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Need satisfaction? Tweet about yourself

May 09, 2012|Deborah Netburn
  • Messages felt better when there was an audience, researchers found.
Messages felt better when there was an audience, researchers found. (  )

Researchers at Harvard University have gotten to the bottom of why so many people are compelled to share our every thought, movement, like and want through social networks like Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, Instagram and Pinterest.

In a series of experiments, the researchers found that the act of disclosing information about oneself activates the same sensation of pleasure in the brain that we get from eating, getting money or having sex.

This may help explain recent surveys of Internet use that show that roughly 80% of posts to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook consist simply of announcements about one's own immediate experience.

Lead researcher Diana Tamir and her co-author, Jason P. Mitchell, devised a series of experiments to measure the reward response that people get when they talk about themselves.

For part of the study, they hooked up test subjects to an MRI machine and watched the participants' brain activity as they answered questions about their own opinions and questions about other people's opinions.

The researchers found that the brain regions associated with reward -- the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area -- were strongly engaged when people were talking about themselves and less engaged when they were talking about someone else.

They also found that the test subjects would turn down money (just a few cents) to talk about someone else, in order to enjoy the more pleasurable sensation of talking about themselves.

In the second part of the study, the researchers wanted to find out how important having an audience is to listen to one's self-disclosure.

"We didn't know if self-disclosure was rewarding because you get to think about yourself and thinking about yourself is rewarding, or if it is important to have an audience," Tamir said.

As anyone with 700 Facebook friends might have guessed, the researchers found greater reward activity in the brains of people when they got to share their thoughts with a friend or family member, and less of a reward sensation when they were told their thoughts would be kept private.

"I think the study helps to explain why people utilize social media websites so often," Tamir said. "I think it helps explain why Twitter exists and why Facebook is so popular -- because people enjoy sharing information about each other."

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deborah.netburn@latimes.com

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