Have you ever been at a party where someone has talked about themselves without pause? You may have thought this a case of “too much information”, but science is begging to differ.
According to new research from Harvard University, disclosing information about yourself may be intrinsically rewarding.
We know humans are highly social beings, and that we need social contact and communication for our fundamental well-being. An important part of social contact is feeling connected and sharing our experiences with others.
In fact, studies suggest approximately 30-40% of our speech output is devoted to sharing our subjective experiences with others.
Anyone following Twitter or status updates on Facebook can attest to this, as surveys of posts to social media sites show more than 80% of status updates are announcements of a person’s immediate experiences.
But little did you know that your friend’s update attesting to the fact they were eating freshly grown tomatoes from their own garden before picking up their son from school was actually causing a burst of activity in the pleasure centres of their brain.
The Harvard researchers were intrigued by the phenomenon of self-disclosure in speech, and studied it by examining brain responses in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner while people disclosed their own opinions or judged the opinions of other people.
When people discussed their own opinions there was activation in the same brain regions that typically become active when we receive intrinsic rewards such as food, money and sex.
Similarly, activity in these same reward networks was greater when people considered their own personality traits, compared to when they considered those of others.
In fact, researchers compared brain responses from a previous task in which people had received monetary rewards and found there was a considerable overlap of activity in the same regions as when they engaged in self-disclosure.
To confirm this, the researchers presented people with three different choices of activity while they were in the MRI scanner. They could disclose information about themselves; they could discuss the opinions of others; or they could answer a factual question related to a trivia items.
Each choice was associated with a small monetary reward of differing value. The hypothesis was that, if people found self-disclosure to be intrinsically rewarding, they would choose the self-disclosure option even if the monetary reward was lower than if they chose to discuss other’s opinions or answer a factual question.
The results showed people were willing to lose out on 17% of potential earnings to self-disclose. As money-hungry as we are, it seems talking about ourselves wins out.
But couldn’t this just be finding pleasure in thinking about ourselves? After all, most of us enjoy getting caught up in daydreams about ourselves or going back over a social scene where we delivered a killer one-liner.
To test this out, brain responses were measured when people shared their opinions out loud to a friend and when they just thought about their opinions privately. Differing monetary rewards were offered.
Again, the researchers found people valued self-disclosure more than just thinking about themselves, as they willingly gave up the most money when they could introspect about the self and share it with others.
All in all, this research seems to suggest people find self-disclosure intrinsically rewarding.
So next time you’re at a party and someone says “that’s just like me …”, remember: they’re just blissing out on a dose of themselves. And your dose will come soon enough.