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The Psychology of Social Media

The likes, comments and posts we share on social media can often seem very inconsequential, but they matter more than we think. These interactions tap into some of the very elements that make us human, our addictions, desires, anxieties, and joys in life. This same concept applies to what we share as businesses online. The way we communicate and present our brand, products and services taps into human emotions, and encourages further interactions, like private messages for lead generation, sales, and sign-ups. But how do we as business owners use the psychology of social media to leverage social networks to our advantage? How can we use the power of social media to tap into the very minds of our ideal clients?

The Biology of Social Media

Hands up if you are a bit addicted to social media! Yep, I can join the club there. Having an addiction to social media is generally perceived as being a negative thing, when quite frankly, it is not all bad. The pull of an addiction to social media is not all in our heads. It is quite real, thanks to two chemicals produced in our brain- dopamine and oxytocin.

Dopamine creates want within our brains and causes us to seek, desire and search. It is stimulated by unpredictability, and by small bits of information. It is also stimulated by reward-cues- in a remarkably similar way to the exact conditions presented on social media. Think of it this way, we post an image online, get likes, and those likes then stimulate a release of dopamine and creates a want for more of this instant online gratification. In a study completed by Wilhelm Hofmann, it was found that the pull of dopamine is so strong that studies have shown tweeting is harder for people in the US to resist than cigarettes or alcohol.

And you have good ol’ oxytocin, the chemical released through kissing or hugging…. Or even posting to social media. In a study conducted by Neuroeconomist Paul Zak, it was found that in 10 minutes of social media use, oxytocin levels can rise as much as 13%, which is the hormonal spike equivalent to some people on their wedding day. With all the goodwill that comes with oxytocin- lowered stress, feelings of love and admiration, trust, empathy, generosity- comes with social media too. Think about the satisfaction you feel when someone leaves a glowing review of your business or leaves a nice comment on your photo. It is all in the power of oxytocin.

Between dopamine and oxytocin, social media not only comes with a lot of great feelings, but this also proves that it can be hard to stop wanting more of it.

Why we interact, engage, post, and share on social media.

It’s no secret that we as humans love to talk about ourselves. Humans devote about 30-40% of all speech to talking about themselves, but online that number jumps to approximately 80% of social media posts- what a big jump!

This could be so because, to put it plain and simple, talking face to face is messy and emotionally involved. It also takes time to think about what to say, read facial cues and body language… who’s got time for that?!

Online, this time is endless. We have time to construct and refine who we are, and how we are perceived by others. This is a concept that psychologists like to call ‘self-presentation’, meaning taking the time to position yourself in the way you wish to be seen. The feeling we get from self-presentation is so strong that viewing your own Facebook profile has been proven to increase your self-esteem. What also becomes interesting, as a marketer, is that the most prominent way we tend to work on self-presentation is through things, more specifically, buying things and acquiring things that signify who we are as humans. Things, as well as the brands representing these things, are a huge part of who we are. Brands that create aspirational ways for their community to interact with them, not only create social media opportunities but also the chance to move beyond likes and into something more powerful and everlasting.

But if we like talking about ourselves so much, what would make us want to share something of someone else’s?

Well, truth be told, it is hard-wired in our brains to do so. Passing on information is an impulse, and just the thought of sharing activates our brains rewards centres, even before we have done anything. But doing so also falls back onto our own self-image. 68% of people say that they share to give others a sense of who they are what they care about, whilst 78% of people say they share because it allows them to stay connected.

What can you take from this as a business owner, posting to social media?

Create shareable content. You know, the kind of value, education, entertainment, and advice that will help solve someone’s issues, and inspire them so much that they share your post with their own inner circle. It’s that powerful word of mouth that will keep your audience coming back for more. This also means that the content you share on social media doesn’t need to appeal to a large group of people, more so a specific person or niche market who are more likely to connect, relate and engage with what you have to share as a business.

When we share the right type of content on social media, we gain social currency. How do you create social currency? Have something interesting to say and engage with other people. 62% of people say they feel better about themselves when people react positively to what they post on social media.

A big part of social media revolves around relationships, and how we maintain them. When we like each other’s posts, we add value to the relationship and reinforce the closeness and strength of it. We also create a reciprocity effect, where we feel obliged to give to people who have given to us, even in a small way. Hence why when someone likes our posts on social media, we are more inclined to engage back, and like and comment on their posts. Doing this builds strong social media engagement, and that is a huge key to online success.

Interacting in this way also builds long term advocacy for your business. Consumers said shared values were a much bigger driver for a relationship than lots of interaction with a brand. This is not to say that comments aren’t powerful. In fact, they can be incredibly so- there’s a concept known as shared reality. This concept says our whole experience of something is affected by if and how we share it with others. 85% of us say reading others responses on a topic or business help us process and understand information and events. Thus, the power of encouraging positive reviews and comments on social media. They have the power to change people’s minds.

Understanding the dark and light sides of social media.

If we are going to fully understand the psychology of social media, we can’t ignore studies about the negative effects. Some have noted it’s making us more lonely, more isolated and more depressed. The science behind this is very real—with the caveat that social media doesn’t change us itself; it’s just an extension of our human tendencies. It turns it up a little.

Like social comparison, we all have a tendency to assess our worth by comparing ourselves to others, especially on social media. This can lead to feelings of insecurity, especially on platforms like Facebook, where we go to share our happiest, braggiest news. We are constantly comparing ourselves against a stream of life achievements.

This is not just a problem we see on Facebook. It also plays a big part in Instagram with Instagram envy in viewing influencers and celebrities, and "Pinterest stress", where here a survey of 7,000 U.S. mothers revealed that 42 percent have Pinterest stress”— as they worry that they’re not crafty or creative enough.

Social media can also unite us. If you have ever shared about a loss or a personal challenge on social media, you have probably experienced resounding support. When we are feeling insecure, turning to Facebook offers more comfort than any other type of self-affirmation activity. Spending time using social media platforms is correlated with virtual empathy, which carries over into the real world, and offline situations.

Have you ever wondered why animals are so popular on social media?

Animal stories are so popular on social media because they often not about the animals, more so showing humans at their best- rescuing, fostering, and caring. Our empathy for animals shows us as humans at our best.

Social media can gnaw at our insecurities, and suck us in, but at its core, it’s about the good in the world, seeing it in ourselves, recognising it in others, passing it on. It allows us to get a little closer, a little more empathetic, a litter closer to who we genuinely want to be. Brands have the opportunity to connect with us if they’re willing to be human along with us- with all the messiness, anxieties, and joys that come with it.

As a brand, use this information as a guide as to how to tap into your client’s minds, thought processes and buying behaviours on another level. Think about how you can better engage with your audience, relate to them and connect with who they are as humans. Understand how they would rather connect with a business with similar values than one that does not. Look at how you can incorporate and encourage positivity online, and leverage it for creating a more successful social media presence for your business.


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