hard-wired with. Just the thought of sharing activates our brain’s reward centers, even before we’ve done a thing.
Self-presentation, strengthening relationships
First, it comes back to our own self image: 68% of people say they share to give others a better sense of who they are and what they care about.
But the biggest reason we share is about other people: 78% of people say they share because it helps them to stay connected to people.
Experiments have shown that the best predictors of contagious ideas in the brain are associated with the parts that focus on thoughts about other people.
This means content designed for social media doesn’t need to appeal to a large group or an average group. it just needs to appeal to a specific person.