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Psychoanalyzing Facebook’s ‘Like’ Button


Despite all the IPO hoopla, academic research suggests Facebook may be making more people crazy than rich.

A slew of recent studies found the site causes some people to become depressed. And a new paper contends the site appeals to people with far more serious psychiatric problems.

The latest study gives the thumbs down to the ubiquitous “like” button. In a soon-to-be-published study, Larry Rosen, professor of psychology at California State University and author of iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us, evaluated 800 active Facebook members and found those who most often “like” other people’s activities on Facebook are more likely to show symptoms of “mania” and “compulsivity.” Rosen questioned his subjects about the frequency of their Facebook use and tested them for a range of psychological disorders.

It’s not the first time that studies have linked Facebook with psychological problems. A Utah Valley University study published earlier this year found that that the more social networkers scoured friends’ profiles, the more they believed others led more successful and better lives. And similar research by the American Academy of Pediatrics last year found that children and teenagers can develop “Facebook Depression” when poring over positive status updates and pictures of happy friends.

So why does Facebook appear to make some people unhappy? Experts say it helps foster an online popularity contest. Rosen says people who “like” friends’ updates and pictures may do so in the hope that the favor is returned. One subject told Rosen: “When I post something I keep checking in to see how people are reacting. If I get my usual 5 to 10 comments I feel okay, but when I get 30 or more ‘likes’ I feel super-good.” Dean Bakopoulos, author of “My American Unhappiness,” says he cancelled his account because it creates a highly distorted view of reality that few people can live up to.

AHMAD FAIZAL YAHYA / Shutterstock.com

Some psychologists say Facebook doesn’t create problems, but could bring out pre-existing ones. Jonathan Cook, a social psychologist at New York’s Columbia University, says his research on the early days of social networking showed people could establish healthy and positive social relationships online. For others, he says it may provide a public manifestation of problems that have previously gone unnoticed: “People already prone to loneliness, depression, or compulsivity may find in Facebook a mirror that reflects and amplifies those predispositions.”

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    • Part of the problem with the ‘like’ button is that there are no alternatives other than making a comment, or just moving on. So no ‘like’ and no comment means what then?

      If I were king of the world – and we should all be glad I am not – there would be at least 2 other buttons:

      1. “You had nothing better to do that post a picture of your dinner? Seriously?”
      2. “why would I give a flip about your narcisstic tendancies?”

      (And, No, I won’t be checking for approval or disapproval of these comments)

    • One of the first things we learn about research in our doctoral training is that correlation does not equal causation. If a study is correlational (rather than a controlled experiment) then even if we discover a relationship between two variables we cannot infer causation or the direction of the relationship. Unfortunately people who write about studies in the layperson’s media don’t make this caveat clear to the readers because it doesn’t sounds as good. Causation seems like a sexier story than correlation. Correlational research does raise interesting questions that can be further explored in experiemental (causation) research.

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About Pay Dirt

  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to quentin.fottrell@dowjones.com or tweet @SMPayDirt.