Why Trump tweets (and why we listen)

Even for people whose yen for attention is less rabid, breaking a tweeting habit is hard. Like other social networks, Twitter promotes compulsive, even addictive patterns of use. The service taps into primordial information-gathering and status-seeking human instincts, which scientists suggest are amplified by the release of pleasure-producing brain chemicals like dopamine. The temptation to check whether a tweet has earned likes and retweets is hard to resist, and once such ego-massaging tokens have been collected, it’s even harder to forgo pursuing them again with yet more tweets.

Social media also triggers a related but different sort of repetitive behavior — the kind characteristic of compulsive gamblers. Video slot and poker machines, to take a notorious example, are carefully designed to serve up what psychologists term “intermittent variable rewards.” Each spin of the dial or turn of the cards offers the potential but not the assurance of a big payout. The mystery of the outcome, and the suspense of its revelation, is the lure that keeps the gambler glued to the machine. As psychiatry professor and addiction expert Nancy Petry told the New York Times, “No other form of gambling manipulates the human mind as beautifully as these machines.” A similarly seductive dynamic plays out on the screens of social media apps. Because tweets and other posts also offer unpredictable rewards — some messages go viral, others fall flat — they exert the same kind of pull on the mind. You never know if your next post will be the one that delivers a jackpot.