Connecting with… Sam Gosling: Facebook Psychologist

This is originally from the Facebook Blog:

Sam Gosling researcher psychologistAt Facebook, we’re constantly connecting with interesting people—from experts in their field, academics and researchers to celebrities or visitors to our office. Occasionally, we’ll share these conversations on the Facebook Blog in our “Connecting with….” series. I had the opportunity to speak with Sam Gosling, professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin and author of “Snoop: What your stuff says about you.” He recently published research that found that people are expressing their real personalities on social networks like Facebook, rather than inflated takes on themselves.

What made you interested in researching the psychology behind people’s profile on Facebook and social networking generally?

I think it was a confluence of two different forces. First, I had already done a lot of research on how you can look at people’s physical spaces as reflections of what people are like and how people use that physical space to communicate messages to others and make them feel certain ways. …It just seemed quite a natural extension to apply this approach to a virtual space…

Second, so many people are on the social networking sites. And although from the outside their activities may appear frivolous, they clearly aren’t because so many people devote so much time and psychological energy to them.

So you found that people are in fact reflecting their real personalities in their Facebook profiles, is that correct?

That’s correct. We found that judgments of people based on nothing but their Facebook profiles correlate pretty strongly with our measure of what that person is really like, and that measure consists of both how the profile owner sees him or herself and how that profile owner’s friends see the profile owner. The combination of those self and friend-based ratings corresponded pretty strongly with the judgments made by strangers.

Why do you think people actually are being their true selves online, even though they could just present whoever they’d like to be seen as?

Well, it’s not clear that many of the people could just present how they would like to be seen. I think there are a number of obstacles to doing that. So, one of the obstacles is really knowing how to be different.

I can see my colleague’s office, which is immaculate, and I can see my office, which is messy. So if I went into her office, I could pull one of the journals a quarter of an inch from the bookshelf and she would notice that right away and push it back, whereas you could mess up my books, put them on their sides, take some out and put them in the wrong shelves and I wouldn’t notice for a few months. It’s very, very hard to fake those differences in perception…

Another reason why it’s hard to fake is that you’d have to consistently and persistently do things in order to be a seen certain way. So if I wanted to pretend to be much nicer than I really am, it’s not just half an hour [of] really focusing on it. You’ve only got to slip up once or twice for you to completely negate that: You’ve only got to, you know, do something really mean to someone for that impression to go, for example.

If I want to appear to be a sensation seeker [and] be seen as somebody who “swims with the sharks,” then I actually have to go swimming with the sharks in order to have photos of me swimming with the sharks. I can’t just create a picture of me scuba diving, I have to really do it… There is accountability there because if I claim to be someone who enjoys swimming with the sharks, my friends in the real world would say, “No you don’t, you’re totally scared of sharks.”

So the next question is a little more broad: How do you think that the Internet has changed our sense of identity overall?

I think that’s a very good question… Once cultures became industrialized that resulted in people segmenting their social audiences because they would leave home and go to work and then perhaps go to another venue, or audience, to engage in leisure activities. I think these developments allowed people to develop different identities: I will have a home or family self, a friend self, a leisure self, a work self. We were able to have all of these different selves and maintain those things quite separately. And it’s quite common right now to have people from work who know nothing about your home life and vice versa.

As these new technologies emerge, they are for the first time now bringing those identities together. On my Facebook profile, I have colleagues, I have family members, I have students, I have people who’ve read my book, I have all kinds of different people there and it’s much harder now to maintain that separation. So I think one of the things we are being forced to do is accept the merging of identities that we may have tried to keep apart before. So as a professor, I may not want people to think that I go out and have a few drinks occasionally, but now I have to find a way to reconcile my professor self with my having-a-few-drinks self.

Plus at the same time, if everybody sees that everybody is doing that, they might come to terms with it a little bit better so that they don’t find it quite so scandalous?

Absolutely. I certainly agree with you. I think that is happening. I think we’re now accepting that just because you see your accountant going out on weekends and attending clown conventions, that no longer makes you think that he’s not a good accountant. We’re coming to terms and reconciling with that merging of identities.

Would you say that sharing is basically the same when you’re doing it on purpose? In social media, all of the sharing that people do is sort of intentional; it’s on purpose, as opposed to in a more naturalistic context where you may happen to say something and then even regret it or forget that [you] shared that.

Yes, I think you’re right, and I think one of the other things that we’re having to face up to is that in our normal social interactions, we may be deliberately sharing things but under the guise of letting them [out] accidentally—”Oh did I mention, I just go back from Monaco?” or something like that.

And now, of course, because you deliberately do these things, I think sort of the norms of “letting things slip” and the other ways we might try to communicate deliberately [while] pretending they are not deliberate are changing too… When you first see these things [in social media] it looks very unusual in terms of people showing off about all the cool things they have done. Yet, they have always done that and they just kind of did it in a different way.

So what’s next? Are you planning any future research into people’s Facebook personalities?

We are trying to look in a bit more detail right now in terms of which elements people use when they are forming impressions of others. Which ones should they use, which ones have they been neglecting that they shouldn’t? Which ones are they wrongly using [and] which ones actually are diagnostic of what people are like? Also [we’re] trying to look at how information changes and how preferences may be communicated amongst people.

So, for example, with people becoming friends—looking at what we can learn about friendship, say, with the sharing of preference information. If you and I become friends and then you suddenly “like” all the music that I have “liked,” what does that say about our friendship? Or, if we share more equally, what does that say about our friendship? Or if we never share. So [we are] beginning to look at Facebook interactions as indexes of these social processes.

Adam is a Ph.D. student in social psychology at the University of Oregon and an intern on Facebook’s data team.

source: Facebook Blog


Author: RJ Thomas

RJ Thomas is an International Relationship Builder. He was born in South Africa, and moved to China in 2013.

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  • Thank you for the very interesting article. I was watching a business man (polite) trying to create a persona on a site to attract attention and get profile views he kept it up for less than two weeks then crashed badly. For all the above reasons.
    I have a persona in cyber space, The Mexican Horse Thief. I can keep him going easily as the Mexican is based on facts and my past. Think the psychologist would have a lot to say about that, little white jacket! :}

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