Applied Psychology

Unpacking the Psychology of Social Media

May 11, 2021
Unpacking the Psychology of Social Media

Social Media is an ever changing and growing arena. For many it’s becoming, or is already, a primary influencer in their life. Why is it so compelling? Social Media’s staggering success is due to the way in which it leverages psychological concepts. These concepts are central to how we see ourselves and how we engage with others. For instance, what drives us to say and do things online which we wouldn’t do face-to-face? And why do you have this desire to work on your Facebook persona? What makes us want to “like” or “share” someone else’s post?

“Social Media’s success is linked to psychological impulses that drive our online behaviour.”

Did You Know?

  1. Currently the average person has 8.6 social media accounts and spends over 2 hours a day on them.
  2. There are around 7.82 billion people in the world, of which an estimated 50.6% use social media platforms.
  3. Most people access social media via their phones.
  4. The leading social media platform, based on the number of users, is Facebook, followed by YouTube and WhatsApp.
  5. In the last 10 years social media platforms have tripled their user base.

What Drives Our Online Behaviour?

Behind the desire to connect with others, there are a number of deep-seated cyber-psychological impulses that drive our online behaviour. Here are four of them.

1. Online Disinhibition – No hold barred

The self-expression cyberspace offers us is unparalleled to anywhere else. We simply have to open an app or webpage and instantly we can make our most private and personal thoughts globally public.

According to John Suler, Professor of Psychology at Rider University in America, several factors are at play in cyberspace that loosen our natural psychological barriers. For example, the invisibility – and often anonymity – of an online encounter. People feel less vulnerable about sharing when they are able to separate their actions from their real world and identity. This is what happens when what you say or do can’t be linked back to the rest of your life. Essentially you don’t have to own your behaviour by acknowledging it within the full context of who you ‘really’ are. Making it easier to say or do things that we usually would hesitate to do or not do.

2. Looking-Glass Self

The concept of the Looking-Glass Self is the cornerstone of the Socialisation Theory. It was introduced around 1902 by American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley. It’s based on the idea that people within our close environment serve as mirrors to us. They reflect the image of ourselves and we shape our self-concept on what we think they see. The main point of this theory is that how we see ourselves does not come from who we are.  But rather from how we believe others see us. Thus, we form our self-image as a reflection of the responses and evaluations of those around us.

In contrast, social media has become a way of “marketing” our best selves to the word. We build an online persona that reflects who we want others to perceive us to be. We do this based on the positive reactions we get from the images we post online. The more likes we get, the more we shape our personal brand around an image so as to evoke more positive responses. The result is that every social media interaction, even the very smallest, shapes our self-perception.

3. Tit-for-Tat

Have you noticed that doing something nice for someone else, often starts a chain reaction? And that if you didn’t want someone to do something for you, and they did, you felt like you “owed” them? That’s because the instinct to give back for any good deeds done for us is a deeply ingrained one. In social-psychology, this is called the Law of Reciprocity. What is becoming apparent is that the Law of Reciprocity plays a powerful role when it comes to social media.

In 1971 the American evolutionary biologist, Robert Trivers, first proposed the concept of “reciprocal altruism”, a kind of real-life “tit-for-tat”. He proposed that incurring some cost while helping another is beneficial to us. This is because there is a chance of someone else returning the favour in the future. Thereby, creating a form of mutual indebtedness.

“Our online behaviour has a transactional nature to it.”

Within the cyber community of social media, the notion of mutual indebtedness takes the form of a virtual trading of responses. Here we all “agree” to retweet posts, like each other’s links, comment on blogs and share content. Thereby creating a return of favour for our own future social media interactions and a never-ending cycle of mutual indebtedness.

4. Our Three Selves: Me, Myself and I

The idea of keeping up appearances and putting our best selves forward isn’t unique to social media. We do it when we meet new people or go to a job interview. According to Edward Tory Higgins’, Professor of Psychology at Columbia University in America, Self-discrepancy Theory we have three different selves:

  1. Actual Selves: The person we perceive ourselves too actually be
  2. Ought Selves: The person we believe we should be
  3. Ideal Selves: The person we want to be, who is shaped by our hopes, wishes and aspirations

The challenge with social media is that it provides immediate external validation. Making it easy to choose a path of instant, short-term gratification. Thus, decreasing the desire to do the long-term harder work of real self-improvement and growth. Which involves honest self-examination and change to get ourselves from who we actually are, to who we ought/want to be.  Instead, our ideal and branded online self takes precedence over developing our actual self.

“Instant online affirmation can have long term negative consquences.”

This forgoing of self-improvement for instant affirmation has broader consequences.  The wider the perceived gap between our actual and our ideal self, the more prone we are to feeling empty and unfulfilled in the long term.

Where to from Here?

Being aware of how and why we interact on social media is important. It’s part of our being able to maintain our digital wellness and thereby our overall personal health. Professor Higgins advises that it is possible to achieve and maintain a positive self-image in social media. One which accurately reflects who we are and doesn’t detract from our personal development or growth. To do this we do not necessarily have to quit our social media accounts. Rather what we need to do is readjust our perceptions of our online selves within our cyber worlds. And in doing this take time to find and then maintain the balance between our digital and real lives.

Would you like to assist people in bridging the gap between who they are right now and who they aspire to become? Consider doing a SACAP Applied Psychology course if you would like a career which involves helping others reach their unique potential. Contact us today to book an appointment to chat more about enrolling in a SACAP full or part-time course.

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