I finally got the internet setup in my new apartment – I won’t bore you with my customer service complaints – and I’ve never been so delighted to waste time on the web. At first, my information vacation was lovely, charming, an experiment in vintage living. It was like traveling back in time to 1994 – I’d wake up, buy an actual newspaper, and leisurely sip my coffee. No blogs, no twitter, no ESPN.com. I’m not going to lie and pretend that, once freed from the yoke of constant email updates, I suddenly found myself reading Tolstoy for hours on end – instead, I mostly watched more mediocre television, went for longer walks and did a better job of writing without interruption. Those are the banal results of my internet-deprivation experiment.
All of which leads me to this recent article in Slate, by Emily Yoffe. It’s an interesting summary of research that seeks to understand the primal human hunger for information, mostly by extending our models of addiction. (If you’re interested in the subject, be sure to check out this recent paper.) Why do we constantly check our email on Sunday morning, or refresh Facebook 100 times a day? What makes new facts so rewarding? For the brain, information is just another rewarding stimulus, an excitatory prompt that leads to the release of neurotransmitter. Here’s Yoffe:
Berridge has proposed that in some addictions the brain becomes sensitized to the wanting cycle of a particular reward. So addicts become obsessively driven to seek the reward, even as the reward itself becomes progressively less rewarding once obtained. “The dopamine system does not have satiety built into it,” Berridge explains. “And under certain conditions it can lead us to irrational wants, excessive wants we’d be better off without.” So we find ourselves letting one Google search lead to another, while often feeling the information is not vital and knowing we should stop. “As long as you sit there, the consumption renews the appetite,” he explains.
Actually all our electronic communication devices–e-mail, Facebook feeds, texts, Twitter–are feeding the same drive as our searches. Since we’re restless, easily bored creatures, our gadgets give us in abundance qualities the seeking/wanting system finds particularly exciting. Novelty is one. Panksepp says the dopamine system is activated by finding something unexpected or by the anticipation of something new. If the rewards come unpredictably–as e-mail, texts, updates do–we get even more carried away. No wonder we call it a “CrackBerry.”
That said, I think it’s worth qualifying this “information equals crack” meme. The brain, as we all know, is not an indiscriminate curiosity machine. Most people don’t want to know more about quantum mechanics, or the actual details of health care reform, or what’s happening in the Afghanistan presidential campaign. In other words, our craving for news tends towards the local and the personal – our curiosity is circumscribed. Why might this be? The answer, I think, has to do with the molecular details of how information triggers rewards.
This isn’t the post for another summary of computational models of dopamine activity – see here and here, if you’re interested – but suffice to say that our brain cells are finely tuned to want more information about stuff which they already know. In essence, these cells work by constantly striving to reduce their “prediction-error signal,” which is the gap between what these cells expect to happen and what actually occurs. If a monkey has been trained to get a squirt of juice everytime a bell is rung, then these dopaminergic cells quickly learn that the bell predicts the sweet reward. As a result, they want more information about that specific rewarding stimulus. What, for instance, predicts the bell? Maybe the scientist flicks a switch before ringing the bell? Or maybe he scratches his nose? Or maybe he simply enters the room? What numerous experiments have found is that our dopamine neurons aren’t interested in responding to the reward itself – instead, they want to find the first reliable bit of information that predicts the reward. This is why we crave new facts: they are means of updating our old facts, of extending our cognitive models forward in time.
This more nuanced version of information addiction also helps explain why even smart people can be so stubbornly ignorant in the face of reality. Here’s one of my favorite examples, which comes from the work of Larry Bartels:
During the first term of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the budget deficit declined by more than 90 percent. However, when Republican voters were asked in 1996 what happened to the deficit under Clinton, more than 55 percent said that it had increased. What’s interesting about this data is that so-called “high-information” voters⎯these are the Republicans who read the newspaper, watch cable news and can identify their representatives in Congress⎯weren’t better informed than “low-information” voters. According to Bartels, the reason knowing more about politics doesn’t erase partisan bias is that voters tend to only assimilate those facts that confirm what they already believe. If a piece of information doesn’t follow Republican talking points⎯and Clinton’s deficit reduction didn’t fit the “tax and spend liberal” stereotype⎯then the information is conveniently ignored.
Why did conservatives ignore this fact? Because it didn’t jive with their preexisting models. Not only was this information not addictive – it was actively repellent. (For the record, I don’t think Democrats would perform much better. One could easily do a study asking liberals about Bush’s enlightened AIDS and Africa policies and I’m sure you’d get a similar result.) The same thing is happening right now with health care reform. I enjoy reading all these articles about uninformed conservative voters getting upset about “death panels” or telling senators to “keep the government away from Medicare”. Why? Because those facts enrich what I already believe – they confirm my lazy liberal stereotypes. So while I’m “addicted” to this information, I’m not particularly interested in any dissonant alternative views. I’m not emotionally motivated to seek them out. Likewise, I care about the twitter feeds of my friends, but I’m not that curious about what’s happening to perfect strangers. The mere thought of perusing someone else’s Facebook page makes my eyes glaze over in boredom.
Why are we so blinkered and blinded and easily bored? The brain is a bounded machine, an information processing device with limited computational power. As a result, we don’t treat all information equally. My salient fact is your irrelevant bit; your necessary detail is my triviality. Here’s the paradox of curiosity: I only want to know more about that which I already know about.