Social media use driven by search for reward, akin to animals seeking food

Today’s social media has turned into a virtual life platform, on which modern humans can compete for appreciation and from which they can derive psychologically rewarding experiences. Often these psychological rewards arrive in the form of positive feedback to our online behaviour, such as “likes” of our posts, or increase of the number of our profile followers. Interestingly, our efforts to maximize such forms of positive feedback, seem to follow the same fundamental reward learning laws, that govern the behavior of lab animals, aiming to maximize food rewards.

In a recent study published in Nature Communications, a team of researchers at the University of Amsterdam analysed over one million posts from over 4000 individuals on multiple social media platforms, using computational models based on reinforcement learning theory. Their results consistently showed that “human behavior on social media conforms qualitatively and quantitatively to the principles of reward learning”. Furthermore, to test empirically this computational model, the researchers conducted an online experiment, in which they were able to influence the the latency of people’s response to posts by manipulating the rewards/”likes” rate.

“These results establish that social media engagement follows basic, cross-species principles of reward learning,” explains David Amodio, a professor at New York University and the University of Amsterdam and one of the paper’s authors. “These findings may help us understand why social media comes to dominate daily life for many people and provide clues, borrowed from research on reward learning and addiction, to how troubling online engagement may be addressed.”

Source: New York University. “Social media use driven by search for reward, akin to animals seeking food.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 February 2021.< >

Study Reference: Björn Lindström, Martin Bellander, David T. Schultner, Allen Chang, Philippe N. Tobler, David M. Amodio. A computational reward learning account of social media engagementNature Communications, 2021; 12 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-19607-x

Image source:, Kevin Leconte