Facebook and Personality Types: Two New Studies

by JenniferCobb on 05/13/2011

With more than 600 million users worldwide, Facebook is having a marked effect on our social interactions and sense of self.  It is no surprise that academics are rushing to understand this impact.  Two recent studies look at the way various personality types impact Facebook use.  This is a rich vein of inquiry, as it is well-established that personality is an important variable in on-line behavior.  As more and more of our lives move online, it seems worth considering how this is playing out.

Study 1:  Facebook, Extraverts and Introverts

Who uses Facebook?  An investigation into the relationship between the Big Five, shyness, narcissism, loneliness and Facebook usage by Tracii Ryan and Sopia Xenos, studied 1400+ Australian internet users between the ages of 18 and 44 and came to some interesting conclusions.

The study began by splitting the sample into Facebook users and nonusers.  They found that Facebook nonusers tend to be shyer, more conscientious and socially lonely than Facebook users.  These people have smaller social networks and therefore have less incentive to join Facebook.  What is worrisome here is that as more of our social engagement moves online, those who choose not to engage because they are shy could be further socially marginalized.

Facebook users – the vast majority of the sample studied — scored higher on the characteristics of extroversion and narcissism than non-users.  This finding was in keeping with earlier work that views social networking as a form of social extension.  Facebook clearly serves as an excellent platform for self-promotion.  Not surprisingly, the extraverts on Facebook tended to be heavy users of Photos and Status Updates as well as the various communications tools such as Chat.

Not all Facebook users are extraverts and narcissists.  There are also shy and socially anxious types that use the site regularly.  In fact, it is this group that are the heaviest users in terms of hours burned.  Neurotic or socially anxious types tend to have a strong preference for using the Wall feature, which is a mode of asynchronous communication.  Asynchronous communication enables these types to take more time to think through, edit and compose their responses and thus lower the risk of saying something they fear they will regret later.   Lonely Facebook users tend primarily to have “family loneliness,” meaning that they do not feel deeply connected to those they share their lives with.  These types also have a strong preference for the more passive features of the system such as groups, games and fan pages.  Lonely users tend to lurk for hours without strongly participating, an activity that could lead to further loneliness and a growing sense that everyone but them is happy and engaged.  This “anti-social network” effect has been getting some press as of late.  If you are lonely and socially anxious, participation on Facebook can exacerbate those feelings.

Study 2:  Social Networking, Deep Thinking and Innovativeness

A study released last month (Less effortful thinking leads to more social networking?  The associations between the use of social network sites and personality traits by Bu Zhong, Marie Hardin and Tao Sun) examined the link between social network use and two key personality traits – cognition and innovativeness – in a group of college students at a North American university.  The researchers measured cognition using an established scale called Need for Cognition (NFC) that determines whether you are the kind of person who really enjoys thinking hard and deep about issues (high NFC) or whether you enjoy skimming the surface (low NFC).  High NFC types do lots of research and are attracted to in-depth information.  Low NFC people are more drawn to information that evokes moods and emotions that they can infer conclusions from.

The study revealed that high NFC students spend less time on social media and tend to add fewer friends to their networks while their low NFC peers tended to be heavy users of social media. The type of content that is typically shared on Facebook in this age group, which is full of rich peripheral cues, tends to appeal more to low NFC individuals.  However, the authors readily acknowledge that neither high nor low types are particularly motivated to process social media information deeply.  Social networking activity is not particularly cognitively challenging.   Therefore, the authors caution, we shouldn’t necessarily conclude that students who spend a lot of time on social media are not interested in effortful thinking.  They just aren’t interested in doing it on Facebook.

Students who were heavy social media users, and who self-reported as low NFC, were also much higher in the other trait the authors studied — ICT innovativeness.   The authors define ICT innovativeness as the desire to be early adopters of new media and devices.  In other words, low NFC students are generally pretty deeply engaged in the on-line environment as consumers of tools and technologies.  This trait has real value in a world where everyone, regardless of their NFC, spends increasingly large amounts of time online.

Both skill sets – the deep thinker and the curious adopter — will be needed in the future.  This study points to the fact that based on our “need for cognition” we have a tendency to fall into one camp or another.   One of the really interesting questions that the study does not address is how our social relationships will be affected as we begin to self-sort into distinct pockets of activity online as a result of the way we prefer to engage with the world.

Does any of this ring true for you?

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