Two Peas in an (Evolutionary) Pod? Facebook and Face-to-Face

The ways in which social media and face-to-face interaction affect friendship formation are remarkably similar. It does not matter whether we read about someone on our Newsfeed or they tell us the same information in person. In both situations, a similar interplay of factors determines the outcome. Are the outcomes of online and offline interaction therefore the same? Probably not.

Our social world is changing.

Social media sites serve us large quantities of information every hour of every day. On our Newsfeed we can spend hours reading about our ‘friends’, without any of them knowing.

This passive perusal of the Newsfeed is now one of social media’s most popular uses. On the train, in the waiting room, in the supermarket queue: scrolling through our Newsfeed has become a welcome distraction for a free minute or two. Rapidly it has developed into a key part of our social lives.

However, not all aspects of our social functioning are developing this rapidly. Evolution’s slow pace of revision and renewal means that our psychological blueprint only develops begrudgingly. Although society portrays social media as a revolutionary force, practically unchanging psychological pathways still guide and determine its effects.

Humans are “faced with 21st century social worlds but stuck with Stone Age social minds.” (Sam Gosling, Harvard Business Review)

A recent study of mine at the University of Oxford compared face-to-face and Facebook interaction. Past research demonstrated that multiple factors affect the outcome of face-to-face interaction:

Positivity: People who share more positive information about themselves are liked more. They are perceived as nicer and more rewarding people to know.

Intimacy: People need to strike a balance when revealing intimate information in conversation. Intimate information builds trust. Information that is too intimate, however, makes the conversation partner feel uncomfortable.

Judgement: The characteristics of the conversation are not the only important factors. The information disclosed is individually judged by the person receiving it. For it to aid friendship formation, information needs to be judged positively (e.g. as being appropriate).

Similarity: The conversation partner also assesses how similar to the disclosing person they feel. We prefer those with whom we feel like we share similarities.

Positivity, intimacy, judgement and similarity influence each other as components of a certain psychological pathway. This pathway determines whether we like the person more or less after conversing with them. More positive or intimate posts lead to more positive judgement. This increases liking and perceived similarity. Perceived similarity also increases liking. Posts that are too intimate, however, decrease liking via the same pathway.

Offline Interaction: the pathway proposed by past research

My recent study found that a similar — or identical — pathway occurs when reading information posted by a person on social media. Positivity, intimacy, judgement and similarity all affect whether a person is liked more or less after reading their posts. There was only one small difference. In the study, any increases in intimacy caused a decrease in liking.

Reading posts on social media and receiving information in conversation therefore affect liking using a similar (if not identical) pathway. The interplay of factors affecting liking does not seem to change when moving from offline to online interaction. Wherever we get social information from, how we process and interpret it is the same. We cannot evolve new psychological social pathways for every new medium we are introduced to.

This does not, however, mean that scrolling through a Newsfeed has the same outcome as talking to a person directly. Not at all. There are many situations where similar pathways lead to different outcomes. The process of baking, for example, always follows a certain blueprint.

You take wet and dry ingredients. You mix them. You heat them to a hot temperature for a longer period of time. You let them cool. The process is simple and always similar.

What if, though, an ingredient is changed in the process? By accident, salt is used instead of sugar? Mixing, heating, cooling. Even though the process is still the same, a change in an ingredient can alter the outcome. Changes of basic ingredients often make the product inedible.

My recent study shows that face-to-face interaction and reading posts on Facebook use a similar pathway. This does not support the conclusion that the outcomes of both processes are the same. Social media has the potential to change several ingredients. And — like in baking — changes in ingredients can change the outcome (though not a baked good, but social processes or feelings). Many social media researchers agree. My own (still ongoing) research also points in a similar direction. Same process, different ingredients, probably different outcome.

It is still important to understand that social media is not revolutionising our social pathways. We are still using the same evolutionary blueprint that already determined our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ actions. Social media cannot change the pathway, but it can change the ingredients. We, therefore, should aim to understand the effect of these ingredient changes. For this, we need to examine how each social ingredient interacts with our evolutionary blueprint. Watch this space.

This post is based on a recent article (Orben & Dunbar, 2017) published in Computers in Human Behaviour. An openly accessible version can be found here.

Amy Orben is a social media psychologist and DPhil (PhD) Candidate in Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford. She is also the College Lecturer in Psychology at The Queen’s College Oxford. Amy is interested in how social media influences social interaction. She has been awarded multiple prizes for her work and is regularly invited to present at academic conferences and public events. For more information visit her website.

Social Media Psychologist, College Lecturer and DPhil Candidate at Uni of Oxford. Fan of 6am starts.