I have always wondered if the use of social media or this general bombardment of random information is shaping, re-shaping or in any way affecting our lives in a way that is say, not natural.

It is a known fact that social media usage can sometimes be a bit addictive.

I know numerous colleagues and friends who continually scan Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram etc for “newer” information when there is none, express disappointment when the number of likes or shares of their posts aren’t quite where they expected them to be and suddenly feel hollow or uneasy if they lose internet connectivity. So, what causes this behavior? Is it like any other behavior that you would normally classify as addictive behavior?

There are numerous studies that try to explain addiction but the question that experts have asked is — what results in this repetitive behavior even though there are no instant rewards or possibly negative consequences?

The answer could be “Supernormal Stimuli”.

Wikipedia explains supernormal stimuli as “an exaggerated version of a stimulus to which there is an existing response tendency, or any stimulus that elicits a response more strongly than the stimulus for which it evolved.”

To elaborate, let’s first talk about instincts. For example, birds instinctively sit on eggs to incubate, some insects seek out partners for mating by identifying shapes and colours, some species of male fish attack others instinctively for territorial reasons.

Some smart scientists explored this behaviour a bit further with observations and experiments and this is what they found:

  • Most birds preferred to sit on artificial eggs with more exaggerated colours and markings than their own paler naturally coloured eggs.
  • An Australian species of a beetle tries to mate with beer bottles that he perceives to be an exaggerated form of a female beetle all the while ignoring perfectly healthy female beetles that pass him by.
  • Territorial male stickleback fish would attack wooden floats with red undersides—attacking them more vigorously than invading male sticklebacks if the underside were redder

In all the observations above, the organism is reacting to a stimulus that it wasn’t trained for (mostly introduced by humans for experimentation) and is producing a stronger response than the stimulus for which it evolved.

Extrapolating this Supernormal Stimuli concept further, some scientists and thinkers have stated that addictive behaviours like unhealthy eating and pornography addiction are a result of humans reacting to stimulus that they have not been geared for. Food that is artificially sweeter, saltier, bigger or cosmetically made to look better is far more tempting than a perfectly healthy plate of naturally grown food. Similarly, pornography presents humans with an exaggerated version of reality that they normally would not have encountered. And of course, you have multi-national organisations offering you some carefully crafted marketing, entertainment and products that may knowingly or unknowingly be exploiting this primal reaction. Humans are offered stimulus in any number of ways — artificial food, Photoshopped magazine covers, video games etc.

Back to my original question

Is a combination of technology and social media offering us a stimulus that we are not geared for?

Think about this — since the early hunter-gatherer times to a few decades ago, humans would have been exposed to a fraction of information that they process now. A combination of technology, smart phones, social media, TV and other forms of online “connectedness” results in a massive swarm of information that at face value does not seem to be of relevance or you may have to scan through a continual feed of information to find something of relevance. We do it because we are instinctively geared to absorb information. So, is a Facebook feed a supernormal stimulus and a person-to-person conversation in a park or a café a normal stimulus? What does this actually mean and how is this impacting our lives, our work and our relationships?

Research into this topic is still in its infancy and there are numerous told and untold benefits of technology advancement and social media. However, there are some scary side effects too. Research conducted by Griffith University in 2013 suggested that extensive social media usage may uniquely be associated with deflects in basic cognitive processes such as the ability to successfully filter out irrelevant information and ignore distraction (Becker, Alzahabi & Hopwood 2013). Additionally, this type of poor attentional control has been suggested to maintain and conceivably provoke one of the most common mental illnesses, depression.

So, is the age-old adage of “everything in moderation” the solution?

Is will power enough to filter out the supernormal distractions and get on with our lives in a healthy and productive manner?

Hmm… I might have to write a blog to expand on this.