Recently a woman had her sick leave benefits based on a diagnosis of clinical depression terminated because of a few pictures she posted on her Facebook page showing her smiling at a birthday party and enjoying a trip to the beach. Was this a fair assessment of her medical condition? Probably not–people with clinical depression can have moments of genuine joy or elation, and even sad people can fake a smile for a photo.
But regardless of whether a few photos posted online are sufficient evidence for a medical diagnosis, there is a larger question: Does a person’s online persona match up to their real-world personality? Since most young people–and a growing number of older adults–maintain some sort of web or online social networking presence, it’s important to know whether the digital world is a good representation of the real world.
It’s becoming increasingly common to “meet” someone online before you encounter them in real life. In my experience, people I meet online are generally quite recognizable when I finally get together with them at a conference or physical meeting. But maybe I’m just lucky.
Max Weisbuch, Zorana Ivcevic, and Nalini Ambady asked 37 undergraduate volunteers to physically meet with another person and ask each other questions to try to get to know one and other. These brief meetings were videotaped, and, unbeknownst to the volunteers, the person they met with was not a real research participant, but one of six specially trained research assistants who took care to make sure that each volunteer was treated the same.
Immediately after the interview, the researchers obtained permission to download each volunteer’s Facebook page. Then their interviewer rated them for likability, and three undergraduate research assistants from a different university rated the videotaped behavior for cues indicating non-verbal expressivity, and for “verbal disclosure”–how willing they were to disclose personal details. A different set of ten undergraduates from a different university rated the volunteers’ Facebook pages for likability and expressivity, as well as the number of personal details revealed there.
The researchers found significant correlations between the behavior of the volunteers in person and online. “Liking” in person and online were moderately correlated (r = .33), as were verbal disclosure and online disclosure (r = .34). Non-verbal expressivity was also correlated with online expressivity (r = .41). But the relationship wasn’t perfect. While online expressivity was strongly correlated with online liking (r = .61), there was no significant correlation between online expressivity and liking in person.
So a Facebook page really can say a lot about what a person is like in real life–up to a point. The researchers also point out that their study can’t tell us much about the student’s spontaneous online behavior. A Facebook page might have been carefully crafted over many hours, but other online interactions like tweets and status updates can be much more spur-of-the-moment. It’s less clear whether this behavior is related to real-life spontaneity.
Weisbuch, M., Ivcevic, Z., & Ambady, N. (2009). On being liked on the web and in the “real world”: Consistency in first impressions across personal webpages and spontaneous behavior Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (3), 573-576 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2008.12.009