Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Evolutionary Reason We Obsessively Check Facebook

Today's topic is how we're evolutionarily programmed to obsessively check Facebook.

Let's just say that you log on to Facebook and get a good laugh out of a friend's status. You log on a few more times that day, but nothing is interesting. But of course, before going to bed, you log back on one more time just in case. And lucky you - you get another late night chuckle.

First, in this little story, the funny statuses play the role of the reinforcer. Second, the fact that you never know when someone is going to write something clever makes the reinforcer intermittent - or, in other words, random. Put them together and what do you get? A little term us psychologists call intermittent reinforcement.

So the interesting thing is this: when we are intermittently reinforced, we tend to display obsessive behavior (e.g. gambling). Following the rule that intermittent reinforcement leads to obsessive behavior, in this example, never knowing when you're going to read something funny partially explains why we tend to check Facebook all the time as a species. [We also find humor, human interaction, and gossip particularly rewarding.]

So what may the evolutionary advantages to intermittent reinforcement be? Well, I'm not sure if there are too many evolutionary advantages to obsessively checking Facebook, but there certainly are for the underlying mechanism.

Specifically, I was thinking that animals may have evolved to become sensitive to intermittent reinforcement because if we become more persistent in the face of scarce reinforcement / resources, we may increase our chances of success.

Let's consider the definition of perseverance: steady persistence in a course of action, a purpose, a state, etc., especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement.

In that definition, if "difficulties, obstacles, and discouragement" is conceptualized as a lack of reinforcement, then "persistence in a course of action" can be viewed as the somewhat obsessive behavior seen when intermittent reinforcement is given.

While perseverance (with a positive connotation) is readily associated with success, before today, I never considered perseverance as the behavioral result of an environment that is intermittently reinforcing. I'm guessing that will power comes into play too... but honestly, who really knows?

Now, while being sensitive to intermittent reinforcement may be helpful for us to persevere when times are tough, this tendency likely shaped by evolution won't serve us well in every scenario.

There is definitely a darker side to all of this. For instance, if you're more sensitive to intermittent reinforcement, you might be more inclined to stay in a roller coaster relationship, become a compulsive gambler or get engrossed with more trivial matters to increase your mood (e.g. check Facebook more times than you'd like to admit).

We typically think about engaging in these types of activities as a means to avoid feeling negative emotions like boredom, sadness, etc. It may certainly be the case that we engage in behaviors like obsessively checking Facebook to both avoid life and gain pleasure. At the same time, the obsessive nature of Facebook checking may be attributed to the underlying process may be one of intermittent reinforcement.

On a related note, rather than viewing psychopathology in terms of reward sensitivity, I wonder if sensitivity to specific types of reinforcement (or "schedules" as we call them) matters. Namely, sensitivity to intermittent reinforcement may be at the root. Food for thought.

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[And some food for later thought: perhaps this whole idea of valuing one's own naturally persevering nature somehow relates to asceticism. Together they combine to a pretty intense personality that is sensitive to reward.]
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