The Psychology of Facebook

Facebook has taken a lot of flack lately.

First there are the revelations that most user profiles (representing about 2 billion people) have been scraped and sold for commercial and political ends. And now the very nature of social media is being exposed as potentially damaging to your mental health.

So how does this work? How does a social media website cause psychological harm, when all it’s apparently doing is populating your screen with news and photos from your friends?

Humans Evolved for Social Connection

Human beings have profound social needs. In evolutionary terms, humans spent more than a million years living in tribal communities maxing out at 150 members. (This is called Dunbar’s number: the average number of friends and acquaintances we can keep before those relationships start to lose meaning).

The human brain evolved to operate within physically and emotionally supportive tribes: to grow and develop into adulthood, to find a mate, to raise your offspring, and to be cared for in your old age. These behavioural adaptations are embedded in your DNA, so that you intuitively 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 you get to be pretty much carefree in your life while the grown ups watch out for all your physical and social needs. But once you become an adult with a career and a mortgage, you have to put significant effort into maintaining social connections on a consistent basis, because they’re generally not automatic in Western society.

Then you have kids. And a hundred distractions come along to compound the issue. You begin to consider a social life as a luxury and not an essential. You go from zero responsibility in childhood, to complete autonomy in adulthood, to the added responsibility of your own kids in parenthood. All this occurs within the modern framework of nuclear families and non-tribal living.

Johann Hari argues that in order to stay psychologically stable and secure, you need face-to-face contact with your community on a daily basis. Without it, you’re going to feel isolated because there’s something important missing from your life.

Then comes the neurochemical imbalance. Your social needs are unmet, and your brain responds with withdrawal and despair. You become anxious and depressed, like the sickly baboon, rejected by his hierarchical tribe, pummelled 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 the illusion of connection.

The commentaries and likes exchanged with your friends on Facebook pale in comparison to the strength of the emotional and social benefits of face-to-face relationships. The social connection we evolved with means picking up on the hundreds of subtle social cues. You need to be close enough to smell the other person.

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.

Humans Evolved for Social Approval

Let’s examine that tribal system that has kept us safe for thousands of generations.

There are rules to tribal living, designed to keep the community safe from within. And everyone knows everyone else, so personal accountability is high. You can’t steal from or abuse other people in the tribe or you’ll become known as Jerry the Thief or Mary the Murderer. You’ll be ostracised. Your essential tribal support will disappear, and you’ll be worse off than ever.

The flipside of that is the need to establish yourself as a warm, trustworthy, skilled, strong, intelligent member of the community. You do this through nurturing relationships within the tribe, and displaying a host of discrete social signals. Unfortunately for Donald, this means you can’t just say “I know all the words” and convince everyone you’re an intellectual.

Meanwhile, you make your own judgements about your tribal acquaintances. You closely watch their social signals to 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 they be difficult? Will they enlighten me?

Naturally, then, you’re hardwired to seek out social approval, to rank as highly in the tribe as you can, so as to generate more support, more resources, and more offspring. These are all fundamental instincts driven by your genes. (See Richard Dawkins’ classic The Selfish Gene, which depicts a gene’s-eye-view of evolution.)

So where does this social approval meet the psychology of Facebook?

Facebook feeds your hunger for social approval by having you engineer stories about yourself and receive digital likes in return. It’s quite on the nose when you think about it: we actually click a button that says I like this thing you did. The approval triggers that long-evolved dopamine rush, a biologically-programmed buzz that reinforces your desire to seek it out again in future. And so, like billions of other human beings, you get swept up the in Facebook addiction.

Facebook Narcissism

A hardcore Facebooker engineers stories about the fancy food they eat, the people they hang out with, the places they travel, and of course what they look like doing it. Their careful unconscious engineering efforts allow accrue hundreds and then thousands of Facebook likes, and in return they appear to gain social validation from their tribe.

Except it’s still all an illusion. 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 nourishment, then Facebook approval is like sniffing that meal only: a mere tease. And then it’s gone. The effects aren’t visceral or long lasting, and you’re left sitting there alone holding your black mirror.

So much effort for so little reward. How do we get tricked into doing this?

The Slippery Slope of 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 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, bad or neutral, and this unpredictability compels you to make the click to find out. 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 we forgotten the importance of community, but Facebook and other social media compound that by tricking us into investing our time and social efforts where the rewards are few.

Identity Crisis

The social engineering to which you’re probably 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, which makes your profile an ad for yourself.

Take your head shot: a literal expression of your identity. Then your cover photo: affording a more abstract expression of your advertised lifestyle. Facebook urges you to select your five best photos to show off your attractiveness, social standing and resources, and your number of friends to show off your social success. In doing so, Facebook has attempted to recreate the real-world social signals on which human beings have evolved to rely.

Except, we now know that these signals are illusory. It may hurt to acknowledge that everything you do on Facebook is engineered. But it’s true in exactly the same way that your real world choice of clothes, hairstyle and makeup are also engineered to gain social validation. You’re a social creature. You care about what others think. Even if you say you don’t (nice try). Deep down, you absolutely do. You need to be socially accepted in order to have a successful life. It’s human nature.

Of course, social media engineering is a lot easier to fake than real-world social cues, and this is where we start to kid ourselves. My Android phone has automatic photo enhancement features like “skin tone”, “slim face”, and “large eyes”. I can take 10 selfies, choose my favourite, and then stick a filter on it for further enhancement. Surely, at some point that stops being the real me.

Social media users are so uncomfortably 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.


Are we all narcissists for using social media then? 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, which people use to varying degrees. 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. Younger people do this a lot more than older people, and this comes down to ego.

Frequent selfie-posting on social media has been studied by social psychologists. It qualifies you as narcissistic, revealing your personal identity resides in its formative stages. Your ego is primarily 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, I’d argue that it’s unhealthy, 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 succumb to Impostor Syndrome.

Impostor Syndrome is really common. It’s the psychological trait of doubting your own accomplishments and having this uncomfortable feeling that one day someone’s going to expose you as a fraud. Before Science Me, I created another explainer website about lucid dreaming which received millions of visitors. It was a great success and people wrote lovely fan mail. But in my head I deflected every bit of praise with the thought that I’m just a flawed human being like everyone else. There was no way I could match up the version of me they’d gotten to know by reading my website (which, let’s remember, is not an off-hand stream of consciousness but a drafted, revised, and heavily edited collection of monologues) with the version of me I have known all my life, warts and all.

In a similar way, selfies promote Impostor Syndrome by falsifying your looks to the world in a way that is irreconcilable with reality. You could be an attractive person, maybe even a supermodel, but without the careful planning, posing and digital enhancements, you find comparative ugliness in the harsh light of the bathroom mirror. Your self-esteem takes a blow, not only undoing the temporary dopamine boost generated by your selfie likes, but undermining your real-world attractiveness, which means a lot to you as a prolific selfie poster in the first place. Deep down, it’s a no-win situation.

The Psychology of Facebook

Yet people love Facebook. It’s a daily 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? Or are we just fooling ourselves?

Not only are Facebook and other social media actively damaging to your self-esteem by having you engineer an idealised version of yourself you simply can’t live up to, it also pits you in battle against other people. You unconsciously slip into a lose-lose competition of who has the best looks, the best material possessions, and the best lifestyle. These are things Johann Hari calls “junk values” – like junk food, junk values don’t nourish or enhance your well-being, and the effects are potentially damaging in the long run. One sure sign you’re engaged in this junk value contest is if you’ve ever used the oxymoronic #humblebrag. You’re playing the game. Big time.

Even worse though, 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 contrast that to their real self and it’s an odd letdown. It’s like comparing an impossibly perfect Big Mac billboard to its sloppy, squashed real-life counterpart. What if puffing yourself up on Facebook is analogous to advertising, where the actual product can’t possibly live up to the sales hype?

What’s the moral moral of this story? Perhaps you should view your Facebook profile for what it is: a social advertisement that conveys why you think people should like you. Far from being a light-hearted photo feed bringing people closer together, Facebook is an infinite ad feed that could well be helping to tear us apart.

How Should I Use Facebook?

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