What your Facebook page says about who you "really" are

ResearchBlogging.orgRecently 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


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I wonder if the research would have been different had any of the groups involved not been students. How would students have reacted to/judged a group of older folks?

My hypothesis is that likability would stay the same, but that it would be much easier to get to know and get information from older people face to face.

Personally, I think science is gathering FAR too much information about grad students :-)

There is a rumor going around of new findings that, surprisingly enough, suggest there is more to this thing called "the internet" than merely Facebook. Yes, scary stuff! Apparently there's hundreds of millions of people who "use the internet" but haven't been conned into trusting their online activities to a for-profit company with a long history of censorship, malware advertising hosting, proprietary software dependency, and efforts to make open access to the real internet as difficult as possible.

While there's some value to a dumbed-down version of internetworked tools like Facebook - an "internet with training wheels," if you will - inevitably people quickly recognize the inherent limits of proprietary parallel-universe subsets of the open internet. They take off the training wheels and venture out into the vibrant world of non-owned community ecosystems.

So, perhaps in the future, if psychologists want to be taken seriously in "studying" internet behavior, they'd do well to broaden their horizons past the training-wheels doldrums of Facebook. Then again, in a few years Fa$ebook will be as tumbleweed-filled as Myspace or, looking back to other failed proprietary non-internets: MiniTel, Pathfinder, CompuServe, AOL, etc. etc.

Fausty | http://www.cryptocloud.net

Hmmm - interesting this. I say this because I know someone who used to date a girl who was on long-term benefits because of having "M.E". She never worked a day, yet he paid to take her on holidays which she was always well enough to go on, and (recent)pictures of this person from other friends show her on yet more holidays and turning cartwheels in a park. I have a permanent back condition which sometimes means I'm sometimes unable to travel and certainly can't turn a cartwheel. Yet I work full time.

Anyway, the issue here isn't her illness, but how this person's virtual "footprint" portrays her, which is frankly, as a malingering idler with no right to benefits whatsoever.

By Exasperated (not verified) on 25 Nov 2009 #permalink

I don't think it says much besides when you feel good and are happy. Like people are really going to post depressing comments and pictures or whatever. It's unrealistic. It's supposed to be fun and a way to connect. No one wants to be a party pooper. I think more people get annoyed and moody by reading facebook and having to read all the upbeat and "my life is great" impressions.

It is not fair to say people are always putting on a show of happiness on Facebook. I have encountered Facebook friends who basically post cries for help. A friend of mine recently had his leg amputated (it was elective surgery) after 9 years of suffering after a farming accident. After he returned to his apartment from the hospital he started posting things like "I just want to give up" and this spurred a huge social response in my lab and in my entire department. People were sent to check up on him to make sure he was OK? I think as people use facebook more regularly they will be more willing to share everything both good and bad which is good for empathetic awareness and social growth.

This article and subsequent comments prompts me to write two observations, one of which has already been alluded to indirectly. The first being the effect that facebook can have on certain individuals prone to depression who see nothing but 'friends' (seemingly) bloviating over all their new computer upgrades, techno gadgets, loving life..etc.. etc (depending on one's line of 'friends). This can make that user feel hopeless or downcast if already in the depressed state and facebook and friends the enemy. In regards to perceptions, in many cases one can seemingly draw a good idea of the type of individual a person is (the 'friends' one doesn't actaully know)..by observing their stream of posts over a period of time. After a while, the observant reader can make (what seems to be) a pretty cut assessment of parts of an individuals personna when reading between the lines. Some folks I've friended I've now discovered are down right 'scary', while others are folks I'd really like to meet in person.

I'm clinically depressed, and I don't think anybody would be able to tell from my facebook page. I don't see how my medical situation should be public information, and the purpose of facebook is to keep in touch with that range of acquaintances to whom one would send Christmas cards. Those who are true friends of mine know that I have serious issues; the rest of the world doesn't need to know. I carefully censure what I say and how I respond to things. I spend very little time on facebook. It's a communication tool, not a window into my personality.

But if you ask me, I can ordinarily see in the faces of depressed people, even when faking a smile, a slight bluntness to the affect. Perhaps you wouldn't see it unless you take a photo of each person in a clinical program and post them together on a bulletin board -- then it becomes quite obvious. You can also see it comparing a photo of a person from when they were well to one while they are depressed: something is just missing from the face. But you have to spend a whole lot of time dealing with people who are deeply, chemically depressed before you would even know what you are looking at.

I just wish that there were more understanding of this issue and more sympathy for it. It's still seen as something one should just snap out of, unfortunately.

By Surely Knot (not verified) on 25 Nov 2009 #permalink

First of all, I don't suffer from clinical depression, just occasional blue mood that might last a day or two. I don't post on Facebook when I'm feeling down. Why would I? It doesn't benefit me to share personal feelings with a disperse group of people (v different than one-on-one sharing, which is helpful). It doesn't benefit other people to read my self-pity.

By contrast, when I re-read my teenage diary, I was shocked at how much angst and anger I had. Were my adolescent years that unremittingly bad? Surely I remember some good times? But then I looked at the dates and realized that I could have a spurt of writing and then not bother for a while. I assume that the diary writing was a form of therapy, and when I was feeling good there was no need for it.

So it seems that my Facebook page would show me as more sunny than I really am, and my diary as more angsty. Neither would be a true picture.

Oscar Wilde once wrote that âThe first duty in life is to assume a pose; what the second duty is no one yet has found out.â A person's profile on the Internet is that "pose". Our profiles is our take on ourselves that is highly subjective and is bound to be twisted.