Give up the #OCD jokes on Twitter, they won’t make you popular

One of the fictional Twitter accounts
used in Pavelko & Myrick (2015).

Stigma is a problem for all forms of mental illness, but arguably obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) – a condition that at its most severe can ruin lives – is subject to a disproportionate amount of trivialisation and ridicule.

A brief perusal of the hashtag #OCD on Twitter makes this obvious – the term is used frequently everyday to lampoon fussy, perfectionist behaviours. A new study asks how this Twitter trivialisation affects other users’ views of the condition and of the people who do the trivialising.

Rachel Pavelko and Jessica Myrick created several fictional Twitter accounts (half were male, half female), together with bio, avatar and 15 recent tweets. Half of the fictional account users self-identified as having OCD. Their bios said: “Enjoy friends and good movies. Making my way through this world with a diagnosis of OCD.” (A self-identifying hashtag–#livingwithOCD–was also included in their tweets). The other accounts without an OCD identity had bios that said: “I love: friends, good movies, sports, and ice cream.”

For each of the accounts, nine of the visible tweets were fillers and said things unrelated to OCD like:

“When I’m old, I’m totally using the scooters at the grocery store.”

For the OCD tweets, some accounts always framed the condition respectfully and in clinical terms, as in:

“It’s not easy to deal with, but therapy and my great support system certainly help me everyday. #livingwithOCD”.

“Raising money for the National Alliance on Mental Illness to support my aunt in her struggle with #OCD”

Other accounts always trivialised the condition, with tweets like:

“Can’t stand all these crazy perfectionist people in my office. Not impressed that your file folders are alphabetized. #ThatsSoOCD.”

The remaining accounts featured a mix of serious and trivial OCD tweets.

Nearly 600 participants were recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk site (just over half were male, the average age was 33), a minority of whom reported having OCD (3.9 per cent) or other mental illness (29.2 per cent), or having a family member with OCD (9.3 per cent). Each participant looked at one of the Twitter accounts and answered questions about their feelings towards the fictional person and about people with OCD in general.

Good news: those participants shown accounts that trivialised OCD were no more likely to say they wanted to keep their distance from people with the condition. More good news: people who self-identified as having OCD on Twitter, regardless of how they tweeted about their condition, were in general like more by the participants than those who didn’t. And what about the accounts where the person didn’t have OCD but wrote tweets that trivialised the condition? Such accounts were liked less by the participants than those that treated the condition with respect.

“This implies,” the researchers said, “that trivialisation, while seemingly cute or done in jest, can actually backfire for social media users.”

The researchers also said that the positive reaction among participants to the fictional account holders with OCD suggests that Twitter, and possibly other forms of social media, could be a safe space for people with the condition to share their experiences with others.


Pavelko, R., & Myrick, J. (2015). That’s so OCD: The effects of disease trivialization via social media on user perceptions and impression formation Computers in Human Behavior, 49, 251-258 DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2015.02.061

further reading
Should you help a person with OCD do their checks?
What’s it like to have OCD?

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.