Psychologists believe Facebook taps into primal drivers of human behaviour such as the need to be accepted, writes EOIN BURKE KENNEDY
WHETHER YOU view it as a colossal assault on personal privacy or an essential part of the social fabric, the Facebook juggernaut appears unstoppable.
In the six years since it was founded by Mark Zuckerberg and his Harvard roommates, the social networking giant has amassed more than 500 million users, including 1.5 million in Ireland.
It has now even begun to rival Google as the internet’s supreme superpower. Earlier this year, it temporarily eclipsed the search engine as the most visited website in the US, according to the traffic monitor Hitwise, accounting for one in every four pages viewed on the internet.
Psychologists believe the site taps into some of the primal drivers of human behaviour such as the need to be accepted, or its flipside, not to be rejected.
Dublin Business School psychologist Dr Ciarán McMahon believes Facebook profiles can reveal a lot about a person’s psychological state.
Extroverted people, for instance, tend to have more friends on Facebook but reveal less about themselves while introverts disclose more personal details but to a smaller group, he says.
McMahon has conducted an extensive review of the psychological literature on Facebook to better understand what makes it tick.
Studies show men are more likely to use Facebook for content sharing, while women see it more as a comm-unication tool to maintain relationships.
Men are also less likely to use their privacy settings than women and are more prone to post risqué or problematic content about drugs, drinking and sex.
Higher levels of activity on Facebook such as the constant updating of status or uploading of photos can reflect high levels of narcissism or conversely low self-esteem, says McMahon.
“The narcissist will typically choose glamorous or self-promoting pictures for their main profile photos, and have lots of pictures of themselves.”
Individuals with low self-esteem tend to adorn their pages with lots of pictures of other people, and receive validation through having a wider network of friends.
However, McMahon says it’s not “socially advantageous” to keep adding friends beyond a certain point.
One study assessed how the number of friends affected an individual’s social attractiveness. It found a person’s attraction initially rose as their cohort of friends grew, peaking at around 300.
From then on, users with big friend networks were judged to be simply adding people for the sake of it, and “not being selective”.
Anthropologist Robin Dunbar famously correlated the size of primates’ brains with the size of their social group, extrapolating that human brains were not big enough to maintain social groups of more than 150 relationships. Coincidentally, the average Facebook user has 130 friends.
Research shows users spend the majority of their time on Facebook passively browsing other people’s profiles, known in the lingo as “stalking”.
Some commentators jokingly suggest social networking might be better described as “surveillance networking”, given the amount of low level spying taking place.
“Concern about the nanny state may be somewhat misplaced given the public’s appetite for spying on each other,” says McMahon.
Several studies found users were judged by other users more on the attractiveness of their friends and by what their friends said about them than by their profile photo or any of their postings.
The old adage, “Show me your friends and I’ll tell you who you are,” appears to the guiding principle.
McMahon says many people tend not to fill out the “About Me” box, shying away from explicit self-promotion and preferring instead to express their identity through their links with other people and events.
“Essentially people are expressing their identity implicitly rather than explicitly telling you what they’re like, which is how we tend to interact off- line.”
How people use the privacy settings can also be revealing. McMahon says users who keep information about themselves private are not necessarily reflective of people who are private in their offline lives.
Equally, people with public settings may not be as carefree as you might think, and may instead be thinking more about how they’re putting themselves across, he says.
“The privacy debate tends to concentrate minds on what information is being held back when we should be focusing on what people are showing off.”
One study suggested people who had a more popular taste in music tended to have a more private profile than people who had more obscure tastes who appeared to want to show them off.
“We should be thinking more in terms of guilty pleasures rather than people wanting to hide personal details,” says McMahon.
Critics of social media have long maintained that people using the sites tend to project idealised versions of their lives online.
However, the research indicates this is a misconception and that Facebook profiles, more often than not, accurately reflect offline personalities.
“When a stranger looks at your Facebook profile, they’re more likely to get the same impression of you that one of your close friends would report of you.”
McMahon believes this is because use of the site has become so “normalised” across a range of socio-economic groups. “Because people’s profiles are tied to friends, family and colleagues who know what they’re like, users are less likely to lie about themselves.”
Because of the profile accuracy studies, employers are now beginning to look at Facebook to get a better idea of what sort of person is applying for a job. Experts believe this may become a legal minefield.
“If you apply for a job and an employer decides not to call you for an interview on the basis of having looked at your Facebook profile, this brings up all sorts of equality rights issues.”
Germany is already formulating laws forbidding the misuse of social media.
One of the tricky things for people already in romantic relationships is Facebook jealously.
“When your partner adds an ex-boyfriend or an ex-girlfriend, it usually means nothing as we add friends all the time without communicating with them. But often it’s not seen this way,” says McMahon.
Divorce lawyers in the US say Facebook is increasingly being used as proof of infidelity.
One study found that the more time users spend on Facebook, the more likely they were to feel jealous toward their romantic partners.
McMahon says the amount of time people spend on the internet does seem to be correlated negatively with self-esteem.
However, the concept of internet addiction has not been accepted or well defined in addiction circles.
On sites such as Facebook, addictive behaviour is linked to what psychologists call a “negative feedback loop”.
“While you’re online talking with people, you have this sense of connection which is essential for self-esteem, but as soon as you log off, you’re completely alone again, creating the need to form more connections and so you log back on again and you get this sort of loop,” says McMahon.
“This is similar to what performers and artists feel when they’re on stage. There’s nothing like that in the normal physical world. It’s a high and then a complete low, straight afterwards. This may be feeding an addiction in some people.”
On whether Facebook’s popularity will endure, McMahon says the use of social media is still evolving. “Where Facebook contact fits in our grand scheme of communication is unclear.
“It comes back to the idea of the medium as the message. Clicking the ‘Like’ button, posting a message on someone’s wall, sending an e-mail all imply different levels of formality. Facebook will probably continue to be used mainly for low-level, light-hearted communication between friends, and less for more formal contacts.”
500 million users
1.5 million users in Ireland
50% of users log on daily
users spend 700 billion minutes on the site each month