The Psychology of Facebook | Science Me

The Psychology of Facebook

Facebook is an infinite feed of social signalling that damages us psychologically while distracting us from real-world bonds. Here's a look at how social media exploit our deepest social instincts.

How Our Social Needs Evolved

Humans are co-operative animals with profound social needs. For 300,000 years, our species lived in nomadic tribal communities maxing out at around 150 members. We were so dependent on working together that our social status within the tribe could make or break our survival.

Aspects of this communal lifestyle remain embedded in our DNA today. For instance, Dunbar's Number is the proposed cognitive limit to the number of people with whom we can maintain stable social relationships. Once we exceed 150 friends and acquaintances, our relationships start to lose meaning.

We may not live in tribes anymore, but social development, peer pressure, mate selection, and parental care are linked to our innate sociability as a species. We still yearn for a close community of friends and family, even if our modern lifestyle continually tries to draw us into isolation.

According to Johann Hari's Lost Connections, modern societies fail to offer vital social resources. Adulthood sees us leave the family home, and quite often the community we grew up in. In evolutionary terms, this call to adventure helps us spread our genetic seeds further. Historically, we would have joined another tribe for life.

But today we land in a new tribe—perhaps of students, housemates, or work colleagues—that is destined to disband within a few years. Students graduate and leave to find work elsewhere. Colleagues are displaced by promoted, relocation, and new job offers. Even when we find our life partner along the way, we may or may not ever return to our roots.

Every time we relocate in search of a better lifestyle, our social support network becomes fractured.

Now throw in the additional problems of the digital age. Tribe or no tribe, remote working dramatically reduces our daily dose of human contact. And when this essential social need goes unmet, our brain responds with increasing levels of withdrawal and despair.

If we don't change our circumstances, the permanent stress response can lead us into patterns of negative thinking and neurochemical imbalances, culminating for many in anxiety and depression.

Our social needs run deep—and modern life simply doesn't support it.

The Rise of Digital Tribes

So when Facebook introduced its social network, we ran to it like an oasis in the desert. Facebook gave us a digital projection of our social tribe, no matter how dispersed geographically. And it promised a daily dose of social interaction and proof that we are, indeed, still connected. Could Facebook replace our long-lost communities through digital means?

Sadly, no. It actually makes the problem worse. For instance, the comments and likes we exchange on Facebook pale in comparison to the social bonding we share in face-to-face relationships. We can't trick our brains into thinking otherwise. Real social connection involves hundreds of social cues, involving body language, tone of voice, eye contact, smiling, pheromones, intimacy, and rapport.

When we remove the human interface, we're no longer bonding with our friends. We're bonding with a screen.

Another way Facebook fails us comes from social compliance. This is what keeps communities safe from within. When everyone knows everyone else in the tribe, there's greater personal accountability, such that Tommy doesn't risk stealing or he'll gain a reputation as Tommy The Thief. He'd be socially ostracised.

Instead, individuals must establish themselves as having positive traits, like being warm, trustworthy, and skilled members of the community. We continually nurture relationships within the tribe, displaying a host of discrete social signals in the process.

Our ancestors were constantly on the lookout for social cues to determine whether their peers were a help or a hindrance to their survival.

To this end, we're hardwired to analyse the behaviour of others, all the while seeking social approval for ourselves. These instincts are written in our DNA, and Facebook taps right into this. Likes, comments, shares, and profiles feed our hunger for the exchange of social signals where we miss them in everyday life.

Do these digital social cues hold any real value? To what extent can we trust them?

When it comes to sending out signals, we seem to think they're pretty sound. Facebook encourages us to show off the calibre of our connections, the quality of food we eat, the exotic places we can afford to travel, and, of course, how very attractive we look while doing it.

Facebook Narcissism

But those on the receiving end may think differently. We've rapidly become attuned to spotting narcissistic and attention-seeking behaviour on Facebook. Increasingly, we balk at vaguebooking: the demand for digital attention, but not the two-way intimacy of real connection.


We're increasingly aware that status updates are unnatural public displays of private thoughts and emotions; information we would never spontaneously declare to hundreds of people in real life.

Yet even with this self-awareness, it's still difficult to resist engaging in these shallow interactions. Facebook users still consider themselves part of a digital tribe, and this triggers the instinct to return social cues in the forms of likes and reactions. In return, we get what feels like social validation.

But it's still an illusion. Social media transactions are still devoid of the voices, smiles, pheromones, and eye contact to which we evolved to respond.

Social media fails to provide visceral or long-lasting emotional effects, and we're left sitting alone on the toilet holding our black mirrors. So why do we keep doing it?

Facebook is Designed to Be Addictive

In the docu-drama, The Social Dilemma, we saw how the psychology of Facebook creates patterns of digital addiction.

For instance, tapping the Facebook icon on our phone is driven by psychological conditioning. In moments of boredom, we impulsively tap the blue square to get our next dopamine hit. Facebook's infinite scrolling and video auto-play extend our time online so we spend can spend hours each day investing in shallow social interactions.

Then there are notifications. Facebook leverages the most powerful type of operant conditioning, called variable ratios of enforcement with notifications ranging from desirable, to neutral, to downright annoying.

We don't know if these notifications are going to be good, bad, or neutral. This unpredictability compels us to find out.

We don't even have to access the app to be triggered. Push notifications makes checking Facebook a compelling to-do item on our homescreen. Again, we're suckered into spending precious time nurturing artificial relationships instead of real ones.

The Psychology of Selfies

Facebook also messes with our sense of personal identity. Whether we're conscious of it or not, social media is a platform to define our egos.

From the profile face shot, to the cover image lifestyle shot, to the selection of our five best photos, we so naturally take this opportunity to advertise our attractiveness, social standing, and resources. We further this with a display of our Facebook friends, who serve as further markers of our social success.

These simulated social signals are hard to ignore, even when we know they're cherry-picked versions of reality. As we interact with our digital tribe, we instinctively engineer our ego projections the same way we engineer our clothes, hairstyle, and make-up in real life.

Except on Facebook, we can go way further. Smartphones make it easy to enhance our features with a single tap, from skin tone, to slim face, to large eyes. We're so uncomfortably aware of this deception as to use hashtags like #nomakeup or #nofilter as we seek to project authenticity in this phoney environment.

This is a problem. We make each other feel bad about our real life aesthetics, which pale in comparison enhanced selfies. And we take further hits when we look in the bathroom mirror and don't find the beautiful face as advertised.

It's worse for people who are still forming their identity. Psychologists point out that young people primarily derive their egos from extrinsic factors; specifically the reactions they get from their peers.

This is worth thinking about next time you go to take a selfie. It might seem like a fun way to enhance self-identity, but it's really just superficial.

Impostor Syndrome

Impostor Syndrome is the psychological habit of doubting our real accomplishments. It produces an uncomfortable feeling that one day someone's going to expose us as a fraud.

Derren Brown details this personal conflict in Happy: Why More or Less Everything Is Absolutely Fine. He explains the difficulties celebrities face when confronted with fans in the real world. Fans react to the superhuman they perceive from the TV, while the star is placed under intense pressure to live up to unrealistic expectations.

Facebook recreates this effect as our stockpile of beautiful photos manifests a celebrity version of ourselves. We can succumb to Impostor Syndrome having falsified our egos in a way that's irreconcilable with reality. Even supermodels say they consider themselves ugly in the harsh light of reality. Do us mortals really want to play this game too?

Final Thoughts

When we start seeing Facebook posts in terms of their underlying psychology, the social media platform feels empty of real connection. This view is coming into wider focus in our culture, but it still takes deep reflection to accept that our digital tribe is artificial.

Facebook posts are rife with what Johann Hari calls junk values. Like junk food, they don't nourish or enhance our well-being, and the cumulative effects on us are horrendous.

So let's view Facebook for what it really is: an infinite feed of deceptive social signalling. It not only damages us psychologically, but distracts us from investing in the real-world bonds that are critical to our mental health.

Rebecca Casale, Creator of Science Me

Rebecca Casale is a science blogger and Biology undergrad based in Auckland. If you like her content, please share it with your friends. If you don't like it, why not punish your enemies by sharing it with them?