How to Stop Irrationally Disliking People on Social Media
Before the pandemic, I thought I was in control of my digital urges. I deleted all social media from my phone and could happily go hours without checking my notifications. It didn’t take long for my discipline to go south once I was deprived of my normal interactions during lockdown.
Suddenly, I was glued to my phone and doomscrolling Instagram in every spare second. Social media is a poor imitation of meaningful connections but it’s better than nothing. I got a small window into other people’s lives to feel less isolated, laugh at my friends’ antics, and smile at heartfelt moments.
Yet the toll on people’s mental states was clear. People vented their frustrations at the “other” side or promoted exaggerated or false facts. Even those who continued their usual posting began to irk me as I saw their content more and more. I found myself agitated at these people who I barely even knew despite telling myself I was better than this.
Listening to a book summary about the teachings of the stoic philosopher Epictetus gave me the shot to change my behavior. We can’t control our initial reactions but we can control our judgment. We can choose to let go of our rage rather than let a minor event ruin our mood. Here are the mindset shifts I used to regain perspective.
Realize social media is the tip of people’s icebergs
Whenever I see an acquaintance I haven’t seen for years, the conversation inevitably turns to some variation of “Hey you’re always traveling around the world right?”. In reality, I spend the majority of my day sat staring at a laptop for work and play but I don’t take selfies of me doing it. If you were a fly on my wall, you’d struggle to stay awake 95% of the time.
Whenever someone we don’t know well does something which annoys us, we build a whole character around this tiny sample of their life. I’ve got friends who hate some Instagram influencers with a passion. Yet a photo is literally a split second of someone’s day. We don’t know what people are going through away from the lights and cameras. All we have as evidence is a tiny fragment of who the person truly is.
Assume their intentions are being misread
Even if someone we follow were to show their entire iceberg on social media, we still can’t read their minds.
The truth is we’re terrible at reading people and psychologists have identified well over one hundred cognitive biases that distort our thinking. Our minds are constantly taking shortcuts to make snap decisions and if we are right, we use it to confirm our beliefs. If we’re wrong then we conveniently forget it. Thanks, brain.
Sendhil Mullainathan’s famous Harvard study where a machine was given the information of 554,689 defendants shows this. It was asked to determine who should be awarded bail. People given bail in real life were 25% more likely to commit another crime than those chosen by a machine. Despite being unable to look into people’s eyes or see any body language. If even judges can’t tell a person’s character, how likely is it for us to from a photo or video on social media?
Don’t try to walk a mile in their shoes
“I just don’t understand what they are doing. There’s no way I would do that in their position”
That’s a pretty accurate representation of my rambling rants about people on social media. The thing is I’m not them so what I would have done in their position is irrelevant. It’s easy to make it about ourselves rather than actually empathizing.
The way people act online is driven by a million variables. We can’t replicate their mindset by dropping ourselves and all our baggage into a specific situation in their world. The best way to understand them would be to have an actual conversation with them.
When that feels like too much effort, I bore myself calm instead. I don’t focus on the actions that triggered my annoyance but the other less eventful parts of their day. For most people, our days are probably quite similar to each other my own and it feels silly to dislike someone for the small part of the day that’s different.
Invite the devil to play
If I’m in a particularly bad mood I turn to a friend to snap me out of it. If deep down I know I’m being irrational, the last thing I want is a friend to validate me and keep me annoyed. So I devised a simple game where someone plays devil’s advocate but has to follow two simple laws:
- Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
- Occam’s Razor: The simplest explanation is most likely the right one.
When the game is laid out in this way, it’s harder to get hurt if a friend displays a contrarian position. Another person’s perspective is still imperfect and has biases but when their objective is to come up with reasoning which grounds everything in reality. My friends are great at this game and I often realize my arguments are weak as I’m saying them. It makes it harder to justify clinging onto a pointless grudge.
Accept others are imperfect too
Anyone who knows a bit about mindfulness knows there is a large movement toward becoming more self-accepting. I’m not perfect and I often contradict myself. I must accept this to free my mind and love myself. If this is the right thing to do for ourselves, how can we justify not applying the same logic to others?
I am constantly trying to make sense of my own thoughts and desires. I can’t do this for everyone, I can barely do it for myself. We’re complex creatures who are impossible to understand and it’s what makes us beautiful.