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Research suggests self-disclosure is rewarding

A pair of Harvard University researchers have begun to pry open one of the most basic questions about everyday existence: Why do we talk about ourselves so much?

We spend more than a third of our conversations disclosing our views, our feelings, our experiences, to others. Online, our collective self-centeredness reaches new heights, with some surveys suggesting that more than 80 percent of the dialogue on social media websites follows this simple formula: me talking about me.

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For years, psychologists have known that sharing aspects of oneself with other people is a crucial part of human social life. It’s the escalation from small talk to more personal details that often forms the foundation of friendship and romantic intimacy. But the Harvard psychologists wanted to know why people talk about themselves so frequently.

In a series of experiments that utilized methods from neuroscience and cognitive psychology, the researchers found evidence that revealing even relatively mundane facts about oneself - such as reporting whether a person still likes Dr. Seuss books, or enjoys listening to musicals - seems to trigger the brain circuits that respond to rewards such as food and money.

“I think people intuitively find that they enjoy self-disclosing. Otherwise why would people do it so much?’’ said Diana Tamir, the psychology graduate student who led the work, published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “I think it’s nice to gain a little bit of insight into why that might be the case, and also shed some light onto why humans are as egocentrically focused as we are.’’

In the first set of experiments, Tamir and associate professor Jason Mitchell designed experiments in which participants placed in a brain scanner were asked to either disclose their opinions or personality traits or to judge those of another person. The scientists found that when participants were communicating information about themselves, the brain’s reward circuits lighted up with a significantly stronger response than when they disclosed how they felt about others.

In various trials, researchers asked participants to choose among different combinations of questions: a fact-based question, a question about themselves, or a question about another person. The participants were offered differing amounts of compensation, depending on which question they chose to answer.

If all else were equal, people should choose to maximize their income by always answering the question that offered the biggest monetary reward. Instead, the participants were willing to accept a loss of 17 percent of potential earnings to answer questions about themselves, suggesting they placed value on talking about themselves. When the payoffs were equal, people chose to answer questions about themselves more than two-thirds of the time.

In another experiment, the researchers found that participants preferred to share with others those answers about themselves - suggesting that it was not just thinking about themselves but communicating about themselves that was valued.

Dr. Hans Breiter, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study, said the research is a good first step toward answering a question of growing importance, especially as channels for self-disclosure proliferate online and through smartphones. But he added that the experiments would need to be refined and repeated to truly pinpoint, for example, which brain regions are playing a role in the behavior.

Jennifer Gibbs, associate professor of communication at Rutgers University, who studies self-disclosure in online dating, said she found the research particularly interesting because the results dovetail with studies in her own field.

“There are some benefits to talking about the self or thinking about yourself, but when you communicate it with others it even has a stronger effect,’’ Gibbs said.

Meanwhile, Tamir will continue to avoid a certain kind of self-disclosure that can set an awkward tone in a casual conversation.

“At parties, I get asked what I do,’’ Tamir said. “I second-guess whether I want to tell them, ‘I think about why people talk about themselves.’ ’’

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.
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