Facebook Gets a Psychological Review
Anyone as used and abused as Facebook has been since its 2004 creation would certainly qualify as a candidate for therapy; so it’s no surprise to find three psychologists checking out the online social network (hereafter to be referred to as an OSN) in the May 2012 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science.
These psychologists combed the research literature for every study they could find that examined any aspect of Facebook, hoping to nail down everything we know about the OSN that might be relevant to the social sciences. Ending up with more than 400 peer-reviewed studies examining Facebook from all kinds of angles, written by all kinds of researchers representing all kinds of disciplines, the review came to one important conclusion: We’ve already learned quite a bit about human behavior from Facebook, but there’s no doubt it can probably tell us a whole lot more.
Most Facebook studies so far have focused on five interesting (if rather general) questions:
- Who is using Facebook and what are users doing there?
- Why do people use Facebook?
- How are people presenting themselves on Facebook?
- How is Facebook affecting relationships among groups and individuals?
- Why are many people disclosing personal information on Facebook despite potential risks?
Clearly, there is room in the research for more questions. And so, fledgling researchers, your work is cut out for you. Nevertheless, these are interesting enough for now and all the more so because we have a few answers to them. So who is using Facebook?
Although it began with college students in the United States, Facebook’s composition is now so broad that it has become almost the perfect setting to study trends both within and across countries. Its age ranges and global diversity have expanded so it is possible to obtain larger sample sizes than ever possible before—and larger sample sizes mean greater statistical accuracy in study results.
What motivates all of these people to use Facebook? Broadly speaking, it all boils down to the human need for social engagement. Usually framed as “a desire to keep in touch with friends,” people are essentially addressing their need for relationships with other people (social capital) and for something sociologists call “social-grooming,” which refers to seemingly unimportant activities like gossip, small talk—even the occasional poke or a click of the “Like” button. Although some users disdain these small acts as being insignificant or shallow, sociologists find that social grooming activities are more important than we might think for maintaining social bonds and promoting stability within a large group.
While some people may use Facebook to minimize loneliness, the research suggests that the OSN’s ability to help in this area really depends on the user’s approach. People who behave passively on Facebook, viewing the content of others without actively reaching out to engage in interaction, typically end up with more feelings of loneliness and less social capital. On the other hand, those who reach out actively had measurably higher levels of physiological pleasure. Oddly enough, real life is like this too, isn’t it? Who doesn’t remember their mother telling them, “if you want to have friends, you have to be friendly?”
As for how people are presenting themselves on Facebook, fully fifty research studies covered by the review investigated the question. Considering that users build their own profiles and provide almost all of the information included there, you would think people would be idealizing themselves: painting a wildly inaccurate and fantastically fabulous image. Not so, says the research. Why? No one’s entirely sure. Reflecting perhaps a tiny bit of cynicism, the researchers suggest it’s because we are afraid our friends (most of whom also know us in real life) would expose any attempted fabrication in short order. However, another possibility also exists. Perhaps we like ourselves as we are, and are actually (could it be?) proud of our little idiosyncrasies, whatever they may be.
In any case, the research seems to show fairly consistently across many studies that “profile owners are generally portraying a fairly accurate representation of their offline identity.” Except, of course, in the case of narcissists—the one group studied that does tend to engage in self-promotion on their Facebook profiles. However, the study reports, they aren’t fooling anyone. Most people have little trouble accurately identifying these self-enhancing users as the narcissists they are.
The fourth question covered extensively in the existing research relates to how Facebook might be affecting relationships. A variety of relationships are addressed in the research: including those that exist between romantic partners, customers and businesses, teachers and students, employers and job candidates. Yeah. A sticky mess, right?
Not so much as it turns out. Most people tend to use Facebook as they use real life. In other words, there’s no need to worry about whether teachers and students will be drawn into sticky sexual harassment or political correctness litigation (a concern of an inordinate number of schools). Quite frankly, says research, one study found that students came away with feelings of “a positive classroom environment and high motivation when a teacher shared more personal information on his or her Facebook profile page.” And those warning of possible dangers (including fears of “being charged with sexual harassment, breaking political correctness and being seen as ‘creepy’”) were found to be overextending: only 4% of users’ wall posting refer to education in any sense, “suggesting that concern over the appropriateness of student-faculty Facebook interaction may be unfounded.”
Job candidates, on the other hand, may need to be especially careful of handing over their Facebook access to future employers, unless their profile emphasizes family values and professionalism. Inappropriate material reduces your chances of employment—particularly if you’re female. (Although guys—it doesn’t help you either.)
The final question had to do with the privacy dilemma. Why do some people put everything out there—addresses, phone numbers, and other sensitive information—when they know this is a “sharing” platform? There are some paradoxes here. Facebook administrators have warring incentives. On the one hand, if they keep access controls weak, they encourage information exchange and increase advertisers’ interest. On the other hand, they don’t want a privacy scare like the one MySpace faced in its pedophile panic.
When all else fails, shift responsibility, right? So the smart thing for Facebook to do is to leave privacy up to the user. Unfortunately, as much as users say they care about privacy, “research has revealed a disparity between reported privacy concerns and observed privacy behaviors,” say the reviewers. Does this describe you? Are you “very worried” about whether people can find out where you live—yet you reveal this information on Facebook? Interestingly, the studies show that most people reveal whatever their friends seem to be comfortable revealing. But one’s friends may have other controls in place that aren’t immediately obvious.
What others are doing, say researchers, should not dictate your decisions about what to reveal.
The conclusion of the matter? At least at this point, it seems to be that Facebook can be as helpful to relationships and as transformational for society as any of the other technological advancements of the past. The telephone. Radio. Moving pictures. Television. Well hey! Trains, planes and automobiles.
It all seems to get down to how you use whatever new technology comes along. The person you are in life, the research seems to say, is the same person you will be on OSNs like Facebook.
The only thing left to ask then, would be: “Who is that?”