The Neuropsychology of Tik-Tok
“In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs, it is the rule.” — Freidrich Nietzsche
Naive is the reader who scoffs at the notion of attentional control and burgeons an idealistic worldview wherein they are somehow immune to the myriad mental effects discussed in this paper.
Idiosyncratic dance moves synchronized with catchy and repetitive sound-bytes have swept the nation as Tik-Tok’s trends & challenges have garnered the app more than 2 billion downloads in less than three years. Owned by the Chinese tech conglomerate ByteDance, Tik-Tok far surpassed Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube as the #1 downloaded app in 2019 & 2020. The user base, 41% of which is between the ages 16–24, spends an average of 52 daily minutes watching or making content.¹ If ever there was a case study to understand how large groups of people rapidly divert attention to something, this is it.
Incessant daily use of a Chinese-tech company’s app from a crowd of 900 million adolescents raises some questions worth investigating. What is it that allows Tik-Tok to so rapidly generate attention from its users? How might primitive neural mechanisms preferentially encode for the highly-repetitive and seemingly brainless content that floods Tik-Tok’s ‘for you’ page?
A critical look at the app’s virality and addictive nature raises myriad implications about free-will and the ethics of technological influence. While existing social media networks like Facebook and YouTube undoubtedly employ similar tactics of influence, Tik-Tok differs in that short-sequence videos loop indefinitely and are recommended solely by a machine learning algorithm. Of particular interest is the primary phenomenon that differentiates Tik-Tok from any other social media: the immensely popular ‘dance challenges’ which synchronize and loop audio-visual content of people dancing. An analysis strongly suggests that the repetition, looping, and stimuli-synchrony of these videos give Tik-Tok the ability to influence and guide user behavior, often subconsciously, encouraging imitation on a massive scale.
It is of critical importance to society that we understand the behavior of large swaths of people, particularly when their actions seem to be impulsive and lacking agency. As our dear friend Albert Einstein wrote,
“when we all think alike, no one thinks very much.”
While some may claim Tik-Tok to be a harmless platform for creative expression, a deeper foray into neuroscience and psychology shows that Tik-Tok content encourages imitation and repetitive behaviors through subconscious influence and social pressure.
Nearly 30 years ago, a research team intended to analyze a monkey’s brain as the primate held and grasped various objects.² The researchers were surprised to find similar patterns of neural activity in the fronto-parietal network (FPN) both when the monkey grasped the objects and when the monkey observed a human doing it. This led to the discovery of ‘mirror neurons’, brain cells which fire both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. This discovery revolutionized the field of cognitive neuroscience as it implicated the motor cortex in the role of cognitive functioning.³ Since then, hundreds of neuroimaging studies have been conducted on mirror neurons, a large number of which “have shown that the human fronto-parietal mirror neuron system is engaged during action observation and imitation.” (Szakacs, 2006) A prominent study in 2006 found that fronto-parietal mirror neurons were also activated by music, implying that “music perception, cognition and emotion occur via an experiential (i.e. motor) mechanism.” This result aligns beautifully with the additional discovery that the same mirror neurons in the FPN are also activated during dance.
Given these findings, it is highly likely that mirror neurons are activated in Tik-Tok users during the viewing and subsequent imitation of whatever dance challenge is trending. First they observe the action, mirror neurons fire, then they replicate it, and the same neurons fire. This illustrates the concept of Hebbian learning: neurons that fire together wire together. Furthermore, the challenges on Tik-Tok integrate not just dances; they synchronize to sound-bytes such as “Roxanne” or “Renegade” with highly repetitive characteristics. A study on music-dance synchrony found that “synchronized movements enhance memory and give rise to increased looking times,” suggesting that users would be likely to watch Tik-Toks for longer due to the high level of audio-visual synchrony that’s occurring. This synchrony, in combination with the desire to learn the dance, may lead to consistent repetition of the video. So what happens cognitively when the same audio-visual stimulus is repeated dozens of times?
Sensory Information Encoding
In music, the catchiest songs are often the most repetitive. Comedian Bo Burnham mocked this aspect of the music industry in his song, “Repeat Stuff” where he likens Justin Beiber to Satan and demonstrates how easy it is to create a catchy song: “you just repeat stuff.” Ironically, this one of Burnham’s most well-known bits, a fact that bluntly illustrates the point he was making. Catchy stuff is recognizable, easy to anticipate, easy to remember, and easy to share. Enter Tik-Tok.
Sounds which recur regularly in our every-day lives are assigned importance by the brain and stored for later, as they often indicate behavioral cues. With this in mind, consider any of the popular trending soundbytes associated with Tik-Tok challenges (“Say So,” “Old Town Road,” “Roxanne,” “Renegade,” etc). Biologically, these segments of sound are stimulating the auditory nerve of the listener in the exact same pattern of amplitudes over and over again, training the brain to encode the sequence for easier recognition and recall in the future.
A fascinating phenomenon called Involuntary Musical Imagery (INMI) occurs when musical sounds or patterns recur in consciousness without the attempt to recall them. Informally dubbed an ‘earworm’, this is the common feeling of having a song or a chorus ‘stuck’ in one’s head. These earworms may be highly relevant to Tik-Tok users, as earworms occur more frequently in individuals who listen to the same music repetitively.⁶ (Fry, 2013) Tik-Tok differs from other media networks in that videos repeat on their own, looping until paused or scrolled away from. This results in increased likelihood that a Tik-Tok user is experiencing INMI due to increased exposure to repetitive auditory sequences.
Researchers aiming to understand INMI found that “if a song begins mentally replaying it is likely to return to awareness over several days,” and that “over time this can become intrusive and unwanted.” These catchy sequences of sound can recur subconsciously, without the individual trying to make them appear, and may even disrupt desired thought processes. Furthermore, it turns out that imagining music and actually listening to music both activate many of the same neural networks.⁷ This means that a Tik-Tok user may find themselves imagining the catchy video that they watched earlier and activating the same neural network, thus reinforcing it, even when they are not on the app.
Other byproducts of this repetition of stimulus include higher rates of memory; musicians such as Bieber, who recently used the words “yum” & “yummy” a combined seventy-four times in one song, have clearly used this principle of the mind to their advantage. However, Tik-Tok takes memory reinforcement a step further through something called spaced repetition, wherein memory of a stimulus (i.e. song/dance) is enhanced when that stimulus is presented at spaced-out time intervals. When frequent users are presented with the same song and dance over weeks of viewing, spaced repetition generates in them a longer-term memory of the event.⁸
It is clear both scientifically and intuitively that repetition enhances learning and memory. By integrating looping soundbytes as a fundamental aspect of the platform, Tik-Tok can reap the benefits of increased attention and retention thanks to the mechanisms that drive our sensory information encoding systems.
However, beyond the myriad biological phenomena that are already working in favor of Tik-Tok, are there additional aspects of the mind which can incentivize prolonged use of the app? Let’s look at how Tik-Tok invokes compelling principles of group social psychology to systematically drive user behavior on their platform.
“These repetitive words and sequences are merely methods of convincing the subconscious mind” — Claude M. Bristol
Many industry leaders in marketing, media, technology, and entertainment have employed psychological tools to exert subconscious influence on their customer base, increasing the adoption of their products through mentally ‘sticky’ brand exposure tactics. Tik-Tok is no different. In Robert Cialdini’s book “Influence”, the experimental psychologist identifies a variety of persuasion tactics which prove to be effective ways to exert this type of influence. The methods can be used to increase the likelihood of compliance or engagement in a desired behavior, oftentimes without an individual noticing. For example, waiters who leave a chocolate or a mint on their bill tend to earn 23% more in tips than those who do not; this engages the principle of reciprocity, inciting a feeling of subconscious indebtedness in the recipient of the mint.⁹ In addition to reciprocity, the book describes several fundamental tools of behavioral influence. Three of these tools in particular provide an excellent framework through which to explain and understand how Tik-Tok uses challenges to persuade its users: social proof, commitment, and automaticity.
Social proof, defined by Cialdini, is “the tendency [for someone] to see an action as more acceptable when others are doing it.” We look to authorities as well as our peers for which behaviors to adopt. Thus, social media authorities with millions of followers have immense influence on those who look to them for advice. Companies often engage social proof by paying famous people to wear or use their products. While all social media networks prominently rely on this principle, Tik-Tok is unique in that it engages social proof not through the adoption of beliefs or ideas, but learned physical behaviors. The moment top-user Charli D’Amelio releases a new Tik-Tok to her 102 million followers, she is giving social credibility to a new trend, a challenge that displays flawless execution of bizarre dance moves in synchrony with the catchiest song of the day. When the average Tik-Tok user, often an impressionable teenager, sees how popular Charli is and then taps their own camera icon, uncertainty arises… “What should I film? How should I behave?” This uncertainty increases the likelihood that the user will mimic Charli’s dance, as this is the behavior that is socially proven. Simply put, we look to validate our actions via the behaviors of the crowd, and often conform to social trends even when we find them to be wrong.¹⁰
This fact is compounded by the mechanisms through which Tik-Tok spurts commitment in its users. Consider as a case study a recent Wallstreet Journal article about ‘do-it-yourself’ social-media videos that generate hundreds of millions of views per month. Creators of these popular life-hack videos had developed a “virality checklist” which was based on a simple idea: their best performing content was always that which appeared “simple and easy” to replicate but “still produced an impressive result.”¹¹ These videos resulted in more views and more attempts by viewers to recreate them. On Tik-Tok, a similar phenomenon can be seen in that many viral videos are ones which depict complex dances appearing flawless and easy to accomplish. Upon seeing this, nudged by the apparent ease of learning and the social proof of the phenomenon, the user is more likely to mentally commit to recreating the video. As soon as they set the stage and hit the record button, they have entered a commitment which produces consistency of behavior; the repetition of the dance over and over until the user starts to learn how it works. Time to activate those mirror neurons.
Commitment generates the powerful behavior of consistency. Even if the user finds that the dance has taken much longer to learn than expected, they have already sunk enough time that it would appear foolish and inconsistent to suddenly back out before completion. This type of self-consistency is “vital for organized functioning and health,” however, once a commitment is made, there is a natural tendency for one to behave in “ways that are stubbornly consistent with the [commitment].”¹² If the Tik-Tok user were to suddenly put the phone down and stop attempting to learn the dance, they may face an internal psychological resistance to behaving inconsistently with prior actions. Further resistance may be galvanized by the idea of missing out on a popular social trend. The power of these psychological forces can result in hours spent looping the same video over and over, each time storing an audio-visual packet of information that activates mirror neurons, increases memory & gaze time, and reinforces a pathway for future recall.
This brings us to the final psychological principle, automaticity. A Harvard paper titled “Automaticity of Action” describes conscious automaticity as the “acquisition of skills that become automatic and unconscious after significant repetition.”¹³ Behavioral automaticity can be generated by the well-established principle of classical conditioning, first pioneered by Ivan Pavlov. The Russian Physiologist and father of behaviorism famously demonstrated that dogs presented with a stimulus (a bell) repeatedly paired with a behavior (eating food) would later induce a response (increased salivation) when the bell was presented alone. This classical conditioning is the basis for many of our behaviors, and is the exact reason why you check your phone upon hearing the text tone or press on the brakes when the light turns yellow. In Tik-Tok terms, the consistent exposure to a stimulus (a catchy song) repeatedly paired with a behavior (synchronized dance) may induce a response (desire to dance) when the stimulus is presented. In users, the result can be an unconscious urge to re-enact Tik-Tok dances upon hearing the associated stimulus.
Brew these three psychological concepts together with a dash of likes, a hint of social collaboration, and the overwhelming allure of potential virality. You’ll have a cup of behavioral compliance; a pipeline of action that turns social proof into commitment, commitment into consistency, consistency into repetition, and repetition to behavioral automaticity. While this framework can be applied to a variety of social media behaviors, Tik-Tok dances are a particularly well-fitted example. For younger populations who are highly vulnerable to social pressure, the psychological forces alone carry an enormous weight. Combine these with the additional mechanisms of sensory and neurological influence and it quickly becomes clear how a person can feel abnormally compelled to replicate what they see on Tik-Tok.
Whether or not one believes malintent on the behalf of the creators of Tik-Tok, there’s no denying that neuropsychological strings are being blatantly pulled to extract attention from its users. The Chinese app’s suddenly vast presence in the digital economy is due to its ability to rapidly garner attention, a resource so valuable that it drives a $1.2 trillion advertising industry.¹⁴ This monetization of attention requires that we be extra wary as to how our attention is being spent. Naive is the reader who scoffs at the notion of attentional control and burgeons an idealistic worldview wherein they are somehow immune to the myriad mental effects discussed in this paper.
This analysis of Tik-Tok is not meant to criticize its users nor to demonize the app as an unusually malevolent player in the media industry. In fact, a well-formed argument could be made to claim that other media platforms are having a larger and more negative impact on the world as a whole. However, Tik-Tok represents an unprecedented phenomenon in that its growth rate and content have no modern analogues. The app’s exponentially-increasing adoption is miraculous when viewed at face value. However, in illuminating the cognitive mechanisms which have facilitated this growth, we can understand more deeply where our global consciousness resides in terms of attention, memory, and stability. Existential questions arise when we ask why we’ve arrived at this point. What happens to human progress when our youth’s attentional capacities have been manipulated by platforms that use neuroscience, psychology, and algorithmic optimization to inspire uncontrollable and compulsive use? I encourage the reader to think critically about the impact that these forces may have on the thoughts and actions of our next generation.
As philosopher Cornel West poignantly remarks, “clever gimmicks of mass distraction yield a cheap soulcraft of addicted and self-medicated narcissists.” These overly-harsh words allude to a general truth: large-scale control is possible and the game we’re currently playing is a dangerous one. We’ve normalized technology that increasingly jeopardizes our ability to make focused, rational decisions, particularly when those decisions don’t immediately benefit ourselves. It would be smart to ask whether the tradeoff is worth it: do we sacrifice some basic cognitive abilities in exchange for the fleeting pleasure we derive? Or are we too distracted to even answer the question.
: “TikTok Statistics — Everything You Need to Know [April 2020 Update].” Wallaroo Media, 30 Apr. 2020, wallaroomedia.com/blog/social-media/tiktok-statistics/.
: Di Pellegrino, G, et al. “Understanding Motor Events: a Neurophysiological Study.” Experimental Brain Research, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1992
: Ferrari, Pier Francesco, and Giacomo Rizzolatti. “Mirror Neuron Research: the Past and the Future.” Series B, Biological Sciences, The Royal Society, 28 Apr. 2014
: Molnar-Szakacs, Istvan, and Katie Overy. “Music and mirror neurons: from motion to ‘e’motion.” Social cognitive and affective neuroscience vol. 1,3 (2006): 235–41. doi:10.1093/scan/nsl029
: Woolhouse, Matthew Harold, and Rosemary Lai. “Traces across the body: influence of music-dance synchrony on the observation of dance.” Frontiers in human neuroscience vol. 8 965. 3 Dec. 2014
: Müllensiefen, Daniel, et al. “Individual Differences Predict Patterns in Spontaneous Involuntary Musical Imagery.” Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 31, no. 4, 2014, pp. 323–338.,
: AR;, Zatorre RJ;Halpern. “Mental Concerts: Musical Imagery and Auditory Cortex.” Neuron, U.S. National Library of Medicine, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15996544/?mod=article_inline.
: Karpicke, Jeffrey D., and Althea Bauernschmidt. “Spaced Retrieval: Increased Long-Term Retention Regardless of the Spacing Schedule.” PsycEXTRA Dataset, 2010, doi:10.1037/e566842012–024.
: ‘Sweetening the Till: The Use of Candy to Increase Restaurant Tipping’ by David B. Strohmetz, Bruce Rind Et Al.” Site, scholarship.sha.cornell.edu/articles/130/.
: Asch, Solomon. “Opinions and Social Pressure.” Scientific American, 1955.
: Horwitz, Jeff. “Why Life Hack Videos Seem Too Good to Be True. (They Are).” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 9 Oct. 2019,
: Cialdini, Robert B. Influence: Science and Practice. Prentice Hall, 2020.
: Happe, Frederick. “Automaticity of Action: Psychology of Automatic Thoughts.” Scholar.harvard.edu, 2001, scholar.harvard.edu/files/dwegner/files/wheatleywegner.pdf.
: Mutunhire, Ten. “The Advertising Industry Is Now Worth $1.2 Trillion, MarketingContinues to Grow through Mobile Content, Social Platforms and New Digital Platforms.” Towers of Zeyron, 2 Dec. 2017