Facebook users browse their own profiles to boost egos

Feb. 6, 2013

by Jenny Price

Lousy day at work or a bad grade on an exam?

New research suggests people feeling deflated seek solace in their Facebook profiles to puff themselves up.

"The appeal of Facebook is greater and greater every year, which leads us to believe there might be some universal psychological needs that are being fulfilled by the site," says Catalina Toma, an assistant professor of communication arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Photo: Catalina Toma

Toma

Toma and Jeffrey Hancock, a communication professor at Cornell University, are the first to apply "self-affirmation theory" to social networks. The theory is an established idea that people have a fundamental need to see themselves as valuable, worthy and good, and they seek out information that gives them an ego boost.

Toma says Facebook profiles are self-affirming because they are an online reminder of meaningful personal relationships. They also represent an idealized, though still accurate, version of oneself, with photos, posts and other content that users select and approve, she says.

And while people report they use Facebook to keep tabs on friends and family, Toma's research found they unconsciously seek out their profiles to boost their egos when they are threatened. And the strategy works: Facebook enhanced participants' perceptions of self-worth.

In one study, participants who felt badly about themselves visited their Facebook profiles at twice the rate they did when they were feeling OK. Participants in the study gave a public speech and were then randomly assigned negative reviews. After getting the feedback, they were invited to participate in one of five unrelated studies, one of which was browsing their own Facebook profile.

"The vast majority of them did not report consciously knowing why they were doing so, and that's exactly what self-affirmation theory predicts," says Toma, whose work will be published in the March issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

The findings run counter to the conventional wisdom that Facebook is a tool for gossip, narcissism or procrastination.

The findings provide one of the first psychological explanations for the universal appeal of the social networking site, which has more than one billion active users across age groups and cultures.

"For the majority of people, meaningful personal relationships are the most self-affirming aspect of their lives," Toma says. "That's the forte of Facebook — making those relationships very salient and easy to visualize." And, as a result, the site provides an easily accessible and cost-effective venue for spontaneous self-affirmation in everyday life, she says.

The findings run counter to the conventional wisdom that Facebook is a tool for gossip, narcissism or procrastination. Rather, the study demonstrates, the social network can provide meaningful psychological benefits that are easily accessible to users.

Toma says this work represents just the beginning when it comes to research involving the social networking site. Until now, studies have focused on the effects of the intensity of use of Facebook, rather than what people are doing on the site.