A recent article in The Atlantic hit close to home, and it’s worth a little meditation from those of us who trade in the world of ideas, particularly in the online marketplace.
When we share, it’s actually self-serving.
The Selfish Meme reports on recent research that suggests that humans get a “neurochemical reward from sharing information, and a significantly bigger reward from disclosing their own thoughts and feelings than from reporting someone else’s.”
The part of the brain long known to respond to food, sex, and money also lights up when we, well, talk about ourselves and our views on the world.
The troubling paradox, of course, is that when we share (ostensibly a magnanimous act), it’s actually self-serving. I think I’m helping you, but I’m actually the one benefiting.
Interestingly, we talk about ourselves more when on online—via Facebook or Twitter, for example—than when we’re face-to-face. As one researcher pointed out, when we’re with someone, we can receive social cues (eye rolling, ending eye contact) telling us to cut it out, stop focusing on ourselves. But when you’re on a computer program that allows you to be on “transmit” instead of “receive,” you can publicly look inward with impunity.
The article ends with another unexpected paradox, that this mirror-gazing behavior might actually have both social and evolutionary utility. Yes, demonstrating naked self-fascination is personally pleasurable, but it also helps strengthen interpersonal bonds and enables others to learn information they might not come across otherwise.
I’ve always justified my blogging—which, upon a bit of reflection thanks to this article, is particularly self-absorbed—to myself and others as an admittedly selfish pursuit: If I know I have to write, I have to read and think. And, because of the way I’m hardwired, I think best (making connections, testing new concepts) when I write. So I’m quite conscious that blogging is good for me. I’ve always said, and honestly believed, that I’d blog even if no one was reading. It helps me get smarter, which is easily worth the price of admission for me.
What I hadn’t realized is that the cause of my enjoyment of this kind of writing extends beyond satisfying my desire for self-improvement. If this research is right, I’m actually plying myself with surges of feel-good chemicals when I share my ideas.
I used to think I woke up early to read and write because of a combination of self-discipline and a desire to improve myself. But maybe the real early-morning jolt I crave isn’t that first or second cup of coffee; it’s the rush of dopamine flooding my brain knowing that you and others are about to read what I have to say.
Lots to consider here—why people continuously check how many Twitter followers they have, why so many people comment nastily on online articles, why some people dominate conversations with personal stories.
And why a guy with three young kids would wake up at 4:30AM on a Sunday to read and write…and then tell you that he does that.