Addicted to Likes

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“Like this.” That’s a phrase as common on the Internet as LOL. Some are claiming that these little boosts to self-esteem are addictive – craved even more than sex. An article in the New York Times looked at one researcher’s findings: college students wanted approval more than any other pleasant activity they were asked about, including sex, favorite foods, drinking alcohol, seeing a best friend or receiving a paycheck.

Dr. Brad Bushman, professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State, put it this way:

“It is somewhat surprising how this desire to feel worthy and valuable trumps almost any other pleasant activity you can imagine.”

Seeking the approval of others is human nature

It’s speculated that there is a deep evolutionary link to the herd instinct in humans. We certainly do feel the effects of peer pressure and we look to others to decide what’s right and wrong. Gaining the approval of others would then be a mark of doing the right thing, the honorable thing and the praiseworthy. It also explains why addiction in general is higher in certain communities than in others. If you are embedded in a religious culture where alcohol use is seen as dishonorable and a character flaw, you are less likely to become an alcoholic. Contrariwise, put the same person in a community where drinking is common (or even admired) and you’ll get more alcohol abuse.

Interestingly, an example of a community where drinking a great deal may be praiseworthy is the college campus itself, making the recipe for binging go like this: I seek approval of my peers --> they admire someone who can swill excessive alcohol --> I will drink to gain their approval. What a mess!

So is it really an addiction?

Bushman doesn’t think so. “It wouldn’t be correct to say that the study participants were addicted to self-esteem,” Bushman said. “But they were closer to being addicted to self-esteem than they were to being addicted to any other activity we studied.”

The difference seems to be whether students wanted an activity or liked it. Traditional addictions (gambling, drugs) showed up as wants. Boosts to self-esteem showed up as likes instead. This parallels what actual addicts say: they want to satisfy their addiction, but they don’t like the process at all.

Bushman said there is nothing wrong with a healthy sense of self-esteem. But the results of this study suggest many young people may be a little too focused on pumping up their self-esteem. When it motivates someone to get a good grade, that’s a positive. When the same motivation is used to get young people to buy a particular shoe or adopt a harmful behavior, that’s clearly a negative.

(More on this study here.)

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