Last week, Facebook’s founding president Sean Parker admitted his concerns that, by focusing on social validation, Facebook was designed to exploit “a vulnerability in human psychology”. Added to this, and amidst the current furore around fake news, imagine if adverts on Facebook could be adapted to target your personality, significantly increasing the odds that people like you will click on the ads and then buy the associated products or vote differently in an election. A timely study in PNAS shows just how easy and effective it is to target web users according to their personality, a technique that the researchers call “psychological persuasion”.
For many shy people, online social networking sites have an obvious appeal – a way to socialise without the unpredictable immediacy of a face-to-face encounter. However, a new study finds that people who are socially anxious betray their awkwardness on Facebook, much as they do in the offline world. The researchers Aaron Weidman and Cheri Levinson said their findings could hint at ways for socially anxious people to conceal their nervousness and attract more online friends.
Seventy-seven students (average age 19; 77 per cent of them female) completed a measure of social anxiety. High scores were given to those who agreed with statements like “I have difficulty talking with other people” and “I am tense mixing in a group”. Before the students left the psych lab, the researchers took screen grabs of their Facebook pages.
Several aspects of the students’ Facebook pages correlated with their social anxiety scores. Unsurprisingly perhaps, those with fewer Facebook friends had higher social anxiety scores, so too did those who showed their relationship status as “single” (versus married or status not shown) and those whose page did not show a status update or quote (a sign of self-disclosure). These markers largely reflect offline signs of social anxiety – it’s well established for example that people who are socially anxious share less information and tell fewer stories in conversation.
So, socially anxious people betray signs of their personalities on their Facebook pages, but would a stranger looking at their page pick up on these cues? Next, the researchers showed the students’ Facebook pages to six other students and asked them to rate the social anxiety of the owners of the pages (if the observing students recognised any of the people in the Facebook pages, they didn’t rate those pages).
There was a modest correlation between the observers’ ratings of the Facebook owners’ social anxiety and the owners’ actual (self-reported) social anxiety scores. The observers picked up on some cues correctly, including lack of Facebook friends. But other cues they misread. Observers tended to rate Facebook pages with fewer photos and fewer people in the profile photo as more socially anxious, even though neither of these factors actually correlated with the owners’ social anxiety scores. Observers also failed to pick up on the significance of a lack of self-disclosure or the owners’ relationship status.
Unfortunately, some of the tell-tale signs of social anxiety can lead shy people to appear awkward and to make a negative impression on people they meet – the very outcome that they fear. These new results suggest the same problem may apply on Facebook, but they also point at a way to help by addressing the signs that strangers will read as evidence of social awkwardness.
The researchers said people high in social anxiety “may benefit from interventions aimed at forcing them to befriend more individuals on Facebook, post more photos of themselves, and to choose a profile picture that depicts them in the presence of others, all of which might cause observers to view [them] more positively as potential friends.”
Weidman, A., & Levinson, C. (2015). I’m still socially anxious online: Offline relationship impairment characterizing social anxiety manifests and is accurately perceived in online social networking profiles Computers in Human Behavior, 49, 12-19 DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2014.12.045
The Psychology of Facebook, Digested
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
- These are the unwritten rules of Facebook, according to focus groups with students.
- Viewing your own FB profile boosts self-esteem.
- Emotions are contagious on Facebook (this is the recent study that caused controversy because users’ feeds were manipulated without them knowing).
- Surprise! Both male and female subjects are more willing to initiate friendships with opposite-sex profile owners with attractive photos.
- People publish posts on FB that they later regret for various reasons, including posting when they’re in an emotional state or misunderstanding their online social circles.
- Who needs cheap thrills or meditation? Apparently, looking at your FB account is different, physiologically speaking, from stress or relaxation. It provokes what these researchers describe appealingly as a “core flow state“, characterised by positive mood and high arousal.
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.
There’s been an outcry after Facebook manipulated the news feeds of nearly 700,000 its users, as part of a newly published investigation into online emotional contagion. Here we bring you a handy round-up of some of the ensuing commentary and reaction.
Lead author on the paper, in-house Facebook researcher Adam Kramer took to Facebook on June 29 to apologise. “…our goal was never to upset anyone,” he writes. Kramer’s co-authors were researchers at Cornell University.
Cornell University claim that their researchers analysed data collected by Facebook, and had no part in data collection themselves. “Cornell University’s Institutional Review Board concluded that he [co-author Professor Jeffrey Hancock] was not directly engaged in human research and that no review by the Cornell Human Research Protection Program was required.
Princeton University psychology Susan Fiske – editor at PNAS where the research was published – told Guardian Blogger Chris Chambers that she didn’t have time to answer all his questions about the study. Retorts Chambers: “In what version of 2014 is it acceptable for journals, universities and scientists to offer weasel words and obfuscation in response to simple questions about research ethics?”
The Bad Research Methods
John Grohol at World of Psychology pointed out that the text analysis used in the research was flawed. For example, “I am not having a great day” and “I am not happy” would be rated positive because of the presence of the words “great” and “happy”.
Over at Znet, tech blogger Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols said he knew all Facebook users were guinea pigs, but not that they were lab rats. “Stop it, Facebook. Stop it now. And, never, ever do anything like this again.”
The Outcry II
NPR blogger Linda Holmes: “I speak here as a Facebook user and straight from the heart: It’s gross. It’s gross.”
The Counter Reaction
“Facebook users more or less get what they should expect — and what they deserve, given that they use Facebook’s service for free”. This the opinion of California Polytechnic ethicist Patrick Lin, as paraphrased by the Wall Street Journal.
The Counter Reaction II
Calm down, says Alice Park at Time, “what Facebook did was scientifically acceptable, ethically allowable and, let’s face it, probably among the more innocuous ways that you’re being manipulated in nearly every aspect of your life.” (similar sentiments from Forbes technology writer & Tal Yarkoni at New Scientist).
“Until Facebook changes its practices,” says Selena Larson at ReadWrite.com “there’s only one way to assuredly remove yourself as a candidate for a scientific experiment: Delete your Facebook account.”
Update 2 July:
- The Information Commissioner’s Office in the UK announced that it is launching an investigation into whether Facebook breached data protection laws.
- Facebook’s study “appears to contravene all four principles of research ethics … ” said Kate Bullen, Chair, British Psychological Society ethics committee, and John Oates, Chair of the Society’s research ethics reference group, in a letter to the Guardian.
Update 4 July:
- The journal PNAS, where the Facebook study was published, issues an “editorial expression of concern“.
- British psychologist and Guardian blogger Pete Etchells asks whether we can take anything positive from the debacle.
Media headlines frequently link young people’s widespread use of Facebook with the narcissism of their generation (e.g. “Facebook’s ‘dark side’: study finds link to socially aggressive narcissism). A new investigation involving hundreds of US college students and hundreds of members of the US public has found that it’s actually the older generation for whom this claim is more accurate. However, use of Twitter tells another story.
First to challenge those Facebook headlines. Shaun Davenport and his colleagues found that students (average age 20) who scored higher on narcissism (measured by the Narcissistic Personality Inventory) were no more likely to post Facebook status updates, nor did they tend to have more Facebook friends.
By contrast, among the general public recruited online (average age 32), higher narcissism was linked with more use of Facebook, in terms of number of updates and number of friends. The researchers speculated that for young people who have grown up with Facebook, it’s common practice to use the social network regardless of one’s personality type. For older generations who did not grow up with Facebook (the age range for the public sample was 18 to 75), Davenport and his team said sending status updates was “not part of their social norms” and may instead be driven by narcissistic motives.
What about Twitter? Analysis showed that for the students, higher narcissism was associated with more active usage of Twitter. Moreover, higher narcissism was associated with students’ motives for using the site. More narcissistic students were likely to say they posted updates to attract followers and to gain admiration on the site. There were associations between student narcissism and vain motives for using Facebook too, but these links were weaker than for Twitter. “This pattern of results suggests that college narcissists prefer Twitter to Facebook and narcissism predicts reasons for usage as well as active usage,” the researchers said. They added that Twitter may have a number of features that particularly appeal to narcissists, including the fact that relationships need not be reciprocal (people can follow you on Twitter, without you having to follow them).
For the general public, higher narcissism was also linked with more active Twitter usage (more so even than Facebook usage). However, for this sample, links between narcissism and vain motives for using Twitter were weaker than for links between narcissism and vain motives for using Facebook.
A strength of this study is the use of two large samples covering different age groups. A weakness is its correlational design, which means we can’t know for sure if one factor (say, narcissism) is really driving a second factor (e.g. more Twitter updates). It’s possible the relationship works in reverse or that some other factor or factors are at play. “We concur with other researchers who have called for a greater use of experimental designs,” said Davenport and his team. “Given the early stages of SNS [social networking site] research, such methods would allow for greater control to isolate variables and allow for tests of causality.”
Shaun W. Davenport, Shawn M. Bergman, Jacqueline Z. Bergman, & Matthew E. Fearrington (2014). Twitter versus Facebook: Exploring the role of narcissism in the motives and usage of different social media platforms. Computers in Human Behavior DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2013.12.011
Organisations know that job candidates are presenting an idealised version of themselves in their CV and at interview. According to reports, many recruiters are therefore taking to social media to find an uncensored version of their applicants. Is this fair and what can they learn? A new study, led by William Stoughton and his colleagues at North Carolina State University, suggests that employers should beware jumping to conclusions based on what they find about applicants on Facebook.
Stoughton’s team invited hundreds of undergrads to apply for a real temporary research assistant position. Of those who were also on Facebook and who agreed to a follow-up survey, this left 175 undergrads, average age 19, with 63 per cent female. The survey included measures of the Big Five personality traits (extraversion, conscientiousness etc) and questions about the students’ activity on Facebook. In particular, they were asked how much they tended to engage in “bad mouthing” (e.g. how often have you criticised your employer or professors on Facebook?) and how much they posted updates about their drinking or drug use (e.g. how often during the past year have you posted photos of yourself drinking alcohol?)
Students who admitted to badmouthing on Facebook tended to score lower on agreeableness and conscientiousness. No real surprises there, although only low agreeableness retained a statistically significant association with badmouthing when the influence of all five personality traits were considered at once. More important, the amount of variance in badmouthing explained by personality traits was only 7 per cent, suggesting the associations between online behaviour and personality are modest.
Also revealing is that posting updates about drinking and drugs was only related to higher scores on extraversion but not with low scores on conscientiousness. This has potential real-life importance because employers have revealed they view online photos of applicants’ boozing and drug taking as a red flag. Presumably they think such behaviours are a sign of low conscientiousness, but this study shows this isn’t necessarily the case. Stoughton’s team speculated that conscientious people may not see their Facebook profiles as part of their professional image and that’s why they post “incriminating” photos. The lesson for recruiters is not to jump to conclusions based on candidates’ Facebook activity (see also). For job applicants – be careful about what you post online!
The study has some serious limitations that are worth bearing in mind. Not only does the student sample limit the generalisability of the results, but remember the researchers didn’t actually measure the students’ real Facebook activity. So strictly speaking the study is actually about links between students’ personality and their willingness (or desire) to admit to certain online behaviours.
Stoughton JW, Thompson LF, and Meade AW (2013). Big Five Personality Traits Reflected in Job Applicants’ Social Media Postings. Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking PMID: 23790360
Hiring by online profile: perils and challenges for the networked recruiter.
These are the unwritten rules of Facebook.
Facebook or Twitter: What does your choice of social networking site say about you?
What your Facebook picture says about your cultural background?
With over a billion users worldwide, Facebook has become a fundamental part of social life. Much as there are long-standing unwritten rules governing the way we behave toward each other face-to-face, today there also exist cultural expectations for how one ought to behave on Facebook. Now researchers at Trinity University in the USA have conducted focus groups and a survey of hundreds of undergrads, in one of the first attempts to find out what these rules are.
Erin Bryant and Jennifer Marmo conducted 6 focus groups with 44 students (aged 19 to 24), during which the participants were asked to brainstorm the rules governing interactions on Facebook. Merging similar-sounding rules, and only including those mentioned in two or more focus groups, the researchers were left with 36 rules.
Next, these rules were shown to 593 more participants (aged 18 to 52), who were asked to think of a particular Facebook acquaintance, causal friend or close friend, and to say how strongly they agreed that each of the 36 rules should be followed when interacting with that person.
Thirteen of the rules to emerge from the focus groups received overall endorsement by the survey participants:
I should expect a response from this person if I post on his/her profile.
I should NOT say anything disrespectful about this person on Facebook.
I should consider how a post might negatively impact this person’s relationships.
If I post something that this person deletes, I should not repost it.
I should communicate with this person outside of Facebook.
I should present myself positively but honestly to this person.
I should NOT let Facebook use with this person interfere with getting my work done.
I should NOT post information on Facebook that this person could later use against me.
I should use common sense while interacting with this person on Facebook.
I should consider how a post might negatively impact this person’s career path.
I should wish this person happy birthday in some way other than Facebook.
I should protect this person’s image when I post on his/her profile.
I should NOT read too much into this person’s Facebook motivations.
A fourteenth rule that almost achieved overall endorsement from the survey was: I should be aware the information this person posts about me can have real world consequences.
Looking again at the entire list of 36, the researchers found that these fell into five distinct categories: communication channels (e.g. I should use Facebook chat with this person); control and deception (e.g. I should block this person if he compromises my image); relational maintenance (e.g. I should use Facebook to communicate happy birthday to this person); negative consequences for the self (e.g. I should not post info this person could use against me); and negative consequences for the friend (e.g. I should protect this person’s image online).
Another finding was that the categories of rule that were considered most important varied according to what type of friend a person was thinking of. Communication rules and rules governing protecting friends were rated more important when considering close friends. Detection and deception rules were thought most important when considering acquaintances. And relational maintenance rules were rated as more important when thinking of acquaintances and casual friends, perhaps because close friends already interact more outside of Facebook.
The study has obvious limitations – particularly its reliance on a student sample in the USA, and the fact that no actual Facebook behaviours were recorded. Nonetheless, Bryant and Marmo said their exploratory study “can serve as a starting point for future research regarding the subject of interaction rules as they manifest in the digital age.” They added that an interesting avenue for future research would be to look at what happens when people contravene these rules.
What do you think is the most important interaction rule when using Facebook? Was it mentioned in this research?
Bryant, E., and Marmo, J. (2012). The rules of Facebook friendship: A two-stage examination of interaction rules in close, casual, and acquaintance friendships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29 (8), 1013-1035 DOI: 10.1177/0265407512443616
Facebook or Twitter: What does your choice of social networking site say about you?
Shy students who use Facebook have better quality friendships
What your Facebook picture says about your cultural background
People judged as likable in the flesh also make good first impressions online
What kind of profile picture do you have on Facebook? Is it a close-up shot of your lovely face with little background visible? Or is it zoomed out, so that you appear against a wider context? The answer, according to a new study by psychologists in the USA, likely depends in part on your cultural ancestry.
Chih-Mao Huang and Denise Park first analysed 200 Facebook profiles of users based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the National Taiwan University in Taipei. Half the users in Taiwan were actually US citizens, and half those in Illinois were Taiwanese. Regardless of their current location, there was a significant association between cultural background and style of Facebook picture. Facebook users originally hailing from Taiwan were more likely to have a zoomed-out picture in which they were seen against a background context. Users from the USA, by contrast, were more likely to have a close-up picture in which their face filled up more of the frame.
There was a trend for the students’ to adapt to their adopted culture because current location was also associated with picture style (e.g. Taiwanese based in the USA had pictures more focused on their faces, as compared with Taiwanese based in Taiwan), but this effect wasn’t statistically significant.
A second study was similar but involved 312 Facebook users at three American universities (University of California, San Diego; University of Texas at Austin; and University of California-Berkekely) and three Asian universities (Chinese University of Hong Kong; National University of Singapore; and National Taiwan University). These locations were selected to be comparable in terms of having a warm climate. Again, Facebook users in America tended to have a profile picture in which their face filled up more of the frame; Asian users, by contrast, showed more background context in their pictures. Americans were also less likely Asians to display other parts of their body, besides their face. And the Americans’ smile intensity tended to be greater.
“We believe this may be the first demonstration that culture influences self-presentation on Facebook, the most popular worldwide online social network site,” the researchers said.
The new findings complement an existing literature showing cultural associations with attentional and aesthetic habits. For example, a 2008 study (pdf) showed that portrait photographs taken by East Asians tended to show more background (and that participants from that culture preferred pictures of that style), whilst those taken by Westerners were more focused on the target’s face (and Americans said they preferred that style). Similarly, eye-movement research has shown that Westerners looking at a scene tend to focus more on embedded central objects, whilst Chinese look more often at the background.
“Our findings further extend previous evidence of systematic cultural differences in the offline world to cyberspace, supporting the extended real-life hypothesis,” the researchers said, “which suggests that individuals express and communicate their self-representation at online social network sites as a product of extended social cognitions and behaviours.”
Huang, C., and Park, D. (2012). Cultural influences on Facebook photographs. International Journal of Psychology, 1-10 DOI: 10.1080/00207594.2011.649285
Previously on the Research Digest: Asian Americans and European Americans differ in how they see themselves in the world.
Social networking sites have changed our lives. There were 500 million active Facebook users in 2011 and approximately 200 million Twitter accounts. As users will know, the sites have important differences. Facebook places more of an emphasis on who you are and who you know. Twitter restricts users to 140-character updates and is more about what you say than who you are. A new study asks whether and how the way people use these sites is related to their personality, and whether there are personalty differences between people who prefer one site over the other.
David Hughes at Manchester Business School and his colleagues surveyed 300 people online – most (70 per cent) were based in Europe, others were from North America, Asia and beyond. There were 207 women and the age range was from 18 to 63. Participants answered questions about the way they used Facebook and Twitter and which site they preferred. They also answered questions about their personality based around the “Big Five” personality factors of Extraversion, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, Openness and Agreeableness, as well as the dimensions of sociability and “need for cognition” (this last factor is about people’s need to be mentally engaged and stimulated).
Perhaps the most glaring finding is that personality actually explained little of the variance – less than 10 per cent (rising to 20 per cent alongside age) – in the way participants used these sites. This suggests that other factors not explored here, such as intelligence and motivation, have a big influence.
However, the associations with personality were interesting. People who used Facebook mostly for socialising tended to score more highly on sociability and neuroticism (consistent with past research suggesting that shy people use the site to forge social ties and combat loneliness). Social use of Twitter correlated with higher sociability and openness (but not neuroticism) and with lower scores on conscientiousness. This suggests that social Twitter users don’t use it so much to combat loneliness, but more as a form of social procrastination.
What about using the sites as an informational tool? There was an intriguing divergence here. People who said they used Facebook as an informational tool tended to score higher on neuroticism, sociability, extraversion and openness, but lower on conscientiousness and “need for cognition”. Informational users of Twitter were the mirror opposite: they scored higher on conscientiousness and “need for cognition”, but lower on neuroticism, extraversion and sociability. The researchers interpreted these patterns as suggesting that Facebook users seek and share information as a way of avoiding more cognitively demanding sources such as journal articles and newspaper reports. Twitter users, by contrast, use the site for its cognitive stimulation – as a way of uncovering useful information and material without socialising (this was particularly true for older participants).
Finally, what about people’s overall preference for Twitter or Facebook? Again, people who scored higher in “need for cognition” tended to prefer Twitter, whilst higher scorers in sociability, neuroticism and extraversion tended to prefer Facebook. Simplifying the results, one might say that Facebook is the more social of the two social networking sites, whereas Twitter is more about sharing and exchanging information.
These results should be treated with caution. The sample was biased towards young females and the data were entirely self-report. Nonetheless, the findings suggest there are some meaningful differences in the personality profiles of people who prefer Twitter vs. Facebook and some intriguing personality links with the way the sites are used. “Different people use the same sites for different purposes,” the researchers said.
Hughes, D., Rowe, M., Batey, M., and Lee, A. (2012). A tale of two sites: Twitter vs. Facebook and the personality predictors of social media usage. Computers in Human Behavior, 28 (2), 561-569 DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2011.11.001
Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
A lot of nonsense is written about the psychological effects of technology, and the Internet in particular. All that time staring at screens must reduce good ol’ fashioned face-to-face contact, the scare-mongers say. A new study takes a different view. Levi Baker and Debra Oswald at Marquette University argue that “computer-mediated communication” could be just what shy people need.
Through sites like Facebook, shy people have more control over how they present themselves, the psychologists argue, and shared interests for discussion are immediately obvious – something shy people can struggle to identify in the flesh. There are also no non-verbal cues to be misinterpreted (past research shows that shy people tend to interpret such cues in an overly negative way). To test whether shy people really do benefit from Internet use, Baker and Oswald surveyed 207 undergrads (138 girls) about their shyness, Facebook usage and the quality of their friendships.
The encouraging finding was that among the more shy students, greater use of Facebook was associated with feeling closer to and more satisfied with friends (although this didn’t apply to face-to-face friends who weren’t on Facebook). Shy students who used Facebook more also had a greater sense of social support. In contrast, for non-shy students, Facebook usage wasn’t associated with perceptions of friendship quality.
‘Our findings refute warnings that computer-mediated communication use might cause shy individuals to become even more socially withdrawn and isolated,’ the researchers said. ‘The current data clearly demonstrate that shy individuals’ use of Facebook is associated with better quality friendships.’
There are two related caveats. Regrettably, as with so much psychology research, this was a cross-sectional study, so it’s unable to make any claims about whether Facebook usage actually causes friendship benefits for shy students. Also, shy students who were heavier users of Facebook reported the same levels of loneliness as their shy peers who didn’t use the service so much. There are many possible reasons for this – for example, despite their superior online-supported friendships, perhaps they still struggled with purely face-to-face relationships. Baker and Oswald are more optimistic. They think that if their data had been collected over time, it would likely have shown that greater Facebook use led to reduced loneliness. ‘Clearly future work needs to identify how, and under what conditions, online communication facilitates off-line communication among shy individuals,’ they said.
Baker, L., and Oswald, D. (2010). Shyness and online social networking services. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 27 (7), 873-889 DOI: 10.1177/0265407510375261