Social media drains our brains and impacts our decision making – podcast

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Ever found yourself scrolling through social media late at night and accidentally buying something you regretted? In this episode of The Conversation Weekly podcast, we talk to an advertising expert about recent research into how social media can overload our brains and make us buy products we don’t need or want.

Matthew Pittman is a professor of advertising at the University of Tennessee in the US. In 2022, Pittman and his colleague Eric Haley, conducted three online studies on Americans aged 18-65 to examine how people under various mental loads respond to advertisements differently.

“Our brain has limited resources and it can also be taxed if we try to do too many things at once and once those resources are depleted, there are usually negative consequences,” says Pittman.

If you’re on the fence about a purchase and you’re under cognitive load and you see a lot of likes or a lot of comments, or maybe it’s very attractive people in the ad that look happy … click, I’m gonna purchase it.

Pittman found that those who weren’t under cognitive load made more balanced purchasing decisions. But the group that they told to scroll through their Instagram feed for 30 seconds and then look at an advert was more susceptible to cues such as the comments and likes associated with it.

When asked to describe their rationale for buying a product, Pittman was surprised that those under a high mental load had diminished sentence and language capabilities. He found that Instagram put subjects in a mentally exhausted state because they were consuming different types of text, photos and posts.

People that were not under cognitive load gave grammatically normal sentences that flowed logically, such as this ice cream looked tasty, or I liked the colors, but when people were under cognitive load, even their sentences were more fractured. Which explains why I can’t explain to my wife why I consistently make stupid purchases.

Listen to the full episode of The Conversation Weekly to hear the different ways social media impacts our processing abilities and decision-making.


Matthew Pittman does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

This episode was written and produced by Mend Mariwany with production assistance from Katie Flood and our intern Jusneel Mahal. Eloise Stevens does our sound design, and our theme music is by Neeta Sarl. The executive producer is Gemma Ware.

You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audio, on Instagram at theconversationdotcom or via email. You can also sign up to The Conversation’s free daily email here. A transcript of this episode will be available soon.

Listen to “The Conversation Weekly” via any of the apps listed above, download it directly via our RSS feed or find out how else to listen here.

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