Self-justification: The Social Animal on Social Media (5)

Personifications of social media sites

[Part 5 of 9: The Social Animal on Social Media, Part 1,
Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 6Part 7, Part 8Part 9]

I have been stuck on this blog, for a while, as I try to talk about the ways in which we justify ourselves, social animals on social media.

I guess I am stuck because I don’t want to pick examples of people who are self-justifying on Twitter or Facebook. Speculating in a gossipy fashion just makes me feel unscientific and a bit grubby. However, speculating in a gossipy fashion is what we do, all of us, even if we don’t realise it, and we are great at finding ways of reducing that feeling of grubbiness, which is the subject of this post.

Elliot Aronson in his classic text book: The Social Animal says that we are all amateur social psychologists. We spend a lot of our day watching other people, speculating on their motives, creating theories about them, whilst reformulating other stories and theories in order to make sense of ourselves and the world around us. In fact, professional social psychologists do exactly the same, only in laboratory style conditions, with specific outcomes.

So, it is no surprise that with all that going on, it can be exhausting to live in our busy world. Not only do we have to figure out what is going on but as we saw in Part 4,  we are also constantly forced into making hundreds of decisions a day, big and small, and then we have to live with the outcomes.

How many times a day do we second-guess ourselves? How many times a day, do we make a decision, feel happy with it, and then later on, criticise ourselves as we learn more. Or, we do something and wish we hadn’t, and then we have to live with it, which can sometimes leave us feeling awful.

Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory postulates that we try to organise our attitudes and beliefs so that they do not contradict each other and we can avoid feeling awful (or feeling dissonance). Sometimes when new beliefs we have adopted are so dissonant with our existing ones, we will tell ourselves all manner of things in order to reduce the dissonance.

Aronson uses the example of buying a new product like a vacuum cleaner, or entering a new relationship with someone, and says that research shows that we quickly reorganise our thoughts to emphasise the positive attributes and ignore the negative aspects of whatever we have chosen.  If we have a choice between two people, or two vacuum cleaners, we make a decision, then emphasise the negative attributes and ignore the positive bits of the option we didn’t choose. In this way, we can not only justify our decisions as the right ones, we also make ourselves feel happier and committed to the person or product we are taking home.

Once we are committed to a decision, or course of action, we stop thinking about it and get on with our lives. If a decision is irrevocable and we have managed to reduce dissonance by focusing on the positive and ignoring the negative, then frequently, we become more certain that we have made a wise decision, but if not, then really there is nothing we can do about it. We embrace the decision as a fact of life.

So, people who need us to commit to something, such as politicians or salespeople, will try their hardest to encourage us to commit and get a decision made in their favour.

One way is ask people for a small favour. It is effective because having agreed to a favour, then a decision is made and so it becomes no longer a question of deciding but one of following through. One example given here is how residents in Indiana (USA) were called and asked if they would hypothetically volunteer three hours of their time collecting money for the American Cancer Society. Three days later,  the same people were called again and asked to volunteer. Of those responding to the earlier request, 31% agreed to help. Without the foot in the door approach only 4% of a similar group of people volunteered to help when asked directly.

In the above example, even if you didn’t want to collect for the American Cancer Society, it would be easy to feel ok about it because it’s a good cause and in that way you could reduce your dissonance.

However, sometimes we end up doing and saying things which we don’t feel are for a good cause, but we do them anyway and then feel dissonance and then we need to square that with ourselves using internal and external justification.

In one experiment, Festinger demonstrated how these justifications work, by paying one group $20 to tell a lie, and another group $1 to do the same. Those who were paid $20 could more easily say that they told a lie and got $20 – an external motivation. Those group who were paid a dollar, claimed that they believed in the lie, because it is easier to believe a lie than justify being honest and telling a lie for only $1.

Lies for money is ok, we can justify that, and little white lies are ok, because they are a way of not hurting someone’s feelings. But, it is a slippery slope which easily leads to people behaving immorally, unless they are exposed to just the right amount of temptation which causes them to be fanatical about behaving with good morals.

However, when people voluntarily choose to act in ways that cause them suffering (dissonance), they resolve this dissonance by valuing whatever it is they receive. Gangs, secret societies and American fraternity houses sometimes have painful or degrading initiation rites in return for belonging. And, then people may tell themselves that it was worth the pain, because life is so much better now.

Interestingly, squaring things with ourselves don’t have to make us look good – just consistent. For, cognitive dissonance is about staying faithful to the beliefs we have, even when evidence suggests that it is a mad belief to hold, which is why it can take a long time to leave a cult or an abusive relationship. Life’s commitments require a lot of emotional investment and risk.

So, how do we stop this potentially destructive behaviour? The best way I have seen so far is Byron Katie’s The Work, which gets us to question our beliefs by asking: Is it true? when we are right in the middle of feeling uncomfortable. If we can question our beliefs before we take them on board, then perhaps we don’t need to rationalise them with all the others things we think, and then we can start questioning them too, until we don’t need to square things with ourselves at all. And once we live harmoniously with ourselves, it is then a simple step to live harmoniously with others.

[Part 6]

Social Cognition: The Social Animal on Social Media (4)


[Part 4 of 9: The Social Animal on Social Media, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8Part 9]

Humans construct stories to explain how people and the world around us work; this is known as social cognitive theory. Sometimes we construct stories, or self-schemas, about our own life experiences too, which fit with our beliefs and feelings so that we can explain ourselves more succinctly to others.

However, our memories get distorted and our knowledge of the world in any given situation is limited to what we can see, which is often not the whole picture. Consequently, most of us end up knowing things which are simply not true, even if we believe we have thought rationally about them.

Social psychologist expert, Elliot Aronson says, in his classic textbook, The Social Animal, that it is not surprising that we believe things which are just not true because: rational thought requires at least two conditions:

  1. Access to accurate, useful information.
  2. Mental resources needed to process life’s data.

Two conditions which almost never happen in everyday life. If we think about how we communicate on Twitter, we have 140 characters with a link to a blog, or a news report, which has been put together with an angle, a spin, a viewpoint. It is not possible to avoid having missing and misleading information.

And, as Aronson says, we live in a message-dense, decision-rich environment. A best guess estimates that we see 300-700 marketing messages per day. Researchers at Cornell found that we make at least 200+ decisions about food alone, which often leads to mindless eating, so imagine all the other decisions we make leading to other mindless behaviour, overwhelmed as we are.

Thus, we are cognitive misers who are forever trying to conserve our mental energy. We simplify using assumptions whilst working with incomplete information and we apply heuristics (or rules) as a way of reducing the complexity of decision making. For example, we associate a particular brand with quality rather than debating the pros and cons of different sports wear, each time we think about it.

Other ways we make quick decisions are by using:


When any object is contrasted with something similar but not as good, or pretty, or tall, etc., we judge it as better, prettier, and taller than we would if it was by itself.

Priming and Construct Accessibility

We interpret social events depending on what we are thinking about. So, if we are feeling down and start watching a lot of disasters on TV, it just confirms that our belief that the world is a terrible place is true.

We consider whatever the media covers to be the most important issues of the day, rather than thinking (as discussed in Part 3) that the media often picks sensational stories which gets ratings and more viewers.

So, mass media make certain issues and concepts readily accessible and thereby set the public’s political and social agendas. Only yesterday, a Lane Bryant ad portraying full figured women and breastfeeding was deemed indecent and banned by major American TV networks, mainly because this ad does not fit into the usual mould of fashion advertising. The networks have seemingly set an agenda. However, thanks to social media under a #Thisbody campaign, the ad has gone viral.

Framing  and order

The way a problem is ‘framed’ directly influences our interpretation. This cognitive bias or the psychology of choice is illustrated in the following example (taken from Universal Principles of Design, Lidwell et al).

In 2002 Russian Special Forces gassed Chechen rebels in order to rescue their 750 hostages in the Moscow Theatre. The ploy worked but the gas killed over 100 hostages. Newspapers across the globe reported the event in two ways:

  • Gas Kills Over 100 Hostages
  • Gas Saves 500 Hostages

The negative framing of the tragedy looks like a crisis handled badly. The positive framing suggests a satisfactory solution to an intractable problem.

The order of the information we are given also plays a role on our interpretation, for example, in a news bulletin, or in a Twitter bio. Our shortcut: we judge the information which comes first as the most important.

Availability, attitude, stereotypes

We over and under estimate people and situations based on our ability to bring specific examples to mind using the availability heuristic. So, if we see several programs on TV about shark attacks, we are likely to think they are more common than before, and perhaps not swim on our holidays. Not only will we remember this faulty information, we can access it quickly, using what is know as attitude accessibility and immediately think danger, when we think about sharks.

We also stereotype people in the same way too. Much research has shown that most people conclude that beautiful people are more intelligent.

Categorise and stereotype

Once we have categorised (or stereotyped) an event or person, we stop thinking about them and commit to a course of action, only to be surprised when someone doesn’t behave as we have classified them.

On Twitter yesterday, ex Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson, was trending news, because he supports the UK staying in the EU and desires the EU to become like the US, with one currency and governing body. To many, Clarkson behaves in a jingoist fashion, and jingoism has an historical association with Britain’s Splendid Isolation policy. So, when Clarkson says he is a Euro supporter he defies that stereotype and has to be recategorised.

Illusory correlation

The above links to, where Clarkson is on a huge image which makes me assume that he is part of the grassroots campaign. Now, I have no idea if such a relationship exists, but because of illusory correlation, the behaviour of assuming relationships where there are none, I am sure he is.

Another common way of assuming relationships is to divide them into two groups: those in my group and the other groupResearch shows that we does this all the time even when people are complete strangers to us and each other. We do this in groups on Facebook and when we look at Lists on Twitter, which is what makes the Facebook practice of being able to add anyone to a group without their permission a strange one.

And, then once we have people categorised as certain types of people or in a certain group of like minded people, we then assume that people’s attitudes are linked directly to their behaviour, and then we apply that to other peoples’ behaviour too, even when a relationship between attitude and behaviour may not exist in reality.

Aronson gives two examples in his book:

  • “Sam spilled wine on the carpet because he is clumsy” (not because of a momentary distraction).
  • “Amy snapped at Ted because she is a hostile person” (not because she momentarily lost her temper).

It easier for us to favour personality explanations over situational ones.

Similar when it comes to ourself, the self-serving bias refers to a tendency that we take credit for the good and deny the bad. The bad is situational and blamed on circumstances. This is because we all like to believe that we are good people, doing our best in a difficult world, even though we know we get our decisions wrong sometimes.

Part 5 shows us how we square that with ourselves.

Propaganda and Persuasion: The Social Animal on Social Media (3):


[Part 3 of 9: The Social Animal on Social Media,  Part 1Part 2Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8Part 9]

In his classic social psychology book, The Social Animal, Elliot Aronson says that we live in an age where mass communication is also mass persuasion. Radio, television, books, magazines, and newspapers, all have someone trying to educate us and convince us to buy a product, or believe their version of what is true.

The same can be said of social media. As well as those links to newspapers, television and magazines forwarded by our network, we also have ads in our Facebook newsfeeds which are often linked to our Google or Amazon searches, and promoted tweets in our Twitter stream which recommend products targeted to our demographic, which is ascertained by the data we put online.

However, even in this age of social media many people still have their lives mediated by TV and newspapers even online, which means they are told where to focus online. Regularly now newspapers curate Tweets and create a story around them. Today the Daily Mail online has taken model Katie Price’s instagram photos about her new haircut and created a whole article around them. It is an easy way to create news and attract viewers. Attracting viewers and ratings, Aronson says, is still a major factor in deciding which stories to choose and claims that a director of the British Broadcasting Corporation (he doesn’t say which one) once said that television news is a form of entertainment.

News reports tend to focus on violence, terrorists, protesters, strikers and the police, because action is much more entertaining to watch than people behaving well, and it is the same with social media. The most popular type of information to share is information which surprises us in the form of stories, short videos, and images. Apparently, we all seek that twist in the tale.

The other types of information we share can be classified according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (or in this case Maslow’s hierarchy of social media):

  • Physiological: Information that make users fearful or angry.
  • Safety: Information that helps us or others and is useful.
  • Social: We all want to be seen and heard, and to belong and feel loved.
  • Esteem: We all want to look cool so share our new yoga pants or smart knowledge because we need society to respect us and we like to respect and follow others.
  • Self-actualization: We like to share compelling narratives.

We rarely share anything without some motivation so why would media outlets be any different? The wish to get ratings is all important so that breaking news and follow ups create yet more news and higher ratings. As Aronson says: Selective emphasis puts the media in the position of determining subsequent events – not simply reporting them. He cites examples of copycat poisonings and car crashes in the US. A similar UK example is the Bridgend hangings and an article in Vanity Fair says: Publicity dramatically accelerates the spread of the contagion. 

We are all affected and influenced by the media, even if we think we are not, and not just news reporting, but in the advice and products with which we are bombarded daily.

Research has show that the more familiar an item is, the more attractive it is to us. If a person has seen washing powder adverts for one brand and is overwhelmed in the supermarket, they will simply reach for that most familiar washing powder.

This phenomena applies to everything from US presidential candidates to toothpaste which is why presidential campaigns cost such a lot of money. The candidates want to be familiar – the one people reach for when it comes time to vote.

It works the same way with catch phrases and sound bites, which is why so much money is spent on them. We are more likely to remember a rhyming phrase than non rhyming phrase and as such it becomes familiar to us.

But it is not just familiarity. It also who the messenger is and how they look which influences us. This approach was discovered by the sales people at Wheaties and their breakfast of champions as early as the 1930s. In 2010 The Telegraph published a list of celebrities’ fees paid by local councils in order to encourage the uptake of certain council programmes. Keith Chegwin encouraged locals to recycle their rubbish and Daley Thompson wanted everyone to use the new sports facility.

We are influenced by attractiveness and likeability – if the above two don’t do it for you, then think of your favourite celebrity and what they endorse: perfume, underpants, broadband suppliers. Aronson says that we behave as though we were trying to please that person, and trust them especially if say, David Beckham has nothing to gain from us buying Calvin Klein underpants, he just likes to see Justin Bieber wearing them, we might be more readily influenced too: Bieber looks good in Calvin Klein, even David Beckham said so. Perhaps Calvin Klein would make us look good too.

This idea works really well on Instagram or other photographic social media. We have an influencer: someone who has a lot of followers, or indeed a celebrity like Beckham or Bieber, and we see them looking good or saying that something is good, and so we want to look good too. The best bit about social media is that anyone could be the next influencer. It is all up for grabs.

It is not just how people look, it is how the message resonates with us, especially if it frightens us. Aronson says that all other things being equal, the more frightened a person is by a communication, the more likely he or she is to take positive preventive action.

Fear appeal experiments show that fear-arousing messages which contain specific instructions about how, when, and where to take action, are much more effective than recommendations which do not give any advice. Like the Don’t die of Ignorance campaign in the 1980s in the UK. It became known as the most successful Public Health message ever. A follow-up leaflet was sent to every household in the country and a week of educational programming was scheduled so everyone was terrified but knew exactly how to practice safe sex.

In contrast, people cannot tolerate living in a state of constant anxiety. Thus, if vague warnings recur and prove to be false alarms, most of us will eventually drift into a state of denial and become complacent. When I worked in a delicatessen in the 90s, there was the threat of bombs weekly. The first time, I ran out of the building, nearly screaming. However, after a few weeks, I would take my time, pop upstairs to get my purse, or perhaps go to the toilet. Bomb threats had become welcome tea-breaks.

People need some fear and specific instructions, or indeed they need anecdotal advice, when someone tells you a vivid true story, then you sit up and pay attention. Indeed, fictional journalism is a whole field which developed from the personal anecdote, because journalists know that a personal story wins people over much better than statistical information.

The final factor in how people get persuaded is, the initial position of the audience. If the audience is already predisposed to believe an argument, a one-sided presentation has a greater impact than a two-sided presentation. If the audience is leaning in the opposite direction, then a two-sided refutational argument is more persuasive. Most politicians are aware of this phenomenon which is why the speeches they deliver at their party conferences are very different from the speeches they give elsewhere.

However, there are at least four ways in which the members of an audience can stop feeling uncomfortable if they are being presented with an argument they don’t like. They can:

  1. Change their opinion, something they might do if they realise they may become social outcasts and it’s best to conform.
  2. Try and persuade the presenter to change his or her opinion.
  3. Find other people who share their views, in spite of what is being said.
  4. Convince themselves and the people around them that the presenter is an idiot or immoral or untrustworthy.

Actions 2,3,4 can be hard to do, but this has become so much easier with social media. You can always find someone to join forces with, because when we have a choice of say 307 million people on Twitter, someone somewhere will have a similar opinion to someone else, even if it outlandish. And, nowadays we can regularly witness trolling and abuse online as people perform action 4.

Some individuals would rather discredit and abuse someone else than allow them to go on expressing an opinion, contrary to their own. One explanation for this is that we are no longer dealing with simple opinions. Aronson says that attitudes in people – which are a factor of experience, education, and background – are much harder to change than simple opinions. Human thinking is not always logical and can lead to all sorts of random results, something we will explore further in Part 4.

[Part 4]

Social Psychology: The Social Animal on Social Media (1)


[Part 1 of 9: The Social Animal Series, Part 2Part 3Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8Part 9]

Last year I wrote a blog called Alone Together: Is social media changing us? in which I discussed Sociologist Sherry Turkle‘s assertion that social media is changing us and taking us to places we don’t want to go. At the time I said that social media was just reflecting us, but now I see that Turkle and I were both right.

Turkle was mainly concerned with how, when we are on social media (or communication technologies, as she referred to them), we are absent from the world around us – our children, our friends, our family, and our work colleagues. I haven’t seen too much of this behaviour, but there has been a definite shift online as to what people feel they can say freely. Things that people would never say face-to-face. However, secure in their own houses watching telly or whatever it is they are doing whilst tweeting or leaving people mean messages, it is very easy to cross a line and not really think about the effect your words can have on the rest of the world over the Internet.

Are these people a crazy minority? These people who have taken to the Internet to troll and verbally abuse others. It would be nice to label them as such. It keeps our lives tidy. Social psychologist Eliot Aronson, in his classic social psychology handbook: The Social Animal, says we tend to label people when we want to separate them from ourselves.

But why is it that certain people feel the need to be so awful? And don’t we all engage in some sort of awfulness one way or another? For example, 60 per cent of conversations between adults are about someone who isn’t present. But, when did we cross that line to openly gossip and criticise on the Internet?

Is technology taking us where we don’t want to go? Or are we having honest conversation? According to Aronson we are constantly adapting and reforming due to social influence and asks:

  • How are people influenced?
  • Why do people accept influence?
  • What are the variables that increase or decrease the effectiveness of social influence?
  • Is influence a permanent effect or a transitory one?

We are social animals and we are conditioned from birth to give people what they want from us. Will we continue like this or not? Or do we need some sort of law on the Internet to rein in our behaviour.

To answer these questions I will be looking at each of the chapters of The Social Animal and social media in order to see if we are being changed. How that happens? And why?

No one really knows how social media works, but we do have some idea of how people work, thanks to social psychology. As Aronson says, we are all social psychologists. We spend a lot of time talking about the effect other people have on us, wittingly and unwittingly changing our behaviour to adapt.

[Part 2: Conformity]