Our Brains Make Facebook Worth $90 Billion


Those of us involved in social media know that people love to talk about themselves. They seemingly enjoy sharing the trivial, the personal, and occasionally the weird, details of their lives. Sometimes they overshare – as a longtime online community builder, I’ve found that “poster’s remorse” is common – people post something too personal and later regret doing so. So why do people share so much? New research from Harvard shows, in simple terms, that talking about yourself makes your brain feel good.

Several experiments recorded brain activity in an fMRI machine while subjects talked about themselves. The researchers found that “mesolimbic dopamine system,” generally thought to be part of the brain’s reward system, was activated at higher levels during self-disclosure than when discussing other topics.

More Than a Penny for Your Thoughts

If the brain scan result isn’t surprising enough, a behavioral experiment found that subjects would accept smaller payments for talking about themselves when compared to other topics. When payment amounts were equal, the subjects chose to talk about themselves more than two thirds of the time.

In short, we all seem to be wired for self-disclosure. Some of us may be more attuned to giving out personal information than others (eliciting responses of “too much information!”), but the general tendency explains in part why online communities and social networks like Facebook and Twitter keep adding not only new users but massive quantities of user-generated content. If our brains didn’t reward self-disclosure, it’s unlikely Facebook would be the runaway success they are, or be worth upwards of $90 billion. Blame our brains.

  1. Eric Antariksa says

    Interesting finding. Does this finding apply to all respondents (from different education level, social background, nationality, or personality style) ? Maybe an extrovert person will be happier to disclose themselves than an introvert person?

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I don’t think this project broke the subjects down by personality types. I’m sure individual differences exist, people never respond in exactly the same way.

      One issue with university studies (which constitute the majority of the research that gets published) is that they often use student subjects due to their abundance and low cost. (One author, I forget whom, referred to MIT undergrads as the “lab rats” of behavioral research.) Hence, the findings may not always apply perfectly to, say, Fortune 500 CEOs (who are a lot more difficult to include in such studies).


  2. Micah says

    Funny, I didn’t need to see a study to know that people love talking about themselves lol 🙂

    That’s why one of the easiest ways to get someone to “like” you is to ask questions and let them talk.

    The interesting thing is not everyone is like this. I really don’t like talking about myself all that much, and I know it’s the same for many others.

    Kinda makes you wonder what the difference is.

    1. James says

      I’ve always been curious as to why people answer questions at all. There’s something evolutionary in humans willing to answer questions. Even when we don’t really know the answer to a given question we still feel compelled to give an answer. I think this study is related to why people feel compelled to answer questions (even the study itself is a question).

      Also, networking humans and questions/answers go together naturally. We’ve evolved to not only share answers but to distribute them as efficiently as possible. Maybe it’s not so surprising that our technology is just a recapitulation of our ability to ask and answer questions. Sharing media, after all, is a form of answering questions.

    2. Corky Swanson says

      People who like talking about themselves and happen to be interesting, make lots of friends. Unfortunately, that tends to be a rare combo.

      Speaking of Facebook, the day it issued I noticed it had a P/E ratio of 88. P/E is, of course, the price divided by the company’s annual earnings. Good P/E ratios are under 15. FB is priced about 5X too high.

  3. Claire says

    The interesting thing is not everyone is like this. I really don’t like talking about myself all that much, and I know it’s the same for many others. Thanks for the informative post.

  4. Roger Dooley says

    Micah, one of the things about brain scan studies is that they often don’t break new ground in documenting human behavior, but tell us something about the “why” and “how” that underlies the behavior.

    Just about every behavior and decisions involves competing goals in the brain. For some individuals (perhaps like you!), some other factors are more powerful than the reward for self-disclosure.


    1. Michael Sofis says

      I studied Behavior Analysis at the University of Kansas and now work in the field but whenever I talk about many studies to friends they say the same thing, “I could have told you that.”

      I think whether we are observing the brain’s activity, observable behavior, or a mixture of the two (my favorite), it is important to know the “how” and the “why” so that eventually we can generalize the findings to more specific problems of human behavior.

  5. Keith Streckenbach says

    Research absolutely shows that extroverts would be much more likely to talk about themselves. In fact in our personality communication guides (which maps A.I.D.A to personality) we inform marketers that extroverts “talk it out” and Introverts “think it through”.

    Our analysis on 181 million Americans finds that about 52% of Americans 18 and older are extrovert dominant. Noting though that all individuals are a combination of extrovert/introvert with extroversion or introversion dominant in varying degrees, and with one trait emphasized based upon the situation.

    I agree with Eric that by nature of the study, extroverts likely dominated the study pool.

    Keep the good stuff coming Roger!

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Thanks for the data, Keith, good stuff!


  6. Pershy says

    Noting though that all individuals are a combination of extrovert/introvert with extroversion or introversion dominant in varying degrees, and with one trait emphasized based upon the situation.

  7. Samuel says

    This reminds me of Dale Carnegie’s principles, and the number of ways to leverage this fact in business and personal matters seems limited only by imagination. Talk to people about themselves. They’ll feel good, they’ll like you, they’ll be more inclined to reciprocate, share your links, comment on your site, tell their friends good things about you…

  8. James Capon says

    If Facebook is the definitive social networking site for extraverts, there’s tremendous potential in coming up with a social network for introverts. Or is that an oxymoron?

  9. Brian says

    It’s about 90 billion now right? Had posted before but nothing showed up. Now I have hindsight looking at the IPO and what’s happened. Looks like people’s brains are telling them not to waste their money.

    I see the talking about oneself is big not only on Facebook, but look at all the review sites, people seem to love to share their opinion and even more so, have others admire that opinion.

    Working on a review section for my pizza website and would like it to be a mini-Yelp one day. Maybe with the way people like to see their opinions in print (on a screen) maybe something can come out of it.

  10. John Lemieux says

    I guess facebook appeals to our ego and feeds our vanities. 🙂 love reading your posts and comments.

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