How Social Media Makes Us Act Like Lab Rats, Pressing Buttons For Rewards


Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

clockMar 9 2021, 17:09 UTC

It's reminiscent of lab rats placed in a Skinner box: press the correct button to receive a treat, eat, feel good, repeat. Image credit: Ali Efe Yilmaz/

It’s estimated that around one in four young people have a problematic relationship with their smartphone, chasing “likes” and spending hours hooked to their screens like a moth to a flame. According to a new study, this compulsive effect of social media on humans is extremely similar to a lab rat pushing buttons for food. 


Scientists at New York University have shown how social media engagement – especially users’ efforts to gain likes – is driven by basic reward learning behavior. While the motives behind this behavior in humans can undoubtedly be complex, it essentially follows the same simple pattern of behavior seen in many species when seeking rewards.

Perhaps most clearly, it's reminiscent of lab rats placed in a Skinner box: press the correct button to receive a treat, eat, feel good, repeat. The more treats they get, the more they press the buttons.

"These results establish that social media engagement follows basic, cross-species principles of reward learning," Professor David Amodio, study author from the New York University and the University of Amsterdam, said in a statement. "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."

The study was recently reported in the journal Nature Communications.


For the study, the researchers started by analyzing over one million posts from over 4,000 people on Instagram and other social media platforms. By looking at the frequency of posts, they found that people entered a rhythm of posting that maximizes how many "likes" they receive on average – i.e. posting more often in response to a high number of likes and less frequently when they receive fewer likes. This, the researchers argue, could be considered a form of reward maximization. This is a phenomenon seen in animals seeking food which explains how behavior is driven and reinforced by rewards.

To dig deeper into this question, the team gathered 176 people to take part in an online experiment where they posted memes and received likes on an Instagram-like platform. Once again, they discovered that people posted more the more successful their posts were, another example of basic reward learning behavior similar to that in animals looking for snacks.

The researchers were hesitant to say whether this study affirms the addictive properties of social media, arguing there could be a number of other motivations to post on social media in addition to reward-seeking, such as self-expression to relationship development. Nevertheless, an increasing number of people are engaging in social media and smartphone use that could be described as addictive and problematic.


Earlier this month, scientists at King’s College London released a study that looked at over 1,000 young people in the UK and concluded that nearly 40 percent displayed some degree of smartphone addiction. Paired with this, those with smartphone addiction were more likely to experience poor sleep.