A couple of weeks ago, I gave a lecture on Critical Thinking, argument mapping and social media to some first year undergrads. The following notes from that lecture are the introduction to a series of more detailed slides on the positive and negative effects of social media and an argument mapping project which I am undertaking. I was about to file these notes away but thought maybe they might make a nice, short, blog post.
Have you ever wondered what would happen if you were to “like” everything you saw on social media? What do you think would happen if you were to “like” everything that passed through your social media feed. Well, a New York developer and all round extremely cool looking dude, Rameet Chawla found out. Rameet built a script and an app that would do just that for him; it “liked” everything that passed his Instagram feed. Now, Lovematically has been blocked by Instagram, but Rameet says that while his script was running his “followers” grew by over 30 per day, by over 2,700 in three months; he got invited to more parties; people recognised him more and stopped him in the street and his friends begged him to post more, so that they could “like” his content, in return.
Now we might think, while we sit there, aimlessly “liking”, that this activity is not important, but let me tell you, our posts, shares and likes are; they matter. In fact, they tap into some of the very elements that make us human: our desires, our anxieties, and our joys.
The attraction of social media is not just in our heads. It is also physical…it is real.
Our brains produce two chemicals, dopamine and oxytocin which explain part of the reason we are so drawn. In the past, we thought that dopamine was simply the neurohormone responsible for pleasure, but now we realise that this chemical messenger plays an important role regulating mood, behavior, our cognitions and even our sleep. It is also associated with motivation and reward. So, we now know that dopamine actually creates want. Dopamine plays an enormous role in our desires and our searching. We also now know that this vitally important nerotransmitter is stimulated by the unpredictable; that its production is encouraged by reward cues and information clues – THE conditions of social media? Right?
Now, it’s quite controversial, but the pull of social media has been compared with the pull of cigarettes and alcohol. More specifically though, it has been found that young social media users are more likely to give in to longings or cravings to use social media than to succumb to other desires.
Then there’s our new friend, Oxytocin, the “cuddle” hormone which we met last in our lectures on Attachment. We remember that Oxytocin is released by the brain when we hug or when we kiss. But it is also released when we….Tweet? I just read an article where the author engaged on Twitter for 10 minutes and within that time his blood oxytocin levels increased by over 13%. Not only this, but his stress hormones cortisol and ACTH went down 10.8% and 14.9%, respectively.
That kindness that often comes with Oxytocin – the lowered stress, the empathy, the generosity, the love, and the trust, also comes with social media. Studies have shown that social media users are more trusting than average internet users. In fact, a typical Facebook user is 43% more likely, than other internet users, to feel that others can be trusted. Thanks, in part, to oxytocin and dopamine, social media encourages some great feelings, but it is also hard to resist.
So now, let’s look at some of the major activities we get up to on social media and try to work out what psychological strings are being pulled by each of them.
It won’t come as a surprise to anyone here that we like to talk about ourselves. In fact, it is estimated that up to 40% of all human speech is humans talking about themselves. On social media and in social media posts, though, this figure doubles. It has been shown that in social media posts, we talk about ourselves 80% of the time. That’s huge, right? Why do we think that is? Well, it seems that talking face-to-face is “costly”; it’s complex and involved. Between reading other peoples’ body language and facial cues, and trying to think about what we are about to say, we just don’t have time. Online, though, we do! Online, we have time to create, to construct, to polish and refine. In what psychologists call “self-presentation”, we monitor and audit our profiles to best position ourselves – the way we want to be seen. And….this also makes us feel good. Researchers have found that the simple act of viewing your own Facebook profile can increase your self-esteem.
But, if we love talking about ourselves so much, what is the reason behind us wanting to share something belonging to someone else? What makes us want to share other people’s news. Well, evolutionary psychologists tell us that passing along information is hardwired into us and it has been shown that the simple thought of sharing social information actually activates the reward centres of the brain.
Like with most things, it starts with the self; most people say that they share to let others know who they are and what they care about, but the main reason we share is so that we maintain connections. And again, there’s method in our madness; when we share the right kind of content, and when people react positively to it, we feel better about ourselves.
Liking and “favouriting” are also very important to us. When we think, say of Facebook with over 2 billion active monthly users, we almost automatically think of the “Like” button. In fact, since Facebook first implemented it in 2009, this feature has been used 1.13 trillion times with no sign of stopping. And again, why do we do this? We do this to confirm our closeness, to maintain relationships; we like and favourite each other’s posts to invest in our relationships. On top of this, there is a reciprocity effect; we feel that we have to give back to the people who have given” to us. We want to even up the scales. You see this reciprocity all the time. On Instagram, for example, when we receive a tag or a DM, it makes us feel compelled to send one back. When you receive a “like” on your profile, you’ll probably feel a little pull to reciprocate in some small way, whether that’s liking back or sharing something small.
So, “liking” and sharing are important and they effect us in essential ways. Commenting is also incredibly powerful. There is a theory, first proposed by Hardin and Higgins in 1996, that we have a “shared reality”. This theory holds, in very broad terms, that our complete experience of something is affected by how and if we share that experience with others; that we are motivated to share our reality with others in order to establish, maintain and regulate relationships, and to help us to perceive ourselves and our environment as stable, predictable, and controllable. Not only this, but 85% of us say that when we read another person’s response on a topic it helps us to process and understand the topic better. So, in theory “comments” help us to understand, but they can also help to change our minds. One study on news sites, for example, showed that comments that attacked the author, with no facts at all, are enough to change the readers perception of a topic. On the other hand, polite reviews – even when they’re negative – can cause brands to be seen as more honest and wholesome. In one study it was found that users were willing to pay more for a watch when they saw polite, but negative comments, than when reviews were removed. Given what has been happening in world politics over the last year, this is important information and very important research.
Let’s see….what else do we do with this technology….Oh! I know….we take pictures of ourselves…
In the past, portraits were about status, about controlling the way our image was portrayed and perceived. Today though, portraits in the form of “selfies”, are increasingly becoming a way for us to figure out who we are. Similar to the concept of “shared reality” I spoke about earlier, there is a concept in psychology called the “looking glass self” – Bear with me here – this concept, proposed by Cooley in 1902 states that a person’s self or their self concept grows out of their social interactions with others; that our view of ourselves comes from thinking about how others perceive us. So in theory, how we see ourselves does not come from who we really are, but rather from how we believe others see us; our self-image is formed as the reflections of the response and evaluations of others in our environment. So, it could be argued that our fixation with taking selfies helps us to create and maintain a stable self-concept…or that we need our reflection from others to tell us who we actually are.
That said, selfies also work because we pay more attention to faces than we do to anything else. Profile picture are the first place the eye is drawn to on Facebook and other social media sites. On Instagram, pictures with human faces are 38% more likely to get a “like” and 32% more likely to receive a comment. Eye tracking studies show that online, we follow the eyes of the people we see on screen. Indeed, viewing faces can even make us more empathic. In an experiment conducted in the x-ray department of an Israeli hospital, patient photos were added to x-rays of patients and it was found that radiologists reported that were more empathetic and indeed they completed more thorough examinations of the patient x-rays.
When we are talking, face-to-face with each other, we may not realise it, but we mimic each other’s expressions in conversation. This emotional contagion plays a huge role in how we communicate and how we build connectedness with each other. We don’t have this facility online, but we try to recreate it using emoticons and emojis. Today, over 92% of the online population use some of the 2,700 emojis in communication to better express themselves and to help others to understand the meaning of their words. On any given day, over 60 million emojis are sent on Facebook alone, 5 billion are sent on Messenger, by 2015 half of all Instragram posts contained an emoji and over 10 billion emojis are sent around the world every day.
But if we are going to talk about the psychology of social media, we have to talk about the effects it may be having on users, both the negative and the positive.
Some say that social media is making us more lonely, more isolated and more depressed and the science behind those findings is solid. I would argue, though, that the media itself doesn’t change us – It is an amplifier of our very human tendencies – social media turns these tendencies up a little. Take social comparison, for example. We all have a tendency to compare ourselves to others and to evaluate our worth based on comparisons we make to other people. In the normal course of events, this can cause insecurity and can effect mood and worse. But, in the social media world where we share our best news, our best photos, our highest accomplishments, these feelings can be magnified. We seem to be constantly comparing ourselves to a stream of great parties, new clothes, handsome boyfriends, beautiful girlfriends, sporting excellence, academic achievements. And it’s not just on Facebook, Instagram -envy is rife and even on the cosiest of all social media – Pintrest – there is a problem. There was a survey done recently of over 7,000 U.S. “moms” who used Pintrest and it was revealed the 42% claimed to suffer from “Pintrest stress” – a worry that they are not creative or crafty enough.
All that being said, social media can also be a force for good; it can unite us. I’m sure many of you have shared a loss or a personal challenge online on social media; you, most likely, received the resounding support that can come from friends and even from people you might not expect. When we are feeling low or insecure, turning to our friends on Facebook can provide us comfort and it has been shown to offer more comfort than any other type of self- affirmation activity. It has actually been shown that time spent using social media is correlated to “virtual empathy” which has been shown to carry over into the real word.
So, while some research has shown that social media may magnify our insecurities and draw us in to its web, I like to think that social media is about the good in the world. It’s about seeing that good in ourselves and others, acknowledging that good and sharing it with others. Social media shrinks our world, allowing us to get closer, a little more empathetic, maybe closer to who we truly want to be.
Disclaimer: Again these notes, introducing a more in-depth series of slides, were delivered to a first year undergrad class in their first semester.