Why Your Brain Hates All Those Facebook Changes

Since changes are both inevitable and usually a sign of improvement and progress, you'd think that most people would be in favor of them, rather than rallying in protest. Why all the fuss?
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Tuesday evening, Facebook made major changes to its newsfeed, and today the Internet is a hornet's nest of complaints, protests and threats. There is a new round of "quit Facebook" memes, and a collective groan of pain from millions of users.

Similar dissent occurred when Netflix recently spun off its DVD-by-mail service into a separate company, Qwikster, or earlier this year when dating site OKCupid was purchased by the behemoth Match.com. It seems that no matter what change a popular website might make, a large number of users will hate it. The same is true for even slight alterations in television programs, computer applications or the fare at a local bistro.

Since such changes are both inevitable and usually a sign of improvement and progress, you'd think that most people would be in favor of them, rather than rallying in protest. Why all the fuss?

Human beings love the familiar and dislike anything new or different. Life evolved to gather energy resources, and the purpose of our advanced brains is to predict availability of resources (e.g., benefits) and possible loss of energy resources (e.g., threats). If we think of the brain as a prediction machine (a reductive but useful model), it follows that the brain likes to be correct about its predictions and dislikes being incorrect.

Failing at prediction is actually perceived as a threat to the organism (however slightly or subconsciously), and so any surprises or unanticipated changes seem menacing. One recent study shows that even creativity -- something our culture highly values and rewards -- strikes people the wrong way at first. In fact, creativity makes many people quite uncomfortable. This is because creative ideas are, by definition, new and unanticipated, and so trigger our negative sense of being caught off guard.

This is such a pervasive part of our psychology that we even want our entertainment to be highly predictable. One recent study showed that people who were exposed to spoilers before reading a story actually enjoyed the story more than those who didn't know the outcome. Even story genres that seem to depend on unknown elements, such as murder mysteries, actually improve when readers know the outcome in advance. Our brains are highly optimized to anticipate outcomes and feel satisfaction and joy when we are proven right. This is why we like to re-encounter favorite movies and books again and again over the years and derive pleasure from them each time. The researchers speculate whether surprise birthday parties might actually be a bad idea -- our loved ones might feel much happier attending a party they know about in advance.

Too much reliance on predictability, however, would make human beings overly rigid and could lead to maladaptive behavior. The human brain specializes in a general intelligence, the point of which is quick, nimble adaptability to new situations and conditions. Animals that rely entirely on instinct (e.g., inflexible programmatic behavior routines) fare poorly when environmental conditions change. Humans do enjoy a small amount of unpredictability, and in truth have a goldilocks zone of predictable vs. non-predictable that is actually highly enjoyable. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has extensively documented a sweet spot of challenge vs. ability that humans experience as a "flow state," which can become a peak experience.

This sweet spot is different for everyone, of course, so we shouldn't be surprised that a large number of people find change on websites upsetting. Their familiar Internet world is capriciously changing, upsetting their expectations and triggering the negative emotional reaction of having failed at prediction. This reaction, hardwired into animal nervous systems since time immemorial is, of course, highly predictable.

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