The Psychology of Facebook
Facebook has a damaged reputation. From selling user profiles to spreading misinformation, now the very nature of social media is damaging our mental health.
Humans Evolved for Social Connection
So how can Facebook cause psychological harm—especially when its fundamental purpose is populate your screen with social updates and photos of your friends?
Humans have profound social needs. In evolutionary terms, we spent more than a million years living in tribal communities maxing out at 150 members. Today, this is known as Dunbar's number: the average number of friends and acquaintances we can keep before those relationships start to lose meaning.
So our brains evolved to operate within physically and emotionally supportive tribes. This behavioural adaptation became essential to helping us develop into adulthood, find a mate, raise offspring, and receive care in our old age.
This is why we intuitively yearn for a close community of friends and family. We do it to survive.
Yet according to Johann Hari, the author of Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression - and the Unexpected Solutions, modern society often fails to provide this essential tight-knit community.
Where Modern Living Falls Short
For many of us today, adult life sees us leave the family home—moving from place to place in search of further education or a career, perhaps living alone or with some transient strangers for a while—with the ultimate goal of forming a replacement nuclear family of our own.
The pressure of raising a family sends some people back to their roots, leaving their established social networks to seek support from grandparents and extended family. Others stay put, keeping the social connections they've made as adults, but lacking the time to nurture them while juggling a career and kids.
This is the problem of moving around in our lives. Our practical and emotional supports become fractured and displaced.
On top of this, Hari argues that in order to remain psychologically stable and secure, we need face-to-face contact with our social community on a daily basis. Without it, we feel isolated and sad. Then comes the neurochemical imbalance. When our social needs are unmet, the brain responds with increasing withdrawal and despair, culminating in clinical depression.
This is illustrated in Robert Sapolsky's A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons. Like us, our primate cousins also become anxious and depressed when they're excluded from tribal life. This fundamental need for inclusion goes back millions of years in evolution. And modern life simply doesn't support it.
The Digital Community
So when Facebook introduced its social network, we flocked to it like an oasis in the desert. Facebook offers a digital projection of our social community, often dispersed among other towns, cities, and countries. It promises a daily dose of social interaction and proof that we are indeed connected.
Could Facebook replace our long-lost communities through digital means? No—it actually makes the problem worse.
For one, the comments and likes exchanged with our friends on Facebook pale in comparison to the emotional and social bonding shared in face-to-face relationships. Real social connection involves responding to hundreds of subtle social cues, which are only possible when we're close to each other. Close enough to smell.
Take away the proximity, the social cues, the human interface, and we're no longer bonding with our friends. We're bonding with a screen.
The Importance of Social Signals
Our tribal ancestors evolved social compliance to keep communities safe from within. The rules of interaction were based on everyone knowing everyone else, making for greater personal accountability.
Stealing would have Tommy known as Tommy The Thief. He'd be ostracised, losing his essential tribal support in turn, and having a lower chance of survival, including mating rights, despite his cunning thievery advantage.
The flipside of that was the need for individuals to establish themselves as warm, trustworthy, and skilled members of the community. They continually nurtured 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 tribe-mates were a help or a hindrance to their survival.
Is Karen an ally? Is she competition? Is she a mate? Is she trustworthy? Will she cooperate? Will she teach me?
For this reason, we're hardwired to analyse the behaviour of others, all the while seeking social approval for ourselves. These instincts are written in our DNA. We're compelled to rank as highly in our social communities as we can, to generate sufficient support, resources, and offspring.
And Facebook taps right into this vein.
Facebook feeds our hunger for the exchange of social signals where we miss them in our everyday life.
But the remote nature of digital media makes it all too easy to unconsciously engineer stories about ourselves. The habit grows when we receive digital likes in return, triggering a dopamine rush that reinforces our desire to do it again.
Meanwhile, we see stories from other members of our digital tribe, feeding us information on what we mistakenly think is their fundamental nature. And this abundance of social information is how we get swept up the in Facebook addiction.
Fake Social Cues and Attention Seeking
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. But is this really us?
Equally, Facebook encourages narcissistic and attention-seeking behaviour in those who may be predisposed to it. Status updates are unnaturally public displays of private thoughts and emotions which we would never spontaneously declare to hundreds of people in real life.
Take vaguebooking: the habit of seeking out the attention—but not the two-way intimacy—of real connection:
When we manipulate social cues and seek attention digitally, we accrue more likes and comments, producing an apparent two-way social validation between us and our digital tribe.
But it's all an illusion. In social media transactions, there are no voices, no smiles, no pheromones, no contact; in fact, none of the social cues to which we have evolved to respond.
The effects of Facebook bonding aren't visceral or long lasting, and we're left sitting alone on the toilet holding our black mirrors. It's so much effort for so little reward. So why do we keep doing it?
Social Media is Designed to Be Addictive
As we saw in the Netflix docu-drama, The Social Dilemma, Facebook uses psychological tactics to make its platform as addictive as possible.
Even tapping the Facebook app icon on our phone is the result of psychological conditioning. Without thinking about it, we habitually pick up our phones in moments of boredom and tap the blue square to get our next dopamine hit. Infinite scrolling and video auto-play extend the experience so that we spend hours on Facebook every week without even meaning to.
Take push notifications. Facebook leverages the most powerful type of operant conditioning, called "variable ratios of enforcement". Every day, we get notifications that range from desirable (a video of our best friend being bitten by a monkey), to neutral (a distant acquaintance posts 37 more photos of their kid on a slide), to downright annoying (a stranger posts a rant to a group we forgot we even belong to).
We don't know if these notifications are going to be good, bad, or neutral, and this unpredictability compels us to make the click to find out.
We don't even have to access the app to be triggered. The bright red dot makes checking these meaningless notifications a compelling to-do item on our homescreen. Again, we're suckered into spending precious time nurturing artificial relationships instead of real ones.
This is a dangerous idea. Not only have we forgotten the importance of community, but Facebook and other social media compound the loss. They trick us into investing our time and social efforts where the rewards are illusory.
The Psychology of Selfies
Not only does Facebook cheat us out of real connection and valuable time, can also deepen our psychological unrest. Whether we're conscious of it or not, Facebook is a platform to define our egos, which is why it's so much more popular among young people who are still forging their identities.
Look at the way we set up our Facebook page. The profile image is designed to be a literal expression of our identity, while the larger cover image affords us a more abstract expression of our advertised ego. "Hello, world. This is ME!"
We're then asked to select our five best photos, showing off our attractiveness, social standing, and resources. And the number of Facebook friends boasts our social success. All of these factors combine to recreate the real-world social signals on which we evolved to rely.
Except, we now know that these signals are false. They're a thin slice of reality, cherry-picked to show our successes. Everything we post on Facebook is engineered, the same way our real world choices of clothes, hairstyle, and make-up are also engineered to gain social validation.
So is Facebook just digital make-up? Alas, social media engineering is a lot more powerful, and this is where we really deceive ourselves.
Our phones make it easy to produce fake selfies. We can adjust our features with a single button—from skin tone to slim face to large eyes—and add filters for further enhancement. Hardcore Facebookers are so uncomfortably aware of the deception as to use hashtags like #nomakeup or #nofilter. Just for a change.
As teenagers and young adults, we're still forming our personal identities. Our egos are primarily derived from extrinsic factors—namely the impressions we make on other people. Selfies are one such opportunistic advertisement for enhancing our self-identity.
But what happens when our digitally enhanced selfies aren't truthful expressions of our identity? What happens when we look in the mirror and don't see the toned-up, slimmed-down face we advertised to our tribe on Facebook?
Impostor Syndrome is the psychological trait of doubting our 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 where 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 their unrealistic expectations.
In the same way, a stockpile of selfies on Facebook manifests a celebrity version of ourselves. We succumb to Impostor Syndrome having falsified our egos in a way that is irreconcilable with reality. Even supermodels have said they consider themselves ugly in the harsh light of the bathroom mirror, so what hope do us mortals have?
And this is where our self-esteem takes a blow, undoing the temporary confidence generated by selfie likes, while undermining our sense of attractiveness long term.
When we start seeing Facebook posts in terms of their underlying psychology, the whole platform feels empty of real connection. This view is slowly coming into wider focus. But it still takes deeper reflection to realise that Facebook's tapping of this deep human need is entirely artificial.
At the personal level, Facebook pits us in a losing battle against our own digital tribes, some of whom we may not even be connected to in real life. We unconsciously compare lifestyles, forgetting that these are cherry-picked moments in time, engineered by the poster to validate themselves.
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 damaging.
I propose that we view our Facebook profiles for what they are: fake social advertisements. Far from bringing us closer together, Facebook is an infinite feed of ads that could well be tearing us apart, while distracting us from forging real-world social bonds critical to our mental health.