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What Happens in your Hidden Mind when you Scroll Facebook

  • Reading time:6 mins read

It’s not pretty

Upon opening Facebook, the first thing that draws your attention are notifications. What happens in your hidden mind when you click them?

Seeing notifications

  1. The potential for relevant new information triggers dopamine release. Information improved survival chances in the Paleolithic so our hidden mind evolved to make us crave it (through dopamine). As long as it is relevant
  2. The random nature of the notifications amplifies the dopamine release. You might get a real reward (someone loved your selfie) or a dud (notification that someone posted something you don’t care about). 
  3. There is also stress because the notifications might reveal threatening information. In general any new information can represent a threat. In particular on social media, much of the information is a threat (from a social perspective) and triggers anxiety. This stress activates energy-mobilizing and motivating systems in your neurology. Thus you perceive it as a thrill.

Just upon seeing notifications there are already powerful systems in your hidden mind pushing you to engage with social media. This is why social media is now designed so that you get notifications almost every time you open the app. Our hidden mind is frankly too stupid to adapt to the fact that most of them are ‘fake notifications’, e.g. a group has new posts, that exist only to trigger these survival mechanisms. 

Do not fret. It becomes even more manipulative further on.

After you open the notifications:

4. If the notifications are disappointing. Your hidden mind is already in reward seeking mode from the anticipation. It pushes you to scroll Facebook to find the expected reward.

5. If the notifications provide a reward, like a like or a comment. Your hidden mind is also in reward seeking mode, and the pleasure signals that there are more potential rewards to be found. It pushes you to scroll to seek them out.

When scrolling:

6. Every post and story is new information. For your hidden mind any new information is desirable as long as it appears relevant to you and your situation. You want more and more.

7. Posts and stories are from and with people that you know. This makes them appear highly relevant to your hidden mind and releases more dopamine.

8. The fact that information is about people you know activates your deep need for belonging. We are desperate for validation because in the Paleolithic no human could survive along, only in tribes. So belonging to a tribe is life.

9. You see people showing off with experience, products, appearance. This likely feels to your hidden mind like a threat to your status. Their increase in social status makes yours lower by comparison. You want to comfort yourself and quell this anxiety so you scroll more in search of good-feel rewards.

10. Seeing people in activities where you were not present also creates FOMO. This is in fact a fear of not belonging (because you were not with the tribe, you were excluded), and a fear of losing opportunities. This creates anxiety which promotes more scrolling to comfort yourself.

When you get likes or comments on your own content

These are validation and feed your need for belonging. However the nature of social media perverts this validation:

11. If you less likes than usual, you will feel anxiety. Your hidden mind interprets this as rejection rather than validation. 

12. If you get as many likes as usual, it’s mixed. You will feel both validation, but also some anxiety that you are not progressing. For any quantifiable activity where you can measure success, your mind wants you to perform better and better. This is because we are learning machines, as this was our key superpower for survival and reproduction. Depending on your mood, you will feel either more validation, or more anxiety.

13. If you get more likes than usual, then you feel pleasure. It might be high enough that you close Facebook. Or you might scroll for more.

The validation on social media is a Sisyphus game. Your hidden mind always wants more than before. But everybody else’s is the same. So on social media everybody fights for everybody else’s validation without ever feeling satisfied and content enough to give validation to others.

When do you exit Facebook scroll?

  1. When you accumulate too much cognitive and emotional fatigue. As we explored, scrolling social media requires processing a lot of new information and a lot of emotions. Your brain gets tired. 

Social media is not a break, it’s more work.

2. When there is insufficient reward in the content you see. If too many consecutive posts do not provide the desired dopamine hit, your hidden mind concludes it’s not worth the effort and seeks other instant gratification. 

The complex algorithms and A.I. work hard to prevent this from happening.

3. When you find information so interesting that you follow the link or search it on the browser. This moves you away from Facebook. If it’s interesting enough for you to think about it, this moves you out of the dopamine reward-seeking mode.

The implication is that any algorithm that optimizes for time spent on Facebook, will optimize against information that makes you think.

4. When you feel too much anxiety. If content that provokes anxiety piles on without any soothing instant gratification, your hidden mind decides to avoid the cause and exist social media.

This anxiety does not disappear when you close Facebook. It remains to have negative effects in your behaviour and health.

That’s the simple act of scrolling Facebook. We call it mindless scrolling because we are not conscious of our actions. But your hidden mind is working heavily to chase the rewards within. It does not comprehend they are laced with anxiety and addictive properties.

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