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Rewritten: The impact of social media on your mind: compulsive purchasing of unnecessary items.


The Research Brief is a short summary of interesting academic work.

The big idea

Social media can be mentally draining. And if you’re mentally exhausted, you’re more likely to be influenced by a high number of likes on posts — even to the point of clicking ads for products you don’t need or want — according to our recent experiments on how social media influence behavior.

I studied as a professor of advertising behavior on social media for years. End of 2022, my colleague Eric Haley and I conducted three online studies of Americans ages 18-65 to test how people with different mental workloads respond differently to advertising.

The control group in each study was not given an introductory task – we just made them watch an advertisement. A second group had to memorize a nine-digit number and then watch the ad. The third group scrolled through their Instagram feed for 30 seconds and then viewed the ad. The first study used an advertisement for a meal preparation service, the second for ice cream and the third for coffee beans.

The ad photo and caption were the same for everyone in each group, only the number of likes was manipulated. Participants randomly saw an ad with a few hundred likes or tens of thousands of likes. After viewing the ad, each participant rated how willing they would be to buy the product and how much mental effort it took to think about the information. The group that first used Instagram was most likely to buy the featured product when there were a lot of likes or comments, and they also reported putting the most mental effort into reviewing the ad.

In one study, we asked people to explain why they wanted to buy a product, and those in the control group gave simple, rational answers for their choice: “I was thinking about the ice cream flavors and how they would taste.” Or, “I like the ad. It’s simple and clean. It gets straight to the point…”

However, those who just scrolled social media for 30 seconds often gave answers that made no sense. For example, some gave one-word answers, such as “food” or “plate.” Others explicitly told us it was hard to process: “It had too many words and options in the picture.”

Why it matters

Researchers refer to this mentally exhausted state as “cognitive overload.” Using social media puts you in this state because you are constantly evaluating different types of text, photo, and video posts from so many different people. Within seconds you will see a text from your partner, a photo from a colleague, a video from a celebrity and a meme from your brother. All this scrolling and evaluation leaves us feeling exhausted and distracted.

Imagine asking your roommate if they want to go get pizza. Under normal circumstances, the roommate may consider several factors such as cost, hunger, timing, or their schedule. Now imagine asking the same question to your roommate while they’re on the phone with a sick family member after stepping in dog shit and they also just got a text from their ex while remembering they were late to work. They no longer have the mental energy or resources to logically consider whether pizza for dinner is a good idea. They would just say “Yes, of course!” as they rush in to clean their shoes.

The only exception to this is when a person has a lot of experience, history or knowledge about the specific product or idea. When this is the case, they can think about whether they will actually benefit from buying the advertised item. We confirmed this in the experiment with the coffee bean ad. In general, coffee aficionados will carefully consider many factors: type of bean, roast level, country of origin, and more. So even when these people were in a mental fog, they weren’t convinced by ads with high stats.

By understanding how they can be influenced by social media in unconscious ways, consumers can be more thoughtful and deliberate about regulating their use — and hopefully not buying another water bottle they don’t need.

What is not yet known

We don’t yet know which social media platforms are the most exhaustive.

Media-rich environments like TikTok, Instagram Reels and YouTube are probably the most mentally taxing because they contain text, photos, videos, animations and sound – often all at once and overlapping. These platforms are too that advertisers spend a lot of money onsince they offer one high return on investment for brands.

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