The psychology of Facebook, digested

By Christian Jarrett

With over a billion users, Facebook is changing the social life of our species. Cultural commentators ponder the effects. Is it bringing us together or tearing us apart? Psychologists have responded too – Google Scholar lists more than 27,000 references with Facebook in the title. Common topics for study are links between Facebook use and personality, and whether the network alleviates or fosters loneliness. The torrent of new data is overwhelming and much of it appears contradictory. Here is the psychology of Facebook, digested:

Who uses Facebook?

Extraverts have more friends on FB
but shy people probably use it more

According to a survey of over a thousand people, “females, younger people, and those not currently in a committed relationship were the most active Facebook users“. Regarding personality, a study of over 1000 Australians reported that “[FB] users tend to be more extraverted and narcissistic, but less conscientious and socially lonely, than nonusers“. A study of the actual FB use of over a hundred students found that personality was a more important factor than gender and FB experience, with high scorers in neuroticism spending more time on FB. Meanwhile, extraverts were found to have more friends on the network than introverts (“the 10 per cent of our respondents scoring the highest in extraversion had, on average, 484 more friends than the 10 per cent scoring the lowest in extraversion”).

Other findings add to the picture, for example: greater shyness has also been linked with more FB use. Similarly, a study from 2013 found that anxiousness (as well as alcohol and marijuana use) predicted more emotional attachment to Facebook.

There’s also evidence that people use FB to connect with others with specialist interests, such as diabetes patients sharing information and experiences, and that people with autism particularly enjoy interacting via FB and other online networks.

Why do some people use Twitter and others Facebook?

High scorers in “need for cognition” prefer Twitter

Apparently most people use Facebook “to get instant communication and connection with their friends” (who knew?), but why use FB rather than Twitter? A 2014 paper suggested narcissism again is relevant, but that its influence depends on a person’s age: student narcissists prefer Twitter, while more mature narcissists prefer FB. Other research has uncovered intriguing links between personality and reasons for using FB. People who said they used FB as an informational tool (rather than socialising) tended to score higher on neuroticism, sociability, extraversion and openness, but lower on conscientiousness and “need for cognition”. The researchers speculated that using FB to seek and share information could be some people’s way to avoid more cognitively demanding sources such as journal articles and newspaper reports. The same study also found that higher scorers in sociability, neuroticism and extraversion preferred FB, while people who scored higher in “need for cognition” preferred Twitter.

What do we give away about ourselves on Facebook?

FB seems like the perfect way to present an idealised version of yourself to the world. However an analysis of the profiles of over 200 people in Germany and the US found that they reflected their actual personalities, not their ideal selves. Consistent with this, another study found that people who are rated as more likeable in the flesh also tend to be rated as more likeable based on their Facebook page. The things you choose to “like” on FB are also revealing. Remarkably, a study out last week found that your “likes” can be analysed by a computer programme to produce a more accurate profile of your personality than the profiles produced by your friends and relatives.

If our FB profiles expose our true selves, this raises obvious privacy issues. A study in 2013 warned that employers often trawl candidates’ FB pages, and that they view photos of drinking and partying as “red flags”, presumably seeing them as a sign of low conscientiousness (in fact the study found photos like these were linked with high extraversion, not with low conscientiousness).

Other researchers have looked specifically at how personality is related to the kind of content people post on FB. A 2014 study reported that “higher degrees of narcissism led to deeper self-disclosures and more self-promotional content within these messages. [And] Users with higher need to belong disclosed more intimate information“. Another study last year also reported that lonelier people disclose more private information, but fewer opinions.

You might also want to consider the friends you keep on FB – research suggests that their attractiveness (good-lookers give your rep a boost), and the statements they make about you on your wall, affect the way your own profile is perceived. Consider too how many friends you have – somewhat paradoxically, research finds that having an overabundance of friends leads to negative perceptions of your profile.

Finally, we heard about employers frowning on partying photos, but what else do you give away in your FB profile picture? It could reveal your cultural background according to a 2012 study that showed people from Taiwan were more likely to have a zoomed-out picture in which they were seen against a background context, while US users were more likely to have a close-up picture in which their face filled up more of the frame. Your FB pic might also say something about your current romantic relationship. When people feel more insecure about their partner’s feelings, they make their relationship more visible in their pics.

In case you’re wondering, yes, people who post more selfies probably are more narcissistic.

Is Facebook making us lonely and sad?

This is the crunch question that has probably attracted the most newspaper column inches (and books). A 2012 study took an experimental approach. One group were asked to post more updates than usual for one week – this led them to feel less lonely and more connected to their friends. Similarly, a survey of over a thousand FB users found links between use of the network and greater feelings of belonging and confidence in keeping up with friends, especially for people with low self-esteem. Another study from 2010 found that shy students who use FB feel closer to their friends (on FB) and have a greater sense of social support. A similar story is told by a 2013 paper that said feelings of FB connectedness were associated with “with lower depression and anxiety and greater satisfaction with life” and that Facebook “may act as a separate social medium ….  with a range of positive psychological outcomes.” This recent report also suggested the site can help revive old relationships.

Yet there’s also evidence for the negative influence of FB. A 2013 study texted people through the day, to see how they felt before and after using FB. “The more people used Facebook at one time point, the worse they felt the next time we text-messaged them; [and] the more they used Facebook over two-weeks, the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time,” the researchers said.

Other findings are more nuanced. This study from 2010 (not specifically focused on FB) found that using the internet to connect with existing friends was associated with less loneliness, but using it to connect with strangers (i.e. people only known online) was associated with more loneliness. This survey of adults with autism found that greater use of online social networking (including FB) was associated with having more close friendships, but only offline relationships were linked with feeling less lonely.

Facebook could also be fuelling envy. In 2012 researchers found that people who’d spent more time on FB felt that other people were happier, and that life was less fair. Similarly, a study of hundreds of undergrads found that more time on FB went hand in hand with more feelings of jealousy. And a paper from last year concluded that “people feel depressed after spending a great deal of time on Facebook because they feel badly when comparing themselves to others.” However, this new report (on general online social networking, not just FB) found that heavy users are not more stressed than average, but are more aware of other people’s stress.

Is Facebook harming students’ academic work?

This is another live issue among newspaper columnists and other social commentators. An analysis of the grades and FB use of nearly 4000 US students found that the more they used the network to socialise, the poorer their grades tended to be (of course, there could be a separate causal factor(s) underlying this association). But not all FB use is the same – the study found that using the site to collect and share information was actually associated with better grades. This survey of over 200 students also found that heavier users of FB tend to have lower academic grades, but note again that this doesn’t prove a causal link. Yet another study, this one from the University of Chicago, which included more convincing longitudinal data, found no evidence for a link between FB use and poorer grades; if anything there were signs of the opposite pattern. Still more positive evidence for FB came from a recent report that suggested FB – along with other social networking tools – could have cognitive benefits for elderly people.

And finally, some miscellaneous findings

That was our digest of the psychology of Facebook – please tell all your friends, on and off Facebook! Oh, and don’t forget to visit the Research Digest Facebook page.
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Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest.

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