Wanna feel good? Tell me ALL about yourself.

Jun 20 2012 Published by under Behavioral Neuro

We all know what blogging started off as. Livejournals, devoted to people talking, with a certain amount of self-satisfaction, about themselves, what they had for breakfast, and how not getting a pony when they were 8 caused them to become a vegan. Self-blogging continues, and now there's also Facebook, where you can take lots of time out of the day to update people on all the little things you're doing. And then there's twitter, and texting, and all the other things we use every day...to talk about ourselves.

At first I was surprised that we spend between 30-40% of our interactions telling people about our own experiences. But maybe I should be surprised the percentage isn't higher! Twitter is apparently 80% personal experiences. And not just online, as humans we are all about the disclosure.

But the question is...do we have a drive to do this? Why do we spend so much time talking about ourselves?

Tamir and Mitchell. "Disclosing information about the self is
intrinsically rewarding" PNAS, 2012.

The authors of this paper hypothesized that the sheer volume of self-references that we make indicates a natural drive to talk about yourself. The looked to the nucleus accumbens, an area of the brain that is highly important in reward and reinforcement (for things like drugs, sex, and rock and roll). The authors placed participants in a scanner and had them either talk about themselves, or about other people.

What they got was increased activation in the nucleus accumbens when people talked about themselves, but not when they talked about others. This included things like judging other people's opinions and judging other people in general.

They also saw activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area associated with self-referential thought.

And it's just just an fMRI study. The authors also showed that people were willing to give up a monetary reward just for the opportunity to talk about themselves. My, we are a self-centered bunch. When getting paid money to do certain tasks, people would choose the self-referential one, even if it involved them making less money (17% less in total earnings). And when given an opportunity to tell their opinion to someone else who was present, potential earnings dropped even more, to 25% less than the money you could make talking about someone else.

The authors conclude that self-referencing probably a pretty rewarding thing to do. And I'm inclined to agree with them. But I think there's one aspect with the nucleus accumbens that's been overlooked here:

The nucleus accumbens isn't reward. The neurotransmitter dopamine is not reward. These areas and this neurotransmitter does respond to reward, but they do not MEAN reward. Instead, they SIGNAL reward. Or rather, they signal...salience. How important something is, how relevant it is to you. And really...there's nothing more important to you than you, is there? I wonder if there's any way, here, to effectively separate "reward" from "salience" in this task, to get an idea of whether it really makes you feel GOOD to talk about yourself, or whether it's just more important?

I think you might be able to get at this mechanism by asking a few questions at the end of the experiment (at the end, anyway, so you won't mess up the data at the beginning). Things like "what is your mood", and "how do you feel about yourself". This might get at whether self-referencing actually makes you feel good. I do think that self-referencing might be rewarding, but it really is a tough thing to tease apart.

And then, there's the bigger question: WHY does it feel so good to talk about yourself?? Obviously this study can't address that question, but it does make me wonder. In fact there was this one time when I was...

...oh sorry. Self-referencing again. But hey, it does feel good!

Tamir DI, & Mitchell JP (2012). Disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109 (21), 8038-43 PMID: 22566617

8 responses so far

  • anon says:

    If the task choice was to either talk about yourself or someone else, the easier task may be to talk about yourself. Instead of indicating reward, wouldn't this indicate either laziness or motivation to do well? Talking about yourself = less work = less pay. I wonder if similar choices would be made if the subjects had a choice between talking about someone they know well (= less work/pay) versus a complete stranger (= more work/pay).

    • Scicurious says:

      Good point, though the comparison was self vs talking about Barak Obama (really!). So while they might not know him well, there's certainly loads to talk about, you know? I think that's how they thought to get around it.

  • Hermitage says:

    I am curious how this would change for introverts vs extroverts. Talking (seriously) about myself (in a non-deprecating fashion) if fucking torture...I would rather laud the praises of George Bush!

    Yes, srsly.

    I'm sorry, was I supposed to make a grown-up sciencey response to this? Oops.

    • Pamela says:

      I'm with you. As an introvert, I spend a lot of time reflecting inside myself but rarely make it public. I'm happier talking about ideas. Then again, I always talk about them from my viewpoint, so maybe that is my way of talking about myself.

  • Zuska says:

    Did they ask them to talk about me? I'm sure they would have picked talking about me, it's intrinsically rewarding AND endlessly fascinating! Really! Let me explain...

  • xenophrenia says:

    There's also the idea that it's what you know best ... and how much of this would be different if we didn't live in such an alienating culture ... how different would this be if we could go back in time before the 'cult of me' became the dominant theme of the culture ... I guess what I'm asking is: how culturally specific is this?

  • [...] There are also some nice articles I’ve been ploughing through on the Psychotherapy Networker website (open access, hey BACP?) A favourite is The power of emotions in therapy, but there’s a ton of great stuff on there. Yes, therapy is good for us. This week we were told it’s because we like to talk about ourselves. But more than that, it seems that talking about ourselves actually does some crazy neuro-bio-feedback thing which is all rather awesome. In short, talking about yourself is good for you. [...]

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