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The psychology of social media

sandra parmee's picture

Somewhere in the midst of my two years of psychology in university, I began to find it interesting to note the psychology behind the myriad activities and interactions in our daily lives, and the different theories that attempt to explain how we behave and what our needs are.

What I didn’t consider before, however, is how psychology can be used to explain our actions and interactions on social networking sites.

The psychology of social media is a widely deliberated topic today, as internet use continues to grow, and our minds begin to shape and adapt to new technologies (see Nicholas Carr’s novel “The Shallows”). Age-old theories like Maslow's hierarchy of needs are now being re-thought and applied to today's online society.

Know your customers
The most important point that I would like to drive home here, is that it is imperative to keep in mind that users will share content that adds value to their lives or is an extension of their persona, as I will explain later. Brands and businesses should therefore attempt to understand and get into the minds of their consumers before producing content or embarking on social media campaigns.

Let's have a look at how psychological needs are being met in the online world. 

Relating to others online
Whereas all our social interaction used to take place face to face, much of it now takes place online. As registered psychotherapist and academic, Dr. Aaron Balick, writes in an article in Tilt magazine; this means essential needs like the ability to relate to each other, to seek and be sought, need to be fulfilled on these sites.

According to theories of psychoanalysis, we want to be recognised as autonomous individuals, but also want to relate to others and discover the subjectivity of others. Seeking and being sought is one of our greatest relational pleasures and difficulties. We find pleasure in moments of authentic mutual recognition. We encounter difficulties when we feel as though our ‘false selves’ – the selves presented to the outside world, are getting more attention than our ‘true selves’. Recognition comes into practise through endorsement like the ‘like’ button on Facebook.

An example of mutual recognition might be if someone – for example a friend or a brand – posts about flowers, and you love flowers, you might feel a sense of connection. You might ‘like’ or share the post, thereby you are participating in thecreation, in a sense, of the post. It becomes part of you, part of your story or ‘timeline’.

Identifying with what we post
Chris Lee, head of social media knowledge at global communications agency Grayling, presents the idea that people treat social media as an extension of their own persona. What they post and say is a projection of themselves, their beliefs, their interests and their identity. It is here that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs comes into play – namely the needs for esteem and self-actualisation. It is also believed that people identify with posts that draw an emotional response from them.

Social proof
Another element that comes into this, still thinking along the lines of relating to others, is social proof. Social media users want to know that others have endorsed content, and therefore that it is worth sharing. Not only that, but seeing that others have shared or endorsed a post, reminds you that that is what you should do (if you so choose). An analogy for this would be a barman putting a few coins in his tip jar to reinforce to his customers what is normal practise.

According to Graham Charlton, editor of Econsultancy, social proof is the belief that the decisions and actions of others are the correct or right way to act in a given situation. Charlton gives a few examples of social proof on ecommerce sites, which ultimately work to increase the confidence of the buyers. One example is, where customers vote for items they like, which are then displayed as ‘bestsellers’ for the new potential customer.

To put this into practise, brands should always display chiclets (endorsement buttons) on their blog articles or website, and tools that display how many times the article has been shared or ‘liked’. The psychology behind this is that users will see that the article has been endorsed, and will want to participate in this endorsement (if they like the content).

Adapting and applying psychology and elements of sociology to human behaviour online will help brands to understand their audience, their wants and needs, and what makes them tick. It should inform the content you produce and the kinds of strategies you embark on. So perhaps it is time to dig out those old Psychology 101 notes again.