Social Media, Social Good, and the Brain

Capuchin monkeys sharing
Altruism – it’s in our nature.

Ok, so maybe social media for social good is kind of a no-brainer. Where some businesses can meet with a frustrating resistance to their social media efforts, social good campaigns seem to be much more welcome. Why is that, and what can we learn from brain and behavior research to better our chances of creating successful social media campaigns for social good?

Altruism isn’t Just for the Other Guy

People turn to social media to feel connected and to feel good. And as it turns out, acts of altruism feel good too. Altruism activates the dopamine pathway, otherwise known as the reward pathway — the very same mechanism in the brain that makes food and sex so pleasurable. Evolution decided that altruism was a good thing apparently.

Which is awesome when you consider the implications for high rewards on such simple tasks as clicking “like” on Facebook or “retweet” on Twitter, but social media offers even more opportunities to focus on this positive aspect of altruism. Real-time reporting on milestones, photos of people in the field, stories of triumph made possibly through support, etc. can all help to stretch out the natural good brain vibes people get from helping others. Social media makes it easier to offer immediate and sustained reward feedback.

One caveat, keep in mind that people become easily habituated (i.e. bored) to just about everything, including feeling good.

Social Media Makes it Easy to Tell the Story of One

It might seem logical that if something is affecting a lot of people, that sharing those statistics ought to compel people to offer more support. After all, if thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of people are under some sort of threat, we should be moved by that. And recent mobilization of donations and other support through social media channels for such things as the Haiti earthquake, or the Egyptian uprising would seem to support that.

As it turns out, we’re much more moved by the story of one. Studies by Paul Slovic show that giving increases when subjects are presented with the story of one person in need versus being offered stats and data about the scope of a problem affecting many people. When you really analyze what happened with Haiti or Egypt, you see that the story of one was coming through. Traditional media could only cover the scope, but social media channels connected us to people who were directly affected.

A static website or brochure can tell the story of one, sure, but only one. Social media amplifies the power by enabling campaigns to tell the story of one at a time. Think how much more potent a social good campaign becomes when powered by blogs or YouTube, activating mirror neurons for empathy and shared joy! A cause can tell the story of one, but the nature of social media allows them to do so over and over again so the scope of a threat or opportunity becomes scalable, one story at a time. Today you meet “John” who is affected by such and such, but tomorrow you get to meet “Jane” and hear her story.

And the beauty of stories? They like to travel.

Altruism and Moving Beyond Groups

Altruism has been shown to be more readily acted upon within one’s own “groups”, mediated by the powerful bonding hormone oxytocin. Conversely, the same mechanisms make us hostile, suspicious, and even aggressive to perceived outsiders. Social good campaigns must find common ground with supporters. Overcoming this obstacle was an expensive and slow endeavor with “traditional” communication channels such as snail mail, cold calls, and events. Social media offers more and less expensive communication channels.

But social media does more than open more communication channels. It opens communication channels that can more easily “jump” group boundaries, effectively circumventing group boundary obstacles present in other communication channels.

Illustration of how group jumping is facilitated by social media


Social Media Facilitates Social Proof

Social proof is a concept bandied about a fair amount these days, because it’s an important concept. To simplify, when we see a lot of people doing any one thing, it makes us biased toward whatever that thing is. So if we see a lot of people are going to a certain cafe in town, we assume it must be an all-around great experience.

Before social media there was no way for users to know how many people were visiting a certain website, or how many of their own friends and family were. Social media allows visible and public social proof to users, and this can facilitate campaigns for social good. The more people who sign-on for a cause, the more others will want to.

Conclusion – Social Media Can Rock Your Social Good Campaign

Oxytocin, mirror neurons, dopamine, in-group jumping, social proof…the list goes on. Social media and social good are clearly symbiotic and when social media is intelligently leveraged, the opportunities to affect social change are immense.




  1. says

    Awesome post sweetie :) I like that we’ve finally come up with a chemical explanation for something we’ve always known-the giving back to others feels good. Maybe it’s the warm fuzzies from all that positive karma. Who knows.

    Have you ever seen “Lie to Me”? In one of them, a woman lies and says she was kidnapped and forced into slavery in South Africa. (Pretty sure it was S. Africa, but don’t quote me on that.) Anyway, she did it b/c the only way the issue would get the attention it deserved is if it was given a human face. It’s much harder to ignore a human you can relate to than it is to ignore an ambiguous cause.


    • says

      One reason I am so intrigued by neuroscience and wanted to study it is that aside from discovering new and surprising things, we also discover what we already knew but people are more inclined to believe something when it’s not just a theory, but something we can “see”. I’m sure this is why brain studies are also pretty universally interesting to people.

      I’ve seen “Lie to Me” once or twice but I couldn’t get into it though I loved the show concept. That story certainly backs up what was found in Slovic’s studies.

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