Facebook has taken a lot of flack lately. And it’s not about to let up.
Besides the revelations that most users – about 2 billion people – have had their profiles scraped and sold for commercial and political ends, now the very nature of social media is being exposed as potentially damaging to your mental health.
But how could a website hurt you psychologically, let alone one that’s populated by news and photos from your friends?
How Facebook Fakes Connection
Humans have profound social needs. Consider the species in evolutionary terms: humans spent hundreds of thousands of years living in tribal communities maxing out at 150 members (see Dunbar’s number: the average Facebook and real-world friends you can keep before those relationships lose meaning). Your brain evolved to operate within emotionally supportive tribes, to help you grow and develop, find a mate, raise a family, and receive care in your old age. It’s a behavioural adaptation embedded in your DNA to yearn for a close community of friends and family. You do it to survive.
Yet according to Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, Western society increasingly fails to provide this tight-knit community.
When you’re young, school provides a semblance of a tribe, and most children have the support of siblings, parents and grandparents to light their way. But once you become an adult, it’s easy to lose yourself in the relentless daily grind, finding temporary relief in personal screens, and failing to nurture the many connections that form a necessary tribe.
Hari argues that in order to stay psychologically stable, you need this face-to-face contact with your community on a daily basis. Without it, you’re going to feel isolated, like there’s something missing in your life. You become anxious and depressed, like the sickly baboon, pummelled and rejected by his hierarchical tribe into submission, and then, finally, to go away to die. (See Robert Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons.)
What a relief it was, then, when Facebook introduced a screen onto which you could project your personal network, to prove to yourself that you are indeed connected, and link you in to that tribe on a minute-to-minute basis.
Except that’s not connection, it’s an illusion of connection.
The daily commentaries and likes exchanged with your friends on Facebook pale in comparison to the emotional and social benefits of face-to-face conversation. You need to be able to pick up on the hundreds of subtle social cues with which we evolved; close enough to smell them. Take away the proximity, the social cues, the human interface, and you’re no longer talking to your friends.
You’re talking to a screen.
How Facebook Fakes Social Approval
There are rules to tribal living, designed to keep the tribe safe from within.
Everyone knows everyone else – so accountability is high. Your status within the tribe sees you thrive and it’s earned and demonstrated by countless nuanced social signals.
Unfortunately for Donald, this means you can’t just say “I know all the words” and convince everyone you’re an intellectual.
Instead, you make judgements of other people’s social signals to help you decide: Is this person a potential ally? Is this competition? Is this a mate? Are they trustworthy? Are they flaky? Are they disingenuous? Will they cooperate? Will the be difficult? Will they enlighten me?
Face-to-face communication allows you to theorise about a person’s intentions and their value to you as a member of the tribe. At the same time, they rapidly build a composite picture of you as an individual, which has a cumulative impact on how well you flourish in your tribe. Because don’t forget, this person knows everyone in your tribal community.
Naturally, then, it’s hardwired into you to seek out social approval, to rank as highly in the tribe as you can, so as to accrue more support, more resources, and more offspring. These are all fundamental instincts driven by your genes; see Richard Dawkins’ classic The Selfish Gene, depicting a gene’s-eye-view of evolution.
So where does this meet the psychology of Facebook?
Facebook feeds your hunger for social approval by having you to engineer stories and receive likes in return. It’s quite a bizarre thing to do if you think about it: we actually click a button that says I like this thing you did. Despite being so on the nose, it still triggers that dopamine rush, that little biologically-programmed buzz created by social approval.
And so, like billions of other human beings, you get swept up the in Facebook addiction.
You engineer stories about the kind of food you eat (only if it’s a fancy restaurant meal and not the snot on toast you ate last night), the people you hang out with (group photos make you look especially likeable for the multiple social kudos), the places you travel (look, so much resource, I can go anywhere!), and what jokes we find funny (I’m not even going to touch the psychology of humour, I think I might break). Your careful engineering efforts allow you to accrue hundreds and then thousands of likes on your Facebook wall, and you feel like you’re gaining social validation from your tribe.
Except you’re not. In social media transactions, there are no voices, no smiling, no pheromones, no contact; none of the social cues to which you have evolved to respond. If face-to-face social approval is like eating a delicious meal, with real enjoyment and real nourishment, then Facebook social approval is like sniffing that meal from a distance: a mere tease. And then it’s gone. The effects aren’t visceral or long lasting, and you’re left sitting there, staring at your phone, alone.
So much effort. So little reward. Why do we get tricked into doing this?
How Facebook Creates Addiction
One of the reasons we do this is because social media is highly addictive. Designers deliberately employ psychological tactics to make their apps as addictive as possible. For example, opening Facebook is predominantly a result of psychological conditioning, which generates an unconscious response. Without really thinking about it, you habitually pick up your phone in a moment of boredom and click on the little blue square to get your next dopamine hit. Infinite scrolling and video autoplay extend your experience so that you can spend long periods of time interacting with Facebook through no conscious will or choice of your own.
Take push notifications. Facebook leverages the proven most powerful type of operant conditioning: variable ratios of enforcement. In other words, they hit you with notifications that range from desirable (say, a video of your best friend being bitten by a monkey), to neutral (a distant acquaintance posts 37 new baby pictures) to downright annoying (a stranger posts a dumb rant to a group you forgot you even belong to). There’s no way of telling if these notifications are going to be good or bad, and this unpredictability compels you to make the click.
It’s a common strategy also used by slot machines programmers. There’s a psychological tease, a compulsion to find out if the next click or spin is going to bring a reward. Again, you’re suckered in to spending precious time building artificial relationships via your screen instead of real relationships via reality.
This is a dangerous idea. Not only have you forgotten how to immerse yourself in community living, but Facebook and other social media compound that by tricking you into investing your time and social efforts where the rewards are few.
Facebook Fakes Identity
The social engineering to which you’re addicted creates even deeper levels of psychological unrest. Whether you’re conscious of it or not, Facebook is a platform for you to define your ego, where your profile is basically an ad for yourself.
Take your head shot: a literal expression of your identity. Then there’s your cover photo: affording a more abstract expression of your lifestyle (or at least how you want it to be perceived). Facebook urges you to select your five best photos (showing off your attractiveness, social standing and resources) and your number of friends (showing off your social success). In doing so, Facebook tries to recreate the real-world social signals on which you have evolved to rely.
Except, these signals are false. It may hurt to acknowledge that everything you do on Facebook is engineered. But it’s true in exactly the same way that your choice of clothes, hairstyle and makeup is also engineered to gain social approval. You’re a social creature. You care about what others think. Even if you say you don’t, you absolutely do. You need to be socially accepted in order to have a successful life. It’s human nature.
Of course, digital and social media engineering is a lot easier to fake than real-world social cues.
Your Android phone has automatic photo enhancement features like “skin tone”, “slim face”, and “large eyes”. You can take 100 prettified selfies, choose your favourite, and then stick a filter on it for further enhancement. Social media users are so aware of this selection and enhancement process as to use accompanying hashtags like #nomakeup or #nofilter as if to guarantee the absence of any underhanded engineering. Seriously?
The identity-forging nature of Facebook makes it an ideal haven for narcissism and attention-seeking behaviour. Status updates are an oddly public display of private thoughts and emotions which we would never declare to a room full of hundreds of people in real life. It also creates artificial rules for interaction which are played up by pastimes such as vaguebooking, where people seek out the attention but not the two-way intimacy of real social interaction.
Is all social media narcissistic? It’s more fitting to say that, like most psychological traits, people fall on a spectrum of narcissism, and social media provides a convenient stage for expressing that self-interest. You don’t have to scroll far down your newsfeed to see examples of it: the engineered selfie, the thinly veiled brag, the materialistic boast, the attention-seeking post.
Frequent selfie-posting on social media has been studied by social psychologists, and not surprisingly it qualifies you as narcissistic, and is a result of your personal identity residing in its formative stages. Your ego is derived from extrinsic factors, namely, the impressions you make on other people, and selfies are merely opportunistic advertisements for enhancing your self-identity. That’s an allowable part of human development, isn’t it?
Actually it’s an unhealthy habit, especially if done frequently. A selfie isn’t a real expression of identity. It’s a carefully pruned, computer manipulated one. So what happens when you look in the mirror and don’t see the toned-up, slimmed-down face you have advertised to the world via Facebook?
You could be a perfectly attractive person, but without the digital enhancements and careful engineering, you find comparative ugliness. Your self-esteem takes a blow, not only undoing the temporary dopamine boost generated by those 48 selfie likes you got yesterday, but undermining your real-world attractiveness. You feel like an impostor, incapable of looking like that perfect selfie-creature in the real-world, and your ego deflates.
You will never be able to live up to such artificial promises, so why create this self-image of unattainable perfection?
The Psychology of Facebook
People love Facebook. It’s a daily – perhaps hourly – ritual for billions of people around the world. And that tells us Facebook has tapped into a deep human need for social connection. But does it deliver?
The research suggests Facebook and other social media are actively damaging to your self-esteem by having you portray an idealised version of yourself you simply can’t live up to. It also pits you in battle against other people, in a lose-lose competition of who has the best looks, the best material possessions, and the best lifestyle – what Johann Hari calls the pursuit of “junk values”. (One sure sign you’re engaged in this contest is if you’ve ever used the oxymoronic #humblebrag.)
What’s more, Facebook distracts you from forging the real-world social bonds which are critical to your mental health, all the while portraying itself as a source of such richness. It taps into a fundamental need to create social approval, while providing no real-world benefits.
Just flip the image for a moment: recall your most prolific Facebooker friend. Do you really think more of them in reality for all their social engineering efforts? They may have supermodel qualities on Facebook but perhaps the real life version is now less impressive. It’s like comparing the impossibly perfect and shiny Big Mac advert on the billboard to its sloppy, squashed real-life counterpart. What if puffing yourself up on Facebook is analogous to advertising, where the real-world product can’t possibly live up to the sales hype; it’s all a big letdown. What’s the benefit?
Is there a moral of this story? Perhaps you should view your Facebook presence for what it is: a social advertisement that conveys why people should like you. But it’s not even the real you. At best, it’s a phoney digital version of you. Far from being a friendly digital forum interspersed with commercial ads, Facebook is an infinite feed of ad after ad after ad.
Ads for products. Ads for people. Is there really any difference?