Timothy Noah

The Facebook Part of Your Brain

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Why do I post my opinions online, day after day? Ostensibly it's to earn money to feed my family. But there are much easier ways to do that. According to a new study by Harvard psychologists Diana I. Tamir and Jason P. Mitchell published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (and written up in the May 8 Wall Street Journal), I suffer from a "species-specific motivation to share one's beliefs and knowledge about the world" that kicks in at about 9 months, which means I've been doing it almost 54 years. We humans have "an intrinsic drive to disclose thoughts to others." And the thoughts we most especially love to disclose concern ourselves. That explains why I framed this scientific question, quite unnecessarily, as a first-person exploration of my own needs and desires. We humans devote 30-40 percent of speech talking about our own feelings, relationships, experiences. Want to see pictures of me in my Halloween costume? From my trip to the Dalmatian Coast? From my last colonoscopy? Hey, where you going?

This is the Facebook impulse, and it's why the IPO for that company is expected to raise up to $10.6 billion, according to Reuters. Just in time for Mark Zuckerberg's IPO roadshow, Tamir and Mitchell have identified the part of the brain that loves loves loves to go on about itself. It's the mesolimbic dopamine system, including the ventral segmental area (located at the brain's center) and the nucleus accumbens (a little bit further toward the front). This part of the brain likes food, it likes sex, it likes money, it likes drugs (stay away from them anyway, kids), and it likes telling anyone who'll listen where it was on 9/11. It's not particularly interested in talking about what happened to the people inside the World Trade Center on 9/11, which would seem the real heart of the story. And it's not interested in finding out where you were on 9/11, except insofar as that might provide a cue to delve further into its own narrative of self.

The most surprising finding in the study, according to the Journal piece, is this:

In several tests, they offered the volunteers money if they chose to answer questions about other people, such as President Obama, rather than about themselves, paying out on a sliding scale of up to four cents. Questions involved casual matters such as whether someone enjoyed snowboarding or liked mushrooms on a pizza. Other queries involved personality traits, such as intelligence, curiosity or aggression.

Despite the financial incentive, people often preferred to talk about themselves and willingly gave up between 17% and 25% of their potential earnings so they could reveal personal information.

But take a second look at that passage, and ask yourself whether the psychologists should have consulted an economist. The pay scale was "up to four cents." I am not an economist, but I submit that four cents is not, in any practical sense, money. It is something that jiggles in your pocket and every once in a great while permits you to pay for a purchase in exact change. But you can't buy anything with it. Given the choice between experiencing just about any non-monetary pleasure and receiving four cents I would certainly choose the non-monetary pleasure. I might even refuse, politely, the four cents if offered nothing as an alternative. 

Now it's true that "up to four cents" denotes only what you could earn in an individual transaction. The test subjects participated in many transactions. Even so, the average earnings forgone averaged 63 cents in one trial and 54 cents in another. This is only barely, in a practical sense, money, even for a person of very limited means. Once, in Chicago, a panhandler in a wheelchair asked me for money and I gave him about that much, maybe a little more. He looked at my offering in his hand, looked up at me, said "Fuck you," and wheeled angrily away. I interpreted this to mean he thought I was being a cheapskate. That was more than 20 years ago.

The thing to strive for is to get paid to talk about yourself. But even that won't necessarily cure the blues. Spalding Gray was perhaps his generation's most accomplished monologist about the self (his own), yet he ended up killing himself. Maybe he worked too hard to turn his talk into art. Or maybe he would have been infinitely more miserable if he hadn't produced all those monologues.

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