There are currently a lot of headlines telling us that Facebook is making us narcissistic, or that social networking really is geared for exhibitionists and extraverts. We are told that shy people use Facebook more than those that are not shy (presumably because “connection” is easier this way), and even that those that tend towards neuroticism tend to post messages on walls in preference to using Facebook chat (because livechat makes them nervous). But are any of these headlines true? And if so, what does it all really mean?

 What’s the significance?

Marshall McLuhan famously said “the medium is the message” and what he meant by that is that the medium is always implicated in the message. By this he explained that something like television isn’t just some passive medium that can share “good” or “bad” messages depending on the content of those messages, but that we need to think about the television itself as part of the message.

Same goes for Facebook, and arguably more so because this particular medium so mediates how we relate to each other, rather than behaving like a static programme on the telly.

Because Facebook is founded upon an architecture (meaning that it dictates the parameters of how you can interact with it) it does have a lot of influence about how it is used, and who is likely to use it in a variety of different ways.

Researchers at Boston Medical Centre recently published a systematic review that evaluates a ton of recent research on Facebook and personality (Nadkarni and Hofman 2012). Their conclusion is an obvious one, but importantly grounds this theory in research rather than simply common sense:

“The data relating to more specific Facebook usage confirms [that] Facebook gratifies its users in different ways depending on their individual characteristics” (p. 1663).

Briefly, this means that we can’t say it just appeals to narcissists and extraverts (as if we could reduce people to such simple categories) – rather it appeals to those types (as well as others) in ways that suit their personality styles. But it’s not that easy, it does tend to be weighted by design to certain types over others, and types tend to use it in different ways.

 Like anything else, the way in which you use Facebook can be healthy or unhealthy.

 Most of the studies evaluated by Nadkarni and Hofmann utilise what psychologists call “The Big Five.” This is a commonly used psychometric which measures personality on five major scales on the following functions:

  • Openness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extraversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticisim

If you’re interested to see where you score, you can take a sample test here. While this test is associated with high validity and reliability, like everything else in psychology, there are disputes. Also, many studies are finding the Big Five measure may be too vague work out the complexities of individual Facebook use and other measures may be preferred such as measures for:

  • Narcissism
  • Shyness
  • Introversion and Extraversion

There are tests for these too, like the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, the Cheek and Buss Shyness Scale, and the well known Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

 Please note that these tests should really be administered by a trained psychologist – though you can get an idea about them (and you) by trying them yourself online.

 Nadkarni and Hofmann (2012) looked at a variety of studies correlating personality measures to Facebook usage, and here are a few of their findings:

  • They interpret that Facebook usage is motivated by two major factors: the desire to ‘belong’ and the need for self presentation.
  • There is a significant correlation between personality and FB use:
    • Extraverts reported higher levels of FB use and addictive tendencies.
    • Shy individuals had fewer friends on FB than non-shy individuals.
    • Shy individuals also spent more time on FB and had a more positive outlook about it.
    • Both those with high narcissism and low self esteem spent more than an hour a day on FB.
    • And confusingly . . .

“ . . . the review of the literature of FB use suggests that a high level of extraversion, low self esteem, high levels of neuroticism, narcissism, and low levels of self esteem and self-worth are associated with high FB use. Frequent FB use is also associate with lower academic performance but possibly higher self-esteem and sense of belonging” (Ibid. p. 245).

 –Perhaps it’s just me, but this is hardly clear or conclusive!

 The notion of “statistical significance” is an interesting one too, mostly because it is a judgement call.  For example, Ryan and Xeno (2011) conducted a study in which they state that “there was a significant positive correlation between preference of the Status Update feature and exhibitionism” (p. 1062). However, the significance of this has an r value of a tiny .06!

 An r value exists between +1 (perfect positive correlation) and -1 (perfect negative correlation). No correlation is “0”.

Ryan and Xeno show a tiny positive correlation between exhibitionism and preference for status updates. It is not accidental, as it has a p value of .039 – (indicating a 98.5% assurity that the correlation isn’t just chance) – but it’s still very small.

I am not a statistician, but a psychotherapist and had to seek advice about how to interpret these numbers. My advisor* noted that statistical significance is often a judgement call and advised I consider the “psychological importance” of the finding instead. So it may be statistically significant, but is it helpful to our understanding of how and why people are using Facebook?

My judgment is that we will not get to psychological importance from such small numbers, and furthermore (as is the usual bias of a psychotherapist) the only way to get access to real psychological importance is to ask people what their Facebook use means to them – and that will ultimately mean qualitative rather than quantitative research (fortunately, there is some good quali research happening in this field too!).

However, personality research will continue to be informative so long as it is factored in with the stories people bring to the table about their social networking use.  Coming from the background I come from, I would add one more to the stories we get, and that is to ask also, what is the underlying story – what is happening unconsciously? And this, as many psychotherapists know, is a matter of interpretation. So watch this space.

If you are interested in sharing your story or commenting on this blog post, please do so here on my Social Media Research page. I am collecting stories and comments for my forthcoming book The Psychodynamics of Social Networking.



Nadkarni, A., and Hofmann, S. (2012). Why do people use Facebook? Personality and Individual Differences. 52 (pp. 243- 249).

Ryan, T. and Xenos, S. (2011). Who uses Facebook? An investigation into the relationship between the Big Five, shyness, narcissism, loneliness, and Facebook usage. Computers in Human Behavior. 27 (pp. 1658 – 1664).


* My thanks to Dr. Ford Hickson at Sigma Research for his advice.

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