Social psychology in social media. Four mental models you need to know

How to get beyond the surface level.

social psychology in social media

There has never been a greater need to understand social psychology than in modern times.

The world is moving quicker than ever. Ideas are evolving at rapid pace and so too is the culture.

This rate of change is because of three things.

  • The internet and our access to (accurate, inaccurate and subjective) information
  • The proliferation of smartphones
  • And, finally, social media.

Collectively, these technologies have changed the world – and will continue to change the world – in unfathomable ways.

Forget AI and VR. Forget all the other technologies that are touted as the next big thing.

The exchange of ideas between people, as toxic as it can be, is the biggest disruptor since the invention of both the printing press in the 15th century and the mass media in the 20th century.

Look at the current political state of the world particularly in western democracies.

Trust in institutions is at an all-time low.

Much of the public feel angry and alienated.

There’s a panic among elites and authorities as they lose their monopoly among information.

As a result, some of these institutions are crumbling.

This is the power of social media.

Never in human history could anyone, anywhere get involved in public debate like today.

And because of this there’s never been a greater need to understand human nature.

Social psychology can help.

It can give you insights into our unconscious impulses and motivations – much of it we have no control over and are the result of thousands of years of evolution.

One a personal level, it allows me to understand my own habits and thought patterns.

When my ego is speaking and not my authentic self. Or when I’m doing something to impress other people and not for my own sake.

None of which, by the way, are bad and are indeed healthy for life and survival. Remaining cognizant of the ego allows you to create a distance between it and yourself.

We are social creatures after all and we like to fit in socially by impressing others and playing a part in something bigger than just ourselves.

Social media is the world’s largest multi-faceted psychological experiment.

Never in history has there been the opportunity to analyse human behaviour across multiple geographies and demographics.

Social media isn’t changing us but rather it is exposing us for who we are.

Every day millions of people around the world project themselves in social media.

They allay their fears, insecurities, hopes, aspirations and many other facets of the human condition either directly or indirectly.

A basic understanding of social psychology provides a window into ourselves and if you’re casually interested in psychology as a subject there’s no better Petri dish than social media.

Below are four prominent mental models of social psychology you’ll often see in social media.

You’ll likely see them in other people as you scan your social feeds and if you’re honest you’ll see them in yourself too.

Confirmation Bias

People favour information that confirms their own beliefs.

On the internet you can find ‘evidence’ that validates literally any argument.

This is why ridiculous theories like the flat earth movement are growing.

When people have a set of beliefs they’re not willing to budge on, they use only the evidence – whether consciously or unconsciously – that supports those beliefs.

Because of this they usually disregard everything else – again, consciously or unconsciously – that doesn’t support that view.

It’s why having a nuanced discussion and debate online is largely pointless.

Very few people are willing to change their views based on a debate with a random stranger online even when empirical evidence is presented.

It’s only when a debate is formalised by something like a vote can minds be changed.

A perfect example of confirmation bias is Twitter and Brexit.

If you were a fervent user of Twitter (and indeed reader of news) running up to the event how well informed were you with what was about to happen?

Not very.

The next day many people were in disbelief as they had their view about the world (or Britain, at least) shattered.

This is where people begin to suffer cognitive dissonance as reality of the situation conflicts with their own view.

Rather than change that view to something like “Wow, some people in our society feel left out and angry” they instead decided to label 17.4 million people as bigots.

Why? Because cognitive dissonance requires some thinking and introspective work.

Any kind of growth requires a little ‘pain’ particularly if those beliefs are fundamental to someone’s identity.

Confirmation bias is prevalent because most people don’t want the truth, they want to win.

Bandwagon Effect

The more other people are saying something the more likely others will say it.

The more other people are saying something the more likely others will say it.

The more people believe something the more likely they want to believe it too.

Why? Because we want to be on the bandwagon. We want to belong to that social group and be part of that movement.

The bandwaggon effect is a good thing.

It’s why we humans are the most dominant and successful species. We get together to create communities and want to be sympathetic to causes and agree with fellow humans.

At the same time, that impulse may hold us back from considering if we truly believe what we do. Or whether it’s being overridden by the need to be a part of the social zeitgeist.

If someone’s favourite celebrity supports a particular cause it’s likely they will too even if they know very little about it.

Take the ALS ice bucket challenge which happened in social media a few years ago.

The ice bucket challenge went viral and was a truly global phenomenon.

I myself poured a bucket of ice and water over my head and nominated three friends to do the same.

Am I any clearer one what ASL is and what the symptoms of the condition are after doing it? No.

It raised massive amounts of awareness of the rare condition and no doubt raised a lot of money for it too.

The point is the majority of us didn’t know what we were raising awareness for which shows the power of the bandwagon effect.


When the desire for consensus overrides presenting alternatives.

You enjoy being part of a group. You’ve met new people and you like the people you’re in the group with.

The group has a lot of positions you agree with but there are some you don’t.

In fact, you disagree with them vehemently.

Do you speak out?

Why risk being cast out from the group because you have a different view?

Instead, just don’t say anything and go along with it to maintain your status in the group and the order among its social structure.

This is groupthink in a nutshell and it’s basically settling for harmony within a group rather than being critical of the parts you disagree with.

Of course, in any kind of social situation there’s always some element of give and take. That’s normal. You can’t have everything your own way.

Here we’re talking about fundamental differences and points of view which are often suppressed in order to maintain the harmony.

You can see this play out in social media regularly. You can see it action on sites like Glass Door or when there’s an anonymous vote of some kind.

Conforming to social norms is normal. Knowing how to act among certain groups helps us navigate life. It makes things easier.

Some people don’t want to be outspoken. They don’t want to stick their head above the parapet and say what they really think.

Instead, they prefer to blend in with the group rather than be different for fear of rejection.

The impulse for approval and coherence is a strong one and likely depends on where you fit on the ‘agreeableness’ scale on the OCEAN big 5 personality test.

Status Signalling

When people signal their status within a group.

Humans are status-seeking creatures.

Social psychologists will tell us the primordial reason we signal our status is to attract a mate.

In today’s world, status signalling goes beyond just attracting a partner.

Higher status means access to more people, opportunities and it generally makes doors easier to open.

Your status is the rank and position within a social order.

What is status signaling, exactly?

Take two men of the same age.

One wears a sharp custom three-piece suit complete with cufflinks and tie pin, and looks like he’s gunning for his double 0 status.

The other wears tight jeans, winklepicker shoes, a v-neck t-shirt and wears a maori necklace and looks like he fronts a band.

Essentially both are outwardly signalling different things about themselves.

One’s smart, authoritative and sophisticated. The other is wild, rebellious and a little aloof.

Material products like the car we drive and the house we live in are usually status signalling items. Wearing a Rolex watch is a status play.

So too is the job we have.

A doctor has more status than a chemical engineer and a lawyer has more status than a veterinarian.

When people ask, “What do you do?” at a party they want to know where you are on the social hierarchy.

In France it’s considered rude and impolite to ask someone what they do. In the UK it’s one of the first questions you’re asked.

Fame is the ultimate form of status in today’s world. A famous actor has a much higher status than any other profession.

This is why status signalling is so prevalent in social media.

Social media fame is something we’ve never before experienced and we can all have a share. Never underestimate the need for social validation.

Different status signalling is done across different platforms.

LinkedIn is status signalling related to work. New clients, award wins, new hires and so on. There is little-to-no value in the LinkedIn newsfeed.

Instagram is about material and aesthetic status signalling. Cars, clothes, locations, luxury, fitness and so on. Instagram is a form of entertainment and is not meant to be reality. New Instagram apps are helping people improve their Instagram game.

Twitter is about signalling core beliefs. Righteous outrage, religion, charity work, tribal association, commentary and how virtuous one is.

“Virtue is what you do when nobody is looking. The rest is marketing.”

Nassim Taleb

Status is not a bad thing per se and neither is signalling it.

It’s more about being consciously aware when other people are doing it.

Chances are they don’t know it themselves.

Understanding the basics of social psychology in social media can help you understand people.

Things aren’t always what they seem in social media.

It’s a complex world and we are complex people with complex minds.

Social media is exposing people for the fantastically flawed organisms they are. People who think, worry, envy, care, have needs, want love and everything else related to the human condition.

I treat social media as an experiment and look for psychological cues to examine them like a scientist.

I don’t get angry or emotional at someone else’s actions but look at them from a distance both rationally and dispassionately.

Examining my own actions through a lens I try to apply emotional control on my actions in social media as much as possible.

If you want to understand people’s use of social media learn the basics of social psychology.

It will give you deeper insights than taking everything at the surface level.

Because this is the online world we operate in now.

Written by Ste Davies

Stephen Davies is a digital strategist, consultant and speaker. You can reach him here.

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