Feb. 3, 2012 at 2:36 PM ET
Scientists, online dating sites, your constantly irritated significant other and Wilhelm Hofmann at University of Chicago's Booth Business School could all save a lot of time over whether we are "addicted" to social media and/or our cellular devices. Rather than pondering or conducting surveys, they could simply do what most normal answer-seeking people do: Go to Wikipedia.
Take, for the sake of this discussion, the aforementioned Hofmann and his underlings at the University of Chicago, whose recent experiment was covered by the Guardian UK. This posse of tech addiction investigators took time out from whatever it is that goes on in business school to "gauge the willpower of 205 people aged between 18 and 85 in and around the German city of Würtzburg," the Guardian reports, concluding in their research that "tweeting or checking emails may be harder to resist than cigarettes and alcohol."
Not for nothing, but shouldn't business school people be busy learning how to further screw the economy or something, rather than reaffirming the results of countless other studies about our ongoing inability to disconnect from technology?
Instead, these academics, who include "one each from Florida State University and Minnesota University," the Guardian notes, outfitted their test subjects with BlackBerrys (I know, right? BlackBerrys!?!), and did this:
The participants were signalled seven times a day over 14 hours for seven consecutive days so they could message back whether they were experiencing a desire at that moment or had experienced one within the last 30 minutes, what type it was, the strength (up to irresistible), whether it conflicted with other desires and whether they resisted or went along with it. There were 10,558 responses and 7,827 "desire episodes" reported.
According to the paper, which will appear in the journal Psychological Science, participants recorded the highest "self-control failure rates" with media — checking Twitter, email, etc. Participants also had a hard time resisting the urge to work. Yet, as the paper states, "people were relatively successful at resisting sports inclinations, sexual urges and spending impulses, which seems surprising given the salience in modern culture of disastrous failures to control sexual impulses and urges to spend money."
So what gives? In Hoffman's humble opinion, which he told the Guardian, "Desires for media may be comparatively harder to resist because of their high availability and also because it feels like it does not 'cost much' to engage in these activities, even though one wants to resist."
All of this is easily answered on Wikipedia, where — if Hofmann and crew are able to avoid stumbling down the rabbit hole of endless links only to come away six hours later with an accidental education on Vichy France ... or maybe every serial killer ever — they'd find everything they need in a thoroughly footnoted entry on dopamine. The piece prints out as 18 pages total and includes a 3-color molecular model. It calls the substance "a simple organic chemical in the catecholamine family, which plays a number of important physiological roles in the bodies of animals."
Most crucially (at least for this topic), one learns that "dopamine plays a major role in the brain system that is responsible for reward-driven learning. Every type of reward that has been studied increases the level of dopamine transmission in the brain."
Every type of reward, including the kind you get when you check Twitter or Facebook or whatever else on your stupid cellular device instead of paying attention to the corporeal hu-mons sitting across from you in the ding dang restaurant!
What's more, when we don't get the reward we're looking for — when we check our connections only to find that we haven't been retweeted, our Facebook status isn't "liked," our email not yet returned — it only reinforces our desire for that dopamine dump.
Here's what Emily Yoffe wrote about it in an article titled "Seeking: How the brain hard-wires us to love Google, Twitter, and texting," which first appeared on Slate in 2009. (2009! That's 90 jillion years ago in Internet time!):
Actually all our electronic communication devices — email, Facebook feeds, texts, Twitter — are feeding the same drive as our [Google] searches. Since we're restless, easily bored creatures, our gadgets give us in abundance qualities the seeking/wanting system finds particularly exciting. Novelty is one. [Washington State University neuroscientist] Jaak Panksepp says the dopamine system is activated by finding something unexpected or by the anticipation of something new. If the rewards come unpredictably — as email, texts, updates do — we get even more carried away. No wonder we call it a "CrackBerry."
"CrackBerry." I know, right? It's an apropos reference given that's the ancient device used in the University of Chicago study. But I told you this dopamine and your tech addiction connection is old news. And let's be honest, knowing that your generally obnoxious behavior is the result of brain chemistry does not give you license to text while walking, yack on the phone while driving, Facebook while dating, or tweet from the toilet.
If Wikipedia teaches us anything, it's that knowledge is power. Now go forward with your knowledge of brain chemistry and stop being a jerk.
More on the annoying way we live now: