By Yvonne Milosevic
Do you compulsively check your phone at least 537 times a day? Maybe you’re incapable of standing in a line or even using the loo without your precious iPhone in hand. You may suffer from information addiction. That’s totes normal, and Berkeley Haas neuro-economist Ming Hsu says our brains are to blame. That’s because its dopamine-producing reward system lights up as information flows in—just as it does with drugs, money, or Cheetos. The dopamine system triggers when it comes across the unexpected. If the rewards crop up randomly—the way texts, email, and Facebook tags do—we become even more excited, Hsu has found.
The cravings of information addiction
“To the brain, information is its own reward, above and beyond whether it’s useful,” the neuro-economist says. His research uses functional magnetic imaging (fMRI), psychological theory, economic modeling, and machine learning. We’re all familiar with the way our monkey brains crave junk food. Similarly, they also overvalue information that makes us feel good, says Hsu. Whether the info is useful or not is beside the point.
Hsu co-authored a paper on the subject with grad student Kenji Kobayashi. In it, they lay out how our brains convert information into the same standard scale as it does for money. Just as we can assign a dollar value to disparate things such as a painting, a steak dinner, and a vacation, Hsu says the brain converts curiosity about information into the same common code it uses for concrete rewards like money.
The neuroscience at work
To test their theory, the researchers scanned the brains of test subjects as they played a gambling game. Hsu and Kobayashi showed each participant a series of lotteries. Then, they asked them to decide how much they were willing to pay to learn more about the odds of winning.
For the most part, the study subjects made rational choices based on the economic value of the information (how much money it could help them win). But that didn’t explain all their choices. People tended to over-value information in general, and particularly in higher-valued lotteries. It appeared that the higher stakes increased people’s curiosity in the information, even when the information had no effect on their decisions whether to play.
“We were able to demonstrate for the first time the existence of a common neural code for information and money,” Hsu says. This, he adds, opens the door to exciting questions about how people consume, and sometimes over-consume, information.
“Anticipation serves to amplify how good or bad something seems, and the anticipation of a more pleasurable reward makes the information appear even more valuable,” Hsu explains. He compares it to wanting to know whether we received a great job offer, even if we have no intention of taking it.
Admittedly, this research doesn’t focus on the over-consumption of information. But Hsu says that the way information engages the brain’s reward system mimics the conditions for the addiction cycle. “The way our brains respond to the anticipation of a pleasurable reward is an important reason why people are susceptible to clickbait,” Hsu notes.
Recovery plan for info addicts
We’ve talked before about the importance of going offline once in a while. If you’re a junkie looking to break your information addiction, check out these recommendations from The Verge of the best gadgets and apps to help you “change your behavior, and embrace the FOMO.” Ironically, your precious phone is there to help when you’re ready for a digital detox.