The trouble with pop accounts of scientific studies

A few nights ago, while reading through my Flipboard on the iPad, I came across this article: Facebook, Twitter, and other social media are brain candy, study says. I was immediately suspicious. So I decided to find the actual study to which they were referring. This, of course, made my brain hurt; as a humanities person, I am still struggling to make sense of scientific methodology and approaches. But, I read through it anyway.

In the study, Disclosing Information about the self is intrinsically rewarding, researchers out of Harvard (Diana I. Tamir and Jason P. Mitchell) completed a series of 5 experiments involving self-disclosure. While I could try to summarize their introductory description and hypothesis, I think it might be safer to just let them explain:

Studies of human conversation have documented that 30–40% of everyday speech is used to relay information to others about one’s private experiences or personal relationships (1–4), and recent surveys of Internet use indicate that upwards of 80% of posts to social media sites (such as Twitter) consist simply of announcements about one’s own immediate experiences (5). Although other primates do not generally attempt to communicate to others what they know—for example, by pointing out interesting things or modeling behaviors for others to imitate— by 9 mo of age, human children begin trying to draw others’ attention to aspects of the environment that they find important (6), and adults in all societies make consistent attempts to impart their knowledge to others (7). Recently, a number of commentators have argued that such unusually high rates of disclosure derive from a species-specific motivation to share one’s beliefs and knowledge about the world (6, 7), suggesting that our species may have an intrinsic drive to disclose thoughts to others.

Here’s their hypothesis:

This account suggests the following hypothesis: To the extent that humans are motivated to propagate the products of their minds, opportunities to disclose one’s thoughts should be experienced as a powerful form of subjective reward. Here, across five studies, we used a combination of neuroimaging and cognitive methods to demonstrate empirical support for this possibility.

Well, maybe I should try to put this into my own words. After completing five different experiments, all of which involved analyzing the “neural regions in the brain associated with reward,” when subjects were disclosing information to self and to others, the scientists concluded that, just like wanting food or sex, people intrinsically want to share. And they share because it stimulates the reward center of the brain (as opposed to sharing for advantage or to be liked or for well-being). The scientists conclude their short paper by suggesting that this desire to share speaks to the “extreme sociality of our species” (5).

As I think more about this study, I am (at least a little) intrigued. It’s interesting to think through the neurological reasons why we might have a desire to share ideas, experiences, knowledge with others. I’m glad that I read the actual study instead of just the pop piece in the LA Times. While this study uses their conclusions to point to our desire to share and our fundamental sociality, the LA Times piece (mis)uses the study in order to explain why people might perpetually (and counfoundingly) overshare online. They write:

So perhaps all this explains the confounding behavior of people who over-share on the Internet, even to their detriment. (Think criminals who get arrested after bragging about their crimes on Facebook, the teenage girl whose online venting about her chores led to her dad shooting her laptop, the guy who almost went to jail for complaining about his wife.)

Really? What are they suggesting with this flippant statement? Don’t blame these idiots who share too much online; it’s their brains fault?! What a waste of an article and a study….

The more I think about, the more curious (or the curiouser?) I get about this study and its implications. In one of the experiments, they tested what difference it made in the reward center of the brain between subjects who revealed information about themselves privately, with the guarantee that no one else would ever see it, and subjects who revealed information about themselves publicly, sometimes with someone else in the room. Researchers determined that sharing publicly stimulated the reward center more. I wonder, does it make any difference whether or not they get a reaction (an affirmation? some feedback? a question?) from others? Is the reward center stimulated even more when there’s engagement? Is it the act of public self-disclosure alone that is intrinsic? Or could it be the social exchange, the process of sharing and engaging, that is intrinsic? I might be reaching too far with my questions. However, as I think through my own use of social media and the real and imagined audiences that I have when I share, I wonder what motivates my interest in expressing and engaging publicly?