News, social networks ...: how our brain makes us addicted to the news

According to a new study, information would play the same role as money and sweets on our brain by acting on our reward circuit.

Rush on our smartphone at the slightest notification, check regularly if we have received important emails or surf compulsively on social networks ... At a time when new technologies are an integral part of our daily lives and where the "beep" telling us the arrival of a new message punctuate our days, we are all more or less concerned by these behaviors.

But can we go so far as to say that we are addicted to information or social networks? This is in any case the thesis developed by researchers at the Haas School of Business at the University of Berkeley. In the review Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), they explain that the information acts on the reward circuit of the brain by producing dopamine. In exactly the same way as money or sweets do.

"For the brain, information is its own reward, beyond its utility," says neuroeconomist Ming Hsu. "And just as our brains love the empty calories of junk food, they can overstate information that makes us feel good but may not be useful, which some call idle curiosity."

Anticipating the reward makes the information valuable

In their study, the researcher and his student showed that the brain converts information into curiosity and how this way we consume it is addictive to digital. "We have been able to demonstrate for the first time the existence of a common neuronal code between information and money, which opens the door to a number of exciting questions about how people consume, and sometimes too much, information, "says Professor Hsu.

To better understand how this phenomenon works, researchers scanned people's brains while playing a game of chance. Each participant received a series of lotteries and had to decide how much he was willing to pay to learn more about the odds of winning. In some cases, the information was precious to hope to win more, in others it was not worth much, for example when the stake was low.

In most cases, participants made rational choices based on the economic value of the information, that is, how much money it could help them earn. But researchers have found that they also tend to overstate information in general, and particularly in high-value lotteries. It appears that the higher stakes have increased people's curiosity about information, even when the information has had no effect on their decisions.

The researchers felt that these sources of information research were driven by both economic and psychological reasons: people "bought" the information not only in terms of its actual benefits, but also in terms of the anticipation of its information. benefits, whether used or not.

For Professor Hsu, it's like wanting to know if we have received a good job offer, even though we do not intend to accept it. "Anticipation serves to amplify how good or bad something looks, and the anticipation of a more rewarding reward makes the information even more valuable," he says.

The same effect as the junk food

The researchers also wondered how our brain reacts to information. By analyzing participants' MRIs, they discovered that gambling score information had activated the same brain regions as those producing dopamine and activated by junk food, money or drugs.

They also discovered that curiosity about information produced the same neural code that it produces for money or other tangible rewards. "We can look into the brain and say how much someone wants an item of information, and then translate that brain activity into monetary amounts," says the researcher.

Although the research does not directly address the overconsumption of digital information, the fact that information engages the brain's reward system is a necessary condition for the cycle of dependence. "The way our brain reacts to the anticipation of a nice reward is an important reason why people are sensitive to clickbait," says Hsu.

Video: SOCIAL MEDIA ADDICTION. Leslie Coutterand. TEDxMarin (November 2019).