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Psychology : Applied

The Psychodynamics of Social Networking: an update

When I published 

The Psychodynamics of Social Networking: connected-up instantaneous culture and the self  in 2014 I understood well that technology and social media change rapidly. For this reason I “future proofed” the book by attending to the process of social media, rather than the content. In other words instead of examining particular social networks themselves (though I do give ample time to Facebook and Twitter), I looked at the psychological dynamics that underpin them. I continue to agree with most of the work I completed then, but my thoughts have progressed, and I’ll be sharing them with you here by way of a recent interview.

Early in December, I spoke to Renata Moura from the BBC Brazil service about the state of social media today. She sent me a listing of questions to respond to, which was in fact a great opportunity for me to reassess my thinking since 2014. If you’re unable to read Portuguese (I most certainly cannot!) she has kindly allowed me to re-print our interview here, which I hope you find interesting.

RM: Nowadays, what is the role of social networking on people’s lives?

AB: Social media operates as an extension of a person’s psychological and social world. Major social media sites like Facebook tend to operate within a person’s real offline social networks, whereas social networks like Twitter or Instagram often have a wider reach and put people in touch with new social networks. How they are used depends on the individuals using the networks they are on. For example, one can use Twitter to communicate with known others, or a large following – and the social consequences will be dependent on that choice.

Online social networks, however, are good for some things, and not so good for others. Nowadays, people tend to use them for everything, which can have the capacity to simplify what are normally complex social relations. Further, because access to our social networks is so easy through our smartphones, people often check them and engage with them as a matter of habit rather than with any particular purpose of connecting to others. In this sense social networks often become more of a distraction rather than a connection.

RM:  Some people see those media as platforms for individuals to express, at the same time, their best and their worst selves. How do you see that? 

AB: Different social media platforms invite different aspects of a person’s psychology.For example, Facebook is a very “ego” oriented platform. That means that it appeals to the way people want to show up in their social environments. On Facebook, people generally do present themselves broadly how they would wish to in any kind of public environment, it just so happens that this one is virtual. Studies have found that the way a person shows up on Facebook is relatively closely tied to their actual personality – even if they may choose to share mostly good stuff about themselves. A network like LinkedIn is geared for the professional representation of self, and is more limited because of this. Instagram appeals to expressions of self in relation to images rather than words.

Alternatively, anonymous social networks often appeal to the darker side (via an anonymous Twitter profile, for example). By evading detection, the more aggressive or anti-social components of a personality may be activated which may enhance bullying, trolling, or generally just acting nasty.

Across all social networks, however, the complexity of relating is reduced. This means that even on a more “friendly” network like Facebook people may tend to be snappier because they do not get the regular emotional feedback of the other person they are communicating to.

RM: Which of those selves prevail online: the evil one or the good one? 

AB: As I discuss above, this is really dependent on the platform you are using and of course how the individual chooses to use it with reference to their own individual psychology. I wouldn’t tend to use terms like “good” and “evil” – I’d be more comfortable with expressions that are either socially sanctioned or anti-social. Often people’s online social networks will mirror their actual ones. If you have a generally supportive off-line social network, that will be reflected on your Facebook where you are likely to feel safe and supported. If your social network is generally hostile and undermining, this will look the same online.

The main difference occurs on social networks at scale, when there are hundreds or thousands of followers (e.g. Twittter). These environments, with their low complexity and high scale can encourage what is called the “online disinhibition effect” which can encourage people to behave in anti-social ways that they may not in face to face meetings.

RM: What’s going on unconsciously? Why are people so into using social networking sites?

AB: People are intrinsically motivated to relate to others – this is as foundational as our need for shelter, food, and sex. Since social media is an extension of our need to relate, it makes sense that it is such a popular activity. Further, the way our current social media operates is through notifications, generally on smartphones. These notifications affect the brain in a similar way that gambling does – activating our dopamine system and giving us a “hit”. This hit can be quite addictive because it combines our desire to be validated (someone is thinking of you) alongside our excitement about novelty (you’ve got a notification!). However there is a big difference between “validation” which is a low complexity “hit” to “recognition” which is a more complex and sustaining form of human relating.

RM: Is there any risk related to that? What would it be?

AB: The risk here is that what we call “mutual authentic recognition” that is the need for human beings to really see each other and relate human-to-human in all their complexity is exchanged for low-complexity hits of validation. Ultimately, these hits will be unsatisfying if they are not grounded in real complex interpersonal relationships.

RM:  Brazil is one of the countries with the largest number of people online. Half of the population are on Facebook, for example. Is there a good and a bad side in this scenario? Any particular challenge? What would it be?

AB: Facebook is particularly good for secondary and tertiary relationships. That includes people like old friends from school, distant relatives, friends who live far away, acquaintances, etc. These are the kinds of people you wish to know about, but don’t need to have high complexity everyday relationships with. The capacity for Facebook to maintain these relationships, I think, is a good thing. However, because of its addictive quality, people may opt for Facebook relating over face-to-face relating. They may use the network to communicate with closer relations instead of seeing them face to face – or even use the network to maintain communications with more distant relationships (sometimes with strangers) while neglecting close ones. This is indeed a danger.

RM: Some psychologists and psychiatrists emphasise that people are online looking for pleasure, which has a hormonal explanation. One of these professionals once has told me that talking about ourselves online is so pleasant as to eat or to have sex, for example, and that`s why we waste 90% of our time online doing exactly that. How could you analyse this pursuit of pleasure? Do you agree that it can also be risky, like driving people to social networking addiction?

AB: In essence, in the brain, there are two kinds of pleasure: rather reductively this is your reward system (dopamine) which is temporary, and your “happiness” system (serotonin and oxytocin) which affect your underlying mood (See Lustig). The pleasant sensation you get from a Facebook notification is of the dopamine sort – a short hit of pleasure. This is not a lasting foundational experience and the individual keeps having to come back for more. Happiness is not the consequence of dopamine. Warm social relations, however, promote the serotonin and oxytocin systems, which are altogether different. They underlie feelings of contentment and security. The trouble happens when people are finding pleasure when they’re really looking for happiness and contentment. Because dopamine “down regulates” serotonin, it can actually reduce overall happiness. So you might say that the pleasure you get from a notification could reduce the happiness you might be getting from complex warm relations with others.

RM: What else are people looking for when they log in on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and on some WhatsApp groups, for instance?

AB: Essentially people are looking for both connection and self-expression in a social context. Social networks are able to offer a form of this, but they cannot offer a replacement for the kind of self-expression and connection one receives via off line social environments. So long as social media is used as an extension of off-line social networks, it can be a great added benefit. The trouble happens when it becomes a replacement.

RM: In an recent interview on BBC Radio 4’s Digital Human you have talked about the new kind of shame, the one which is present in this digital environment. In this sense, people can feel shame for having their photos, comments, posts or other personal or professional aspects inappropriately exposed online, among largest communities, risking going viral. But they can also be the ones who shame others. Do you think these kinds of behaviours are becoming more common? Why?

AB: The short answer to this is that social media lowers the bar to shame. Cameras are ubiquitous and the way we use social media is quite self-involved, so its users are often thinking more about how many likes their post will get, without fully considering how their post may make others feel. It is now possible to shame someone without even intending it – for example when someone take a photo of a stranger and posts it online. For those intending to cause shame, it’s ever so easy to expose their victims to a massive scale, very easily. On social media emotional contagion also moves very rapidly, so what might have previously been an isolated event can go wide very rapidly.

[Follow ups]

RM : You say that “social media lowers the bar to shame”. Why doesn’t the “mind’s curb”, which prevent us from taking some attitudes or from telling some sort of things, work in an online environment?

AB: This “curb” comes from our critical capacity, or what psychologists call “executive functioning”. Executive function can be bypassed or eluded online in several ways. The major one is the “online disinhibition effect” – that is, the way in which we are less inhibited in posting what we post online because we aren’t making disclosures in front of others who, by their social cues, might mitigate against us saying certain things. Also, we tend to be more self-referential when posting, so are less likely to consider the feelings of others.

RM: What kind of society is this kind of behaviour promoting?

AB: I think we are seeing something similar to a “mass hysteria” online. Emotional contagion spreads rapidly online and because of the lack of complexity of online information, things are reduced and simplistic. This appeals to people’s tribal mentalities, enabling people to take black and white positions, get emotionally engaged, but lacking the capacity for other opinions to impact, get integrated, and change minds.

RM: Is “to low the bar to shame” such a dangerous thing? Why and what kind of risk does it bring?

AB: In short it makes us all more vulnerable. The bar is lowered to shame others, and the bar is lowered to be shamed. The risk is around 24 hours a day. Our “selves” are extended online and made vulnerable to the perceptions of others in ways we’ve never seen. Additionally there is the scale of exposure, that is, how many people can witness the shame event, alongside the fact that any event is likely to be perpetually available for posterity, which can be quite deadly to one’ s reputation.

RM:  Why do people sometimes act online like they have no limits, considering they post whatever they want, whenever they want without, sometimes, thinking about the consequences? Is the feeling  of having control of the situation or the power to manage the whole thing related to that? (like just ignoring or deleting whatever displeases him/her)? 

AB: The paradox of social media is that it is intensely social, but the activity of engaging on it is intensely private. For example, when somebody posts something, it is often between themselves and their mobile phone. This is a very introverted moment, between an individual and their technology. The social moment comes later. There is a big difference between an imagined audience and a real one. Social media, aided and abetted by mobile technologies often bypass our self-critical systems and give us a sense of omnipotence that can have quite serious consequences in the social world.

[Follow ups]

RM: According to you, social media, aided and abetted by mobile technologies, often bypass our self-critical systems and give us a sense of omnipotence that can have quite serious consequences in the social world. What consequences would they be? Could you give some examples?

AB: A good example of this is they way in which people often take photos of others for use on social media, usually

without the consent of others. There have been many examples of this including images of people eating on the underground, images of people whom others judge to be dressed badly, or even images of individuals whom others judge to be physically attractive. Because the aim of the photographer is to get the photo and post it online (for likes and validation) the feelings of those whose photos are being taken are often ignored. This means that we are more likely to objectify others and put our own needs for validation ahead of their needs for privacy.

RM: I would like to go deeper in one of the questions I have already made, which goes like this: some people hide themselves behind a profile, like they were out of reach, to say bad thing about others or just express hate. What is the psychological explanation behind this? Why do they think they can do everything they want to online?

AB: By hiding behind a fictional profile an individual better gets to bypass social norms by evading direct opprobrium of others. In a sense, they get to “get away with” bad behaviour. The psychological mechanism here is projection. The person expressing the hate is getting negative thoughts or feelings out of their systems by projecting these ideas onto others. This is a primitive defence which aims to keep the individual safe from their own internal conflicts and projecting them onto others.

RM: And what is behind behaviours such as attacking those with whom I disagree, sharing our opinions like they were absolute truth, or judging others, like tribunals do?

AB: I always say that we have the same old psychology that’s being mediated over new technologies. Our old psychology involves self preservation by way of what we call “ego defences” that is, maintaining our sense of self in the face of interpersonal challenge. Classic defences like projection operate very well across social media – in this case, thrusting intolerable into others that we cannot bear in ourselves. The world gets split into good and bad and nuance is lost. In face-to-face encounters this is harder to maintain because good attentive dialogue mitigates against too much black and white thinking because we can see the humanity in the other. Social media can reduce us to defensive groups collecting around tribal ideas which diminishes potential dialogue to irrational absolutes.

RM: Is such freedom online making us more insensitive?

AB: Possibly. City dwellers tend to me more insensitive in many ways that those from small towns because of the high levels of stimulation in a big city. If people remained sensitive they would be overwhelmed by all the stimulus. I believe the same principle exists in relation to our online experience. When we get bombarded by so much all the time, whether it’s social media notifications or the news, we become less sensitive to the stimulus in a bid for self preservation.

RM: Does social networking activate egocentric or narcissistic behaviours or just reflect what was already rooted in ourselves?

AB: This depends on the social network. As I stated above, Facebook tends to be an egocentric platform. Most other social media also have high ego components. The fact that this is so, however, indicates that social media is very much a reflection of our socio-cultural ego needs. The development of narcissism as a personality trait predates people experience on social media by a long way. So for this reason I wouldn’t say that social media makes us narcissistic. It does, however, pander to a self-referential way of being in the world which can exacerbate narcissistic expression.

RM: We have some current cases involving problems like sexual harassment or racism, such as a massive number of harassment allegations against personalities, which led people to be punished somehow after strong reactions on social media. In Brazil, there is also a current case involving a famous TV journalist who allegedly made a racist comment behind cameras, which was recorded by someone in the studio and was posted on social media, leading the journalist to be withdrawn from his position. How do you analyse online movements against those kind of behaviours, for example, becoming trending topics and stimulating practical measures including penalties against perpetrators?

AB: Whether or not a person’s behaviour is acceptable or not is secondary to how social media mediates social opprobrium. I feel that we are quickly moving in to a mob mentality where behaviours that may be taken out of context are uploaded and responded to by the mass without the appropriate checks and balances. To be clear, this is not to exonerate bad behaviour. However, society by mob rule and public shaming is one that we ought to be very cautious about encouraging.

[Follow ups]

RM:  You have said that “society by mob rule and public shaming is one that we ought to be very cautious about encouraging”, when you answered about cases in which social media reacted against sexual harassment and racism, for example. Do you think it is wrong to use social media to protest or to try to reach justice or punishment?

AB: I wouldn’t say “wrong” so much as expressing discomfort in the way things are going. We are supposed to live in a society where we are innocent until proven guilty, and today, one’s entire reputation can be ruined by a single tweet, whether or not that tweet is true, and whether or not the individual is exonerated after the fact. It may very well be that mistrust in the justice system encourages victims of sexual assault or harassment to social media, in which case it is an understandable grasp at power that would otherwise be unavailable to them. However, moving into a culture of reactive mob mentality is a scary one: this used to lead to lynching and the chopping off of heads.

RM: Why is it necessary to be cautious about it?

AB: Social and emotional contagion is a dangerous thing. It may very well be that many of those accused and publically shamed committed the crimes alleged against them. Some may have not. The power of an individual to ruin another’s reputation is too easily accessible as it only takes an allegation to besmirch an individual. Secondly, today the allegations are about illegal and harmful doings, but what if this should change? What if people start getting shamed for the private choices they’re making or lawfully breaking social norms? My fear is that this social policing could get out of hand very quickly.

RM: Is this warning based on some real case involving unexpected consequences? Could you give some more details about it?

AB: I would suggest you look at Jon Ronson’s book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.” It contains several stories where innocent online banter was taken out of context and the individuals responsible for them continue to suffer. Everyday we hear stories of individuals being misrepresented and taken out of context and torn to pieces on social media for it. Many use this for both personal and political gain – gaming the system to achieve maximum damage. In an era where people’s attention spans are short, and more and more where people are unlikely to investigate deeper to find the truth or deeper context, people can be condemned on the whim of a tweet.

RM: Is social networking also a propitious environment to be empathic and to receive empathy?

AB: Unfortunately, due to its lack of emotional depth and complexity, I feel that social media tends to mitigate against empathy. There are platforms and situations in which empathy is demonstrated, and social media is certainly not devoid of it. But on the mass cultural scale, it seems to lean more towards tribal side-taking and mitigates against enhancing dialogue across ideological divides.

RM: Does society need to be more empathic online? Why and how to do it?

AB: Ideological divides are more and more apparent over social media and enhanced by these media. This is because it’s easy to take a side on social media without engaging in the nuance of an argument. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to encourage more empathic thinking via social networks. The way forward here is for developers to work more closely with psychologists in the development in their platforms to create better spaces for more meaningful dialogue and engagement.

RM: You said that “it doesn’t mean it’s impossible to encourage more empathic thinking via social networks. The way forward here is for developers to work more closely with psychologists in the development in their platforms to create better spaces for more meaningful dialogue and engagement”. It looks like you see the importance of this approach in future platforms, but what about the current ones, like Facebook? And how to promote this empathy online? What is necessary to achieve it?

AB: I think there is very much the possibility of integrating these changes into the platforms that we already have. Take Facebook’s “like” button, for example. For years it was the only option, but now we have variations (wow, angry, sad, etc.). It’s a small shift, but it acknowledges another layer of complexity. There may be ways in which Facebook can be further adapted to encourage more complex interrelated thinking and being. For example, if one political value is consistently attended to on a Facebook profile, perhaps Facebook could make a suggestion “would you like to read about an alternative view?” Of course the individual would have to be up for being challenged on their ideas. Similar kinds of interactions could be encouraged between different individuals as well, for example, in the US encouraging “red state” people to engage with “blue state” people, in Britain for Remainers to speak to Leavers, or in Israel/Palestine fore Israelis to speak to Palestinians.

RM: Would you say that learning how to be more empathic is the fundamental thing in this era?

AB: Given the growing polarisation between political ideologies I think it is crucial. As we have seen this year, social media has been a little bit too good at isolating people in their silos and feeding them with news (real and fake) to bolster their positions. Compromise, understanding, and empathy are crucial in diverse societies, and we need to bring our technologies up to speed to deal with this.

[Follow ups]

RM: You highlight the rising polarisation in social media. And it is really possible that in Brazil, for example, where there will be presidential elections next year, this trend become larger. How far is this kind of polarisation worthy to keep the debate environment?

AB: From my perspective the electoral authorities were well behind the curve in the recent elections in Britain and the US. A lot is coming to light now under investigative reports about fake news stories, fake social media accounts spreading the news, and domestic and foreign cash going into support these nefarious activities. These activities capitalise on our inbuilt mechanisms of polarisation and exacerbate them – it is manipulation of the public. Brasil’s authorities would do well to get on top of this straight away and minimise, if possible, this trend.

RM: Do you plan on releasing “The Psychodynamics of Social Networking” in Portuguese? When would that be?

AB: If there is a demand, I would be happy to discuss this with my publisher! Any volunteers?


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