Social Media and Mentalization

Stock image of people pretending to mentalize

There has been a lot of commentary recently on how social media may be adversely affecting people’s mental health. The question of what exactly we mean by mental health, however, is rarely discussed in this context. Too often it’s simply taken to mean the absence of depression or a reported sense of well-being. What I’d like to do here is take the idea of “mentalization” as a model for mental health, or at least an important aspect of it, and then ask some questions about how we might understand the relationship between mentalization and the use of social media. (Note that I’m not an expert and everything which follows should be treated accordingly.)

The theory of mentalizing has been developed by Peter Fonagy and Anthony Bateman, and it is an evidence-based approach to understanding the origins of personality disorders which builds on the insights of psychoanalysis and attachment theory. At its heart is a very simple idea, which Fonagy and Bateman summarise as follows:

“Mentalizing is the ability to understand actions by both other people and oneself in terms of thoughts, feelings, wishes, and desires; it is a very human capability that underpins everyday interactions. Without mentalizing there can be no robust sense of self, no constructive social interaction, no mutuality in relationships, and no sense of personal security.”*

In other words, mentalizing is the ability to attribute intentional (or mental) states to both oneself and others as a basis for social interaction. This might seem like such an obvious thing that its absence might be thought to be a rare and extreme occurrence. In fact, as Fonagy and Bateman point out, not everyone has the same ability to mentalize, and most people will struggle to do so when they feel anxious or stressed. People with personality disorders tend to find it particularly difficult to mentalize under certain conditions, and the consequences of a systematic failure to mentalize can result in an inability to form lasting relationships, hold down a job, contribute to a breakdown in their sense of identity, and so on.

What kind of cognition is involved when people fail to mentalize? Fonagy and Bateman identify three “nonmentalizing” modes of thought which people tend to fall back on (as modes which were dominant in childhood before the capacity to mentalize was fully developed). These are the psychic equivalence mode, in which mere thoughts and feelings are experienced as constituting reality; the teleological mode, when states of mind are only recognized through their observable effects; and the pretend mode, in which thoughts and feelings become separated from reality. In addition to these fallback modes of cognition, the faltering of mentalization in emotionally intense situations may threaten an individual’s coherent sense of self. As a defense against this sense of fragmentation, a person might attempt to externalize their source of internal discontinuity by projecting it onto others. “Nonmentalizing begets nonmentalizing” by provoking in another an undesired part of oneself — for example, accusing another of being controlling or unreasonable, thereby eliciting reactions which tend to be controlling or unreasonable.

An aspect of the developmental background for mentalization which is particularly relevant to this topic has to do with what Fonagy and Bateman call “epistemic trust”. This involves the way we learn about the social world, a process greatly influenced by childhood interactions with caregivers. With the right cues, we learn to place our trust in the information we receive from others as being genuine and beneficial. In particular, the process of treating someone as an individual, mentalizing agent is more likely to generate epistemic trust in what one has to say. Those whose developmental experiences lead them to develop chronic states of epistemic mistrust tend to be deeply suspicious of new information and become very rigid in their thinking. The result is often a diminished capacity to mentalize, because the failure to communicate through and learn about relationships undermines one’s ability to practically treat others and oneself as intentional agents.

None of the above has anything to do with social media per se. But we can ask whether social media helps or hinders the capacity for mentalization. Take, for instance, the issue of epistemic trust. It’s often been noted that social media tends to create “echo chambers” in which people tend to be receptive only to that information which already conforms with their beliefs. One way to understand this problem is that the use of social media to communicate may be reinforcing an existing sense of epistemic mistrust. Many people are quick to dismiss news or opinions which contradict their existing political commitments (“fake news!”), without attempting to evaluate it on its own merits. This suggests the rigidity of thought and hypervigiliance associated with epistemic mistrust. At the same time, and only somewhat paradoxically, the same people may be quick to believe in the most absurd conspiracy theories. The consistent insecurity suffered by those whose capacity for social learning has been disrupted results in a strong need for input and reassurance. This neediness combined with a deep suspicion of information which upsets their existing belief systems leaves such people vulnerable to the manipulations of cynical political operatives.

On the other hand, consider the use of “likes” to communicate esteem on social media. Might this not encourage the teleological mode of nonmentalizing, in which whether or not a friend likes you depends on the observable outcome of clicking the like button? At the same time, the often superficial profiles people create for public consumption on these platforms seems to involve a pretend mode of thought in which the constructed narratives bear little relation to an internal emotional reality. Finally, the fact that harassment, trolling and so on have become so widespread to be almost normal on platforms like Twitter suggests that people are actively using social media to project onto others (often complete strangers) their unmentalized parts of the self in an effort to stave off internal incoherence.

These preliminary speculations suggest themselves in the light of the theory of mentalization. It leads me to wonder whether the time people spend on social media might not exacerbate existing problems with mentalization and what, if anything, can be done with social media to build resilience for the capacity to mentalize rather than undermine and exploit its breakdown.

* Mentalization-Based Treatment for Personality Disorders: A Practical Guide, chapter one.