"Selfie" by Patrik Nygren, Flickr
“Selfie” by Patrik Nygren, Flickr

There’s a predictable formula for getting the most number of likes on your Facebook status. If you’re an attractive woman sporting next to nothing, over 100 likes! But if you post the same picture while weighing over 200 lbs, you might get reported for indecent exposure. A close-up shot of a barely-covered ass is fine, as long as it isn’t hairy, or shows menstrual blood.

In the strange world that is social media, psychologists are starting to discover what drives people to post updates, and what they say about our self esteem and narcissism. 

A team of psychologists at Brunel University London did just that. They surveyed 555 Facebook users on their update habits. The participants were also asked to complete a survey measuring the “Big Five” personality traits – extroversion, neuroticism, openness, agreeableness and conscientious – as well as self-esteem and narcissism.

From results published in a paper titled “The Big Five, self-esteem, and narcissism as predictors of the topics people write about in Facebook status updates“, the team found that Facebook users who frequently post updates about their romantic partners, diets, exercise, and accomplishments scored low on self-esteem. From the paper’s abstract: 

“Narcissists’ use of Facebook for attention-seeking and validation explained their greater likelihood of updating about their accomplishments and their diet and exercise routine.”

“It might come as little surprise that Facebook status updates reflect people’s personality traits,” said Dr. Tara Marshall, one of the authors of the study. “However, it is important to understand why people write about certain topics on Facebook because their updates may be differentially rewarded with ‘likes’ and comments.”

Dr. Marshall and his team revealed that those who scored high on narcissism posted more frequently about their achievements, and were driven by their need for attention and approval from their Facebook friends. These updates also receive more applause – in forms of likes and comments – that refuel the approval that they crave. 

But the shower of affections may not be what they seem. Dr. Marshall says that while people who receive more likes and comments feel more socially included, their friends may secretly dislike them offline:

“Although our results suggest that narcissists’ bragging pays off because they receive more likes and comments to their status updates, it could be that their Facebook friends politely offer support while secretly disliking such egotistical displays. Greater awareness of how one’s status updates might be perceived by friends could help people to avoid topics that annoy more than they entertain.”

On the other hand, those who use Facebook as a way to find and disseminate information rather than socialize tend to be more open, confident, and intellectually curious. This was backed by two other studies, one by Correa et al. in 2010, and other by Hughes et al. in 2012.

“Openness was positively associated with updating about intellectual topics, and with using Facebook for information. A further regression analysis showed that the use of Facebook for information and for self-expression predicted the frequency of updating about intellectual topics”

Next time you feel the tugging urge to complain on Facebook, mind how you may be received. And maybe share an article instead.