Social Motivations’ Limited Influence on Habitual Behavior: Exploring the Dynamics of Online Social Interactions


In the digital age, online social interactions have transformed the landscape of human connection, altering the way we form friendships, shape our identities, and navigate social comparisons (Anderson & Wood, 2021; Bayer et al., 2022).

With the widespread integration of social media into our lives, a new avenue for investigating the interplay between social motivations and habitual behavior has emerged. This article delves into the intricate relationship between social motivations and habitual actions in the context of online social interactions, particularly focusing on the act of posting on social media platforms.

The pervasive nature of social media is undeniable, with a staggering 70% of Americans actively engaged on various social media sites and a significant majority using these platforms daily (Auxier & M. Anderson, 2021).

This phenomenon offers a unique opportunity to examine how social motivations evolve across repeated social interactions. Understanding the drivers that sustain repeated behaviors is crucial, as many routine actions, from health-related practices to financial decisions, hinge on consistent repetition.

Social media platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, serve as ideal testing grounds to explore the evolution of motivation from initial engagement to habitual participation.

The granular, time-stamped metrics offered by these platforms provide an ecologically valid setting to investigate whether the allure of social rewards remains consistent throughout habitual interactions as it does during the initial stages. Central to this exploration is the act of posting, which holds a pivotal role in shaping users’ engagement on social media.

People initially gravitate towards social media for a myriad of reasons, ranging from forming connections to affiliating with groups, alleviating loneliness, and expanding social networks (Bayer & LaRose, 2018). These initial motivations are often fulfilled through the social rewards users accrue, such as likes, comments, and self-expressions.

These rewards contribute to greater satisfaction, enhanced enjoyment, and stronger social ties (Zell & Moeller, 2018), thereby driving intentions to continue engaging with the platform (Hsiao et al., 2016). This article is anchored in the notion that these broad social motivations underlie various specific social goals, all of which find fulfillment in the social rewards reaped from interactions within the social media realm.

The very design of social media platforms encourages repetitive behavior, encompassing activities like retweeting, liking, commenting, posting, and messaging (Bayer et al., 2022). As users repeatedly engage in these actions, habits begin to form—a mental linkage between contextual cues and corresponding responses. These cues might include physical settings, emotional states, time of day, device presence, app icons, notifications, and specific platform features (I. Anderson & Wood, 2021; Bayer et al., 2022).

This ingrained habituation leads to automatic responses triggered by these contextual cues (Verplanken & Orbell, 2022; Wood & Rünger, 2016), allowing for effortless engagement with minimal cognitive deliberation (Schnauber-Stockmann & Naab, 2019).

The habitual nature of these actions becomes evident in the rapid and accurate responses frequent users exhibit in response to stable platform cues (Garaialde et al., 2020). This automaticity signifies that habitually cued online engagement is initiated almost reflexively in response to context cues (I. Anderson & Wood, 2021; Schnauber-Stockmann & Naab, 2019).

This research inquiry seeks to determine if such habitual behaviors are driven primarily by the ingrained habit itself, with limited influence from social motivations.

To probe this phenomenon, the study contrasts habitual posters with occasional or infrequent posters, with the act of posting being a common and repetitive behavior across platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. The research begins by reevaluating a prior study that showcased the motivational impact of social rewards, such as likes, on Instagram posting (Lindström et al., 2021). The investigation further extends to ascertain whether this motivational effect remains consistent for both novice posters and those ingrained in the habit of posting.

The initial study examines habit strength and elucidates the sequence of events between social rewards garnered from a previous post and subsequent posting behavior on Facebook. The subsequent study focuses on a significant platform alteration in 2007 that aimed to amplify the prominence of social rewards and thus stimulate increased user engagement. This alteration is tested against habitual posters, newcomers, and those who engage sporadically to assess its impact on each category.

A key facet of this research involves gauging participants’ self-reported motivation to respond to social rewards. This aspect ensures parity in motivation levels across habitual, occasional, and new posters. This motivation is broadly measured through participants’ perceptions of the significance of others’ feedback (Study 1).

This is significant because the influence of this feedback might stem from any of the previously mentioned social goals (e.g., affiliation, group membership, loneliness). An indirect gauge of motivation involves evaluating participants’ predictions of their responses to the platform redesign aimed at promoting posting (Study 2a).

The underlying theories guiding this exploration are rooted in the transformation of motivation as behaviors shift from novel to habitual. While many established motivation theories don’t explicitly account for this transformation (Fishbein & Azjen, 2011; Inzlicht et al., 2021), some exceptions, like goal systems theory and Hull’s research on goal gradients, recognize the shifting dynamics between means and ends as behavior becomes habitual (Kruglanski et al., 2018; Hull, 1932). Triandis’s interpersonal behavior theory and Berscheid and Regan’s theory on close relationships also acknowledge the transition from intention-guided behavior to habitual actions (Triandis, 1977; Berscheid & Regan, 2005).

Recent cognitive psychology and behavioral neuroscience studies affirm the shift from goal-driven behavior to habitual responses once the habit forms (Amodio, 2019; Knowlton & Diedrichsen, 2018). This shift manifests in increased neural activation in regions like the putamen as actions become more habitual, rather than being solely governed by reward expectancy (Patterson & Knowlton, 2018).

While animal research shows insensitivity of habitual behavior to reward changes (Perez & Dickinson, 2020), the same doesn’t hold universally for humans (de Wit et al., 2018). This discrepancy is partly attributed to the laboratory context, which may emphasize current goals over habit. Notably, social media use stands as an exception, as frequent users tend to respond automatically even when motivated to act otherwise (A. Vishwanath, 2015, 2017).

The research methodology leverages the rich dataset offered by social media platforms, with their real-time metrics of social rewards and ensuing engagement. This setup allows for a nuanced examination of the relationship between habit and rewards, with a focus on two forms of rewards: spontaneous likes and comments from other users and a platform alteration geared towards enhancing social rewards. By investigating these rewards, the study captures the spectrum of motivations that drive posting on social media platforms.

It’s important to recognize that the portrayal of users having strong or weak posting habits is a simplification; habit strength exists on a continuum, and the analyses are conducted using continuous measures. Moreover, the concept of habitual posting encompasses a range of responses, from direct shares without much deliberation to original posts requiring thoughtful content creation. Habits might primarily dictate the initiation of responses, but a framework is established to facilitate additional decision-making when necessary. This intricate blend of automaticity and controlled decision-making characterizes the realm of social media engagement (Gardner, 2022).


The findings of Study 1 provide substantial support for the proposed hypothesis that the influence of social rewards on engagement behavior is contingent upon users’ posting habits. This chapter delves into the implications of these findings, the validation of the habit insensitivity phenomenon, and the exploration of alternative explanations. Additionally, the introduction of Study 2 is discussed, which takes a novel approach to examine the interplay between changes in platform cues, user motivation, and habitual engagement on Facebook.

Interpretation of Study 1 Results

Study 1 demonstrates a clear pattern wherein social rewards, in the form of positive responses on Facebook, have a significant impact on the engagement behavior of infrequent posters and those with weaker posting habits. These users exhibit heightened engagement, posting more rapidly when they receive higher levels of social recognition from others. However, this effect is virtually absent among high-frequency and strongly habitual posters. Such users persistently post at a consistent rate, regardless of the quantity of social rewards received. This observed habit insensitivity suggests a shift from motivation-driven engagement to habitual engagement as users become more frequent and habitual posters.

Unique Insights from Observational Design

The success of this study’s demonstration of habit insensitivity can be attributed to its observational design, which captures real-life engagement behaviors within the complex context of everyday life. Unlike controlled lab experiments, the observational approach allowed for the isolation of temporal relationships between responses and outcomes over the course of a week, providing insights into the effect of distractions, stresses, and other contextual factors. The findings challenge previous research that has not consistently indicated this habit insensitivity to motivation (de Wit et al., 2018), highlighting the significance of studying behavior within its natural environment.

Convergence of Habit Measures

The utilization of two measures of habit strength—past posting frequency and the self-report habit index (SRHI)—yielded highly correlated results. This convergence reaffirms the link between frequent posting and habit formation, as supported by previous studies within social media contexts (I. Anderson & Wood, 2021) and beyond (Galla & Duckworth, 2015, Neal et al., 2014). This correlation supports the use of posting frequency as an accurate measure of habit strength and its subsequent use in subsequent studies.

Addressing Alternative Explanations

The discussion chapter meticulously examines alternative explanations for the observed pattern of habit insensitivity. Contrary to the notion that habitual users are less motivated or concerned about others’ reactions, results show that all participants, regardless of their posting habits, reported being concerned about social feedback. Furthermore, controlling for users’ concern for others did not alter the habit insensitivity pattern, ruling out the possibility of motivation differences as an explanation. Habitual users’ similar motivations and predictions regarding their behavior highlight that the habitual pattern is not due to goal clarity or other goal-based explanations.

Ceiling Effect Considerations

The suggestion of a ceiling effect—that engagement behavior was already maximized among highly habitual participants—is refuted by the wide range of habitual posters in the study. With participants posting anywhere from 7 times a week to about 7 times a day, it becomes evident that most habitual posters could have potentially increased their engagement by posting more frequently when incentivized by social rewards.

Study 2: Investigating Changes in Platform Cues

The discussion seamlessly transitions to the introduction of Study 2, which takes a unique approach by examining the impact of changes in platform cues on engagement behavior. The 2007 platform change in Facebook design is considered, a shift that strategically altered the way users interacted and posted content. This study seeks to evaluate whether this change differentially influenced engagement behavior based on users’ posting frequency and habit strength. While the platform change is anticipated to motivate occasional and new posters, potential disruptions among frequent posters due to changes in cues are also explored.


In conclusion, Study 1’s results provide valuable insights into the intricate relationship between social rewards, habitual behavior, and engagement on Facebook. The observations underscore the shift from motivation-driven engagement to habit-driven engagement as users become more habitual in their posting behavior. Moreover, this chapter sets the stage for Study 2, which offers a novel perspective by exploring the impact of changes in platform cues on user engagement patterns. Through these studies, a comprehensive understanding of the interplay between motivation, habit, and engagement within the realm of social media is gradually unveiled.

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