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How Social Media Uses Human Nature Against You

It’s not your fault if you base your social success on your number of followers.


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Katie Santamaria

3 years ago | 4 min read

(Wo)man is by nature a social animal. Aristotle dropped that wisdom for us — minus the gender inclusivity — in 350 B.C. on his fire track Politics, and honestly, not that much has changed since then.

Whether it’s earning your olive wreath after winning in ancient Greece’s naked Olympics or getting crowned prom queen with a Party City tiara, nothing quite compares with the human desire for social success and a sense of belonging.

Before I delve into why this social need is a problem, let me give you a quick psych refresher. Abraham Maslow (1908–1970) created the hierarchy of needs, a pyramid which shows that needs can be sorted in order from basest to most difficult to achieve.

The idea behind his pyramid is that you can’t achieve something higher on the pyramid without fulfilling that below. Here’s what I mean:

Yes, I drew this. Yes, I know my drawing skills are that of a 3rd grader. No, I’m not sorry.
Yes, I drew this. Yes, I know my drawing skills are that of a 3rd grader. No, I’m not sorry.

According to the hierarchy, you can’t achieve safety without fulfilling physiological needs. You can’t fulfill your desire for love and belonging without a sense of safety.

Now, I’m not saying I necessarily agree that it’s such a straightforward hierarchy. In fact, much subsequent research disagrees with many of Maslow’s claims.

However, there’s a reason Maslow is still relevant today: the point here is that love and belonging are the foundation upon which many other needs are fulfilled.

By “love,” I mean social success, not necessarily romance. If your social needs aren’t fulfilled, it’ll be really hard to have a sense of achievement. That’s just human nature.

Now, think about it: for the first time in history, the impressions we make on others are quantifiable.

Namely, you can see likes, followers, comments, and views on what you post to social media accounts. That media acts as an extension of our identity and is a huge part of fostering socialization during this digital age.

Have you ever wondered why you care so much about social media? I used to be obsessed with the number of likes I got on photos and would even delete those that didn’t get enough likes.

Soon, I found myself posting according to what would perform best, and I was cultivating a personal brand. I faulted myself for this obsessive nature, but really, it’s hugely due to our human nature: we need to feel as though we belong.

The fact that likes, followers, comments, and views are quantifiable turns social interaction — something that was once based upon personal feeling — into something that can be measured by a computer. Worse, that measurement permanent and public.

Sure, one could argue that not everybody cares about likes. If that’s the case, then I congratulate you for seeing beyond those metrics.

More and more people have learned the value of doing so. However, technology and social media is specifically engineered to foster addiction. Here’s a quick scientific explanation for you:

Social media platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram produce the same neural circuitry that is caused by gambling and recreational drugs to keep consumers using their products as much as possible.

Studies have shown that the constant stream of retweets, likes, and shares from these sites have affected the brain’s reward area to trigger the same kind of chemical reaction as other drugs, such as cocaine.

In fact, neuroscientists have compared social media interaction to a syringe of dopamine being injected straight into the system (Addiction Center, 2020).

(Wait, social media and drugs do similar things to our brains? Maybe we should start saying “Don’t Do Social Media” to kids, too.)

The second key point I’m trying to make here is that social media has gamified socialization and how we measure social success, love, and belonging. This gamification is dangerous because it means that there are clear-cut winners and losers.

The solution to overcoming gamification of social media and the quantification of social belonging is to remove digital metrics from our brains when considering how successful our social lives are. This is difficult to do because, like I wrote above, social media is quite literally addictive.

We’re being used by companies that profit off our addiction, and these companies are preventing the acquisition of one of our basest needs — love and belonging— by changing the way we measure social success.

We need to fight the addictive platforms around us and remember that social worth isn’t based on any metric Instagram can give you. It’s based on how you feel when you’re with another person.

It’s based on that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you laugh so hard that it’s hard to breathe. It’s based on the quality of relationships, not the quantity of followers. I know that’s a hard thing to believe when so much of our lives are online, but it’s the truth. Sorry, Mark Zuckerberg.

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