Social Media Affirmation Goes Both Ways

New research suggests that it's just as rewarding to "like" as to be "liked."

Posted Sep 28, 2018

Pixabay / CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay / CC0 Public Domain

Whether we’re willing to admit it or not, we’ve all done it.  We take an amazing photo—of our child, our dog, our dinner…ourselves—and post it to Facebook or Instagram for all the world to see.  Then, vowing to show a little patience and self-control this time, we close the app and put our device away with every intention of completely ignoring it for at least an hour. At the end of five minutes, however, we find ourselves reaching into our pocket or purse once again just for a quick check to see how many of our friends have liked the picture so far. And whether we’re pleasantly surprised or unpleasantly disappointed by the number we see next to the thumbs-up icon, we’ll very likely be checking back again five minutes later to see how many more likes have been added to that number. As much as we prefer to think of ourselves as being above such things, most of us would have to confess that we really like to be liked—or, more specifically, we derive satisfaction from having other people like our posts on social media. So very powerful is this source of online affirmation, in fact, that neuroimaging studies have shown that the same reward circuitry in our brains that is activated when we receive money is activated when we receive likes on one of our social media posts.

This general compulsion to be liked on social media makes us all sound unflatteringly egocentric. Indeed, social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram are frequently and widely criticized for promoting a “cult of the selfie.” As undeniable as is the potential of social media to cultivate a self-absorbed preoccupation with being liked, however, a recent study suggests that the pleasure to be found in the “like” button might not be exclusively self-directed. Turning the tables on all the research demonstrating how positively our brains respond when we receive likes on a social media post, researchers at UCLA set out to find how the brain responds when we like the posts of other people (i.e. when we give likes rather than receive them).

Fifty-eight participants were each asked to submit several of their own previously posted photos to be installed in an internal social network resembling Instagram. Believing that the 148 photos in this internal network were those submitted by all of the participants in the study, each participant was actually presented with a collection of photos randomly selected from Instagram by the study team, along with the photos that the individual participant had contributed. Each photo was accompanied with a number of likes supposedly assigned by other participants in the study, but, once again, randomly distributed by the study team. While inside an MRI scanner, each participant viewed all 148 photos in succession, and either clicked “Like” or “Next” before moving on the next photo.

At the conclusion of the experiment, an analysis of the MRI data revealed that liking a photo—as opposed to clicking “Next” and moving on—activated the same reward circuitry in the brain as is typically activated by receiving likes from others. It turns out that providing positive feedback to others by clicking the “Like” button beneath a social media post is just as rewarding as having other people provide that same positive feedback to us.

Now, this study does not suggest that spending hours a day scrolling through Facebook and Instagram makes us better human beings—kinder, and more considerate of the feelings of others. It does, however, at least hint at the possibility that the familiar thumbs-up icon can be as rewarding to click as it is to count—that “likes” can be as satisfying to give as to receive.


“The Cult of the Selfie: A Snapshot of Self-Obsession.” The New Daily, 8 Aug. 2014,

Lauren E Sherman, Leanna M Hernandez, Patricia M Greenfield, Mirella Dapretto; What the brain ‘Likes’: neural correlates of providing feedback on social media, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Volume 13, Issue 7, 4 September 2018, Pages 699–707.