Instagram CTO says they do not withhold “likes” to keep users coming back for more

Doling out dopamine hits.
Doling out dopamine hits.
Image: Reuters/Toby Melville
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Update: Mike Krieger, CTO of Instagram, has denied the allegations in the Globe and Mail report via Twitter:

Who doesn’t like Instagram “likes?” Watching those little hearts racking up after posting a photo has the potential to deliver feelings ranging from validation that our picture has been noted and approved, to an all-round fuzzy sense of being loved.

Instagram knows that, of course, and it is allegedly exploiting it to increase the frequency of visits to its platform, according to a Jan. 6 report in the Globe and Mail.

Buried deep in the report is a comment from Matt Mayberry of California startup Dopamine labs, who told the newspaper that it is well known in the industry that Instagram drip-feeds likes to certain users who don’t use the photo-sharing app often enough.

The strategy, he said, was that the user will be disappointed with the amount of likes they received on a particular post and keep checking back to see if they’ve got more. “They’re tying in to your greatest insecurities,” Mayberry said.

Mayberry’s comments underline how social media giants harness the human need for approval to get people hooked on endless updates. Ex-Facebook president Sean Parker said something simliar at an Axios event last year, when he described the Facebook “like” button as a “little dopamine hit.”  The site creates a “social-validation feedback loop…because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology,” Parker said.

It’s been suggested that social-media addiction could be as dangerous for millennials as alcohol or drugs. This month, two major Apple investors—CalSTRS and Jana Partners—appealed to the Apple board to help parents shield their children from phone addiction, and the mental-health issues it may cause.

Instagram withholding likes ties in with the “variable rewards” principle that psychologist B.F. Skinner discovered in the 1950s: He found that by giving lab mice a treat sometimes, not every time, they pressed a lever, the mice would start pressing it compulsively all the time.