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This is Your Brain on Social: HeyHuman Has the Science to Prove It

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Through live neuroscience testing and a breakdown of its results, HeyHuman revealed what social media is doing to our brains- and what marketers can learn from it.

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“Live neuroscience testing on stage. What could possibly go wrong?”

Neil Davidson apprehensively started HeyHuman’s session with this question, as he and Aoife McGuinness aimed to show the audience how their behavioral communication agency’s apparatus informed their research. This research aims to examine what happens to our brains over time when we connect with social media. And they shared their insights in “Why You Need to Rewire Your Social Strategy: 6 New Learnings from Neuroscience.”

In the live demonstration (which went off without a hitch!), attendees got to watch as they measured in real time the brain’s motivation, high engagement, and cognitive load through cortical engagement. After viewing a pair of Instagram Story ads, we were able to see how the brain reacts differently to different types of content- namely, between emotional and high-energy content. Davidson and McGuinness believe there are lessons to be learned for brands who want to succeed in this highly competitive landscape, and these lessons are scientifically backed.

Does the Risk Offer Reward?

If you’re looking for scare stories that decry the negative impact on social media, Neil Davidson says the Daily Mail is a good place to start. He shared a headline that claimed social media is ruining lives; those sorts of headlines are dominating the conversation about social media’s impact. HeyHuman’s research is showing something a little different.

While they do have data to support the negative impact of social media, they also have data that shows its positive effects. A Harvard study revealed that sharing personal information on social media activates the reward center of the brain in a manner similar to how food or sex do. And it becomes as addictive as it is because it offers anticipation of a reward, fulfilled in small bursts through likes and engagements. While this can yield the formation of addiction over time, it’s interaction in these spaces that also helps people find community with like minds and generate positive affect as a result.

Subvert User Expectations Responsibly

One of the findings McGuinness reported, was that algorithmic content can sway social media users more powerfully than they know. An example: when asked their favorite meal, results overwhelmingly supported answers prompted by content they saw—although prior surveys revealed different answers. Elsewhere, content was perceived more favorably when surrounded by less dynamic content, but more engaged with when surrounded by exciting content. Another of the relevant key learnings from the session: targeted content generates more engagement and positivity. What does it all mean?

How we present and arrange content is powerful. It can not only inform, but even dictate, the behavior of users. If you, as HeyHuman called for in their 2016 Social Media Week presentation, commit to being “brain-kind,” you’ll use this information in a responsible way.

We’ve Tried Louder, Could We Try Quieter?

As HeyHuman looked at the differences between engagement on Instagram and Facebook, they noted that the former was more cognitively engaging, but left people feeling more negatively. Facebook, by comparison, was more complex, and negativity was borne more of confusion than actual negative affect. Both had a net positive impact on consumers who spent 4-8 hours per day on their phones, in comparison to those who spent less time (1-4 hours) doing the same.

McGuinness posed an interesting suggestion: “we could go quieter, rather than louder.” As attendees learned from the live demonstration, content that more closely depicts smaller, human moments, gets a different reaction from more raucous content. In spaces that are overloaded by posts jockeying for our attention, we do best when we make content easy to consume—in neurological terms, content that generates low cognitive load and high engagement.

The landscape of social media is changing, we’ve known that for quite some time now. But HeyHuman is starting to get a clearer picture on how our brains are changing in response. “[It] is now deeply embedded in all of our lives,” Davidson shared. Brands who have the clearest understanding of this—and who use that information thoughtfully—will have a clear advantage with consumers. And HeyHuman can prove it.

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