By now you’ve probably heard about Instagram’s announcement to hide public likes on user images. And while we’re all waiting to see how these changes will play out for regular folks and influencers alike, it’s worth noting that the needs of the human brain have not been subject to change.
Neuroscience research shows that the brain’s most basic human needs haven’t changed much in the last 10,000 years. The limbic brain, or the oldest part of your brain, prioritizes social connecting and asks, “Am I in or am I out?” In fact, the brain never stops asking that question.
When we’re getting hearts or likes or shares, it triggers the reward center in the brain. When we feel like we’re not getting approval — even if it’s from something we believe to be trivial like “not enough” likes — it can trigger emotional pain and fear of being left out. Why? Because the brain is always assessing belonging.
Which brings us to a fundamental question about how we use social media: Are we using a platform to build a social profile with likes, comments, and shares to affirm an aspirational identity? Or are we using it to build a social community where we connect with people over common threads and feel we belong?
While we all share the basic human need for belonging, there are generational trends and tendencies that differentiate how those needs are best met. As products of our environment and the context in which we grew up, generational differences spawn different adaptations.
In the spring I attended a certified generations professional training with Melissa Furman, a faculty member and former assistant dean at Georgia’s Augusta University and founder of Career Potential LLC. Her areas of expertise include generational diversity, and what I learned at this training shaped the way I understood the workplace needs of different generations.
For example, I’m a Gen X-er who grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, and like many others in my generation, I had odd jobs for most of my childhood before starting work in my teens. Indeed, research shows X-ers tend toward workaholism, under-engagement, and burnout. My generation — along with baby boomers — has a high divorce rate. When it comes to belonging, it seems that Gen X-ers tend to search for and find connectivity through work and personal achievements.
Millennials, on the other hand, were largely raised by boomers who came of age in the ’60s. Their sense of belonging is far more socially oriented. Millennials tend to become financially independent later than other generations because of a heightened emphasis on formal education, gap years, and the Great Recession. They tend to like feedback at work because recognition and feedback were ingrained in their childhoods.
These experience-based tendencies don’t make millennials poor employees; it just means they’re different from the generations who came before them. This desire for feedback is reinforced by social-media platforms — and millennials may suffer on these platforms if they’re used to comparing themselves to others. Comparison may come in the form of counting likes and followers, or just thinking that someone’s life is far better than your own. In short, if you grew up evaluating your worth by comparing yourself to others, then the absence of a comparison mechanism creates a bit of an identity crisis.
As for Gen Z, early research indicates that because they were raised by Gen X-ers who were so work focused — and because they’re being raised in a time when social media is everywhere — they crave authentic relationships to feel they belong. Z-ers are showing that they want face-to-face communication and generally use technology more as a tool. It will be interesting to see how these needs translate to their sense of belonging as they continue to grow up and enter the workforce.
Regardless of preference, belonging is a human need for everyone. Whether you turn to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Tik Tok, or eschew social media entirely, this need drives our behavior. Even though we know intellectually that social connectivity is about more than the superficial connection of “likes,” it doesn’t mean we’re immune to the habituated rush of pleasure or dose of pain that can come when the brain signals to the rest of the body that you do or don’t belong.
Research shows us that likes on social media do provide a boost, but only in the short term. Your dopamine goes up, but pretty soon you’ll need another boost. In other words, likes can feel nice and curb the hunger, yet they won’t feed the soul.
We’ll have to see if this new version of Instagram moves us from aspirational identity and short-term ego hits to a platform with more opportunity for authentic community building and belonging. Will users turn to other platforms for their quick, feel-good boosts? Will ceasing to publicly count likes help build a stronger social community? And as this unfolds, we will still know what the human brain needs. The question is, where will we go and what will we do to get it?
Originally published on Business Insider.
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