Mirror, Mirror on my Facebook Wall...

Feb 28 2011 Published by under Basic Science Posts, Uncategorized

...who is the fairest/funniest/raises the most for charity/has the cutest child/dog/cat/hamster/is best foodie/goes to the coolest places/the most popular of ALL?

Duh! ME!

(Hat tip to DNLee, who introduced me to this song. I LOVE this song.)

Gonzales and Hancock. "Mirror, Mirror on my Facebook Wall: Effects of Exposure to Facebook on Self-Esteem" CYBERPSYCHOLOGY, BEHAVIOR, AND SOCIAL NETWORKING, 2011

People have been asking deep questions about how the internet affects our self-esteem for...well...since the internet, you know. We used to think that only sad, pathetic, lonely little nerds used the internet, and that this, in turn, made them more sad and lonely and pathetic. We now know that this is not always true, and some types of internet communication can foster friendships, make people feel more connected, and generally be nice and good for you and not make you a loser. Take THAT, all you meanies back in 1996!

But new forms of communication rise and fall within the internet all the time. What do THEY do? In this case, what about Facebook? Facebook is one of the biggest forms of social communication in the US, with more than 600 MILLION active users. But the question is, what does Facebook DO to you? Does it make you feel better or worse about yourself?

In this particular study, the scientists were out to look at two particular psychological models, as applied to Facebook, and test which one might be more likely to influence self-esteem. The first is called Objective Self-Awareness, or OSA. OSA, in psychological terms, is the idea that people experience themselves as both a subject, and as an object. You are the SUBJECT of your own personal biography when you're eating a bagel while waiting for the bus. But you're an OBJECT when you focus your attention on yourself and self-evaluate. Self-reflection is something that people seem to constantly be encouraging people to do on talk shows, as a way to find your own faults and weaknesses and thus repair them and become a better person with a beautiful healthy family and highly successful career. But in general, self-evaluation tends to lead to more negative feelings about yourself. This is because when you self-reflect, you compare how you behave to outside standards and social norms. And the social norms of this world, my dears, are completely impossible to live up to. This makes you feel less good about yourself.

You might think that OSA would involve deep thinking and a therapist, but in fact OSA can be provoked by merely looking in a mirror. First you're looking in there and smiling, and next you're like "whoa, my teeth aren't very white. All thsoe ads in the magazines have these white teeth...rats...*shame*".

So the idea here is that you have tons of self-portraits and autobiographical information on your Facebook profile. This may mean that looking at your Facebook profile might be like looking into a mirror, causing you to compare yourself to social norms ("my teeth look really unwhite in that photo"), and causing a small decrease in self-esteem, and maybe a run to the dentist or for those white strip thingys.

Another idea in support of this is that information given online tends to get MASSIVELY over-interpreted. One word or one sentence replies, with or without context, can make people stew for days. Was that "sure" meaning she'd LIKE to go out to dinner? Or is it less enthusiastic? After all, if she'd been REALLY enthusiastic, she would have said "sure!"...right?

I'm not so sure about this one myself, after all, you can stew about something and come up with a negative response, but aren't you just as likely to come up with a positive one?

In this vein, they also tested another psychological idea, the idea of the Hyperpersonal Model. This model is based on selective self-presentation. After all, you're not going to put up at photo of you looking all awful with the bedhead, right? You will put up the cutest pictures of yourself and your kids and your dogs. So the idea here is that Facebook should then INCREASE self-esteem, because every time you look at your Facebook profile, you will be constantly seeing yourself at your best.

To test this, they grabbed a bunch of undergrads and their Facebook profiles. They then exposed to either to a mirror (to look at the OSA idea specifically), exposure to their facebook site, and exposure to nothing but a boring room. They were out to test four hypotheses:

H1: Exposure to one’s Facebook site will have a more negative
effect on self-esteem than traditional objective self-awareness
stimuli (e.g., mirror).

The idea behind this is the OSA hypothesis, that a mirror makes you self-reflect, but a Facebook profile will make it worse. Results: It didn't.

H2: Exposure to one’s Facebook site will have a more positive
effect on self-esteem than a control condition or traditional
self-awareness stimuli (e.g., mirror).

This hypothesis tests the hyperpersonal view of selective self-presentation: we pick the best pictures of ourselves, only display the non-embarassing music and movies that we like, and won't share our Hogwarts House on the new and improved which Hogwarts House are you quiz if it gives us Hufflepuff.

Results here: viewing your own Facebook profile DID increase your self-esteem. Go you! You look great in that photo! 🙂

H3: Participants who exclusively examine only their own
profile will report higher self-esteem than participants who
view other profiles in addition to their own profiles.

This idea is that you will feel better viewing your own selective self-presentation of yourself. Seeing all your nice pics and all your cute pets and how you ALWAYS rank in Griffindor, thank you!

And this one worked, too. People who examined only their own profiles (rather than examining others) showed an increase in self-esteem. People viewing OTHER people's profiles showed a decrease in self-esteem. The idea is that viewing other people's profiles reminds you more of the social norms you're not living up to. Your race time should have been higher, and your teeth aren't as white as hers.

H4: Participants who make changes to their profile during the
experiment will report higher self-esteem than participants
who do not.

This is a little more complicated, that people who edit their profile will be putting thought into portraying themselves well. Consciously thinking things like "yeah, that race time was pretty fast!" may do a lot to make you feel better about yourself. This is in contrast to viewing other people's Facebook profiles and their accomplishments. And it worked! Editing your profile does make you feel better about yourself. It also causes you to say more positive stuff about yourself.

Of course this study didn't account for numbers of Facebook friends, they think higher numbers may mean higher self-esteem, but it may also mean less selectivity. Also, they do note that previous studies had assessed social self-esteem, finding improvements in people's opinions of their own romantic appeal, social status, and appearance. How do these findings differ? How does this study separate out the effects on overall self-esteem from the effects of having a bunch of your friends tell you how awesome you are?

After all, Facebook is NOT the entire internet. The majority of people only "friend" those whom they know personally, so while you might have a large number of "friends", it's by no means an unbiased audience. Not only that, the people most likely to COMMENT on your wall, your pictures, your game scores, your I dunno what else is on there, are going to be the friends who have the most positive view of you. Except in cases of bullying, stalking, or getting into political fights (which is what Sci sees the most on her Facebook), most people don't leave negative comments on people's walls, tell you that your kid is ugly, or that you look really awful in that photo. People who DO think such things, I think, are more unlikely to comment (though doing a study on this would be REALLY cool and I want to see the results). But if this is the case, it means that, not only are most of the people commenting friends, they are the friends saying positive things to make you feel good. It's like a whole page full of yes-men. So I'm not really surprised that there's a certain lack of introspection. OSA doesn't apply here. It's like going shopping with a friend, and trying on a shirt. Hmm...that shirt looks ok, but it wrinkles funny...maybe...and then your friend comes up and says "OH! I really like that color on you! That shirt looks great!" Suddenly the wrinkles on the shirt don't matter so much.

What does this all mean? It means that looking at the best stuff about yourself, what you put on Facebook, makes you realize you aren't doing so bad. This means that maybe making a profile (on Facebook, or on a dating site) could make you feel better about yourself as you compose the best aspects of yourself and thus dwell on them. But make sure when you make that Facebook site, that you don't look at anyone else's page. 🙂

'Cause if you can't love yourself, how in the HELL you gonna love anybody else?!

Gonzales, A., & Hancock, J. (2011). Mirror, Mirror on my Facebook Wall: Effects of Exposure to Facebook on Self-Esteem Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 14 (1-2), 79-83 DOI: 10.1089/cyber.2009.0411

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