Behind Online Behavior

Psychological insights on the choices we make online.

Our Obsession with "Like"—Part 1

What are the real reasons behind pressing the like button?

We've all done itgrazed through our Facebook news feed and updates, and impulsively hit "like."

But beyond the fact that it’s so easy to use, what exactly is it that we find so irresistible about this tiny, seemingly innocuous function? And why are we so compelled to like people, updates, and media online?

According to Facebook's Help Center, a like is “a way to give positive feedback or to connect with people you care about.” The giant recently released statistics indicating that over 65 million users like things daily, and although it’s generally more popular among younger users, people of all ages seem to enjoy pressing the like button.

The fact that it’s such a popular element of the platform’s functionality goes a long way in showing how important it is, both for the people sending it, and those of us receiving it.

What lies behind our obsession with like?

Like has become much more than just a positive reaction toward a post or update; it has evolved into a feedback toward the person her/himself. As a rule of thumb, the more likes you get, the more loved you’ll feel. In fact, according to anthropologist Krystal D'Costa, the like button has become so influential as a tool, that it can boost or shatter one’s egoin effect, it has become "an extension of one's digital personal." Not only that, but other researchers have shown that like-based communication actually decreases the feeling of loneliness, as it conveys a sense of empathy and caring.

From the sender's perspective, sending a like can have the same effect as smiling or saying a kind word to someone. It is basically a really easy, low-cost way to communicate positive feedback.

So why do we like things? People send compliments on a daily basis for a whole range of reasons, including some rather more strategic ones such as wanting to appear nice, to ‘suck up’ to someone, or to gain something in return ("You look so nice today… Can I borrow your car?"). Complimenting a person is literally pricelessit doesn’t cost you anything and it can be accomplished with minimum effort. You don't even have to mean itpeople love to receive compliments even if they are very much aware of its manipulative usage. In fact, taken to its extreme, paying a compliment is a 'legitimate' opportunity to lie, which is something that people subconsciously tend to enjoy doing from time to time.

Apart from transmitting a positive signal, the act of liking something is evidence of one's existence in the online realm. Comments affiliated with the like 'signature' actually constitute your reputation online, and liking the same things that others within our network already like reaffirms our connection with the group by identifying points we hold in common. And there is, of course, the hope that a favor will be reciprocatedI liked your post, now you have to like mine.

In recent years, the opportunity to like something or somebody has spread outside the boundaries of Facebook to other sites. One can press like after reading a news report, purchasing an accessory, or watching a movie. In these cases, liking something is an indication of the consumer's satisfaction with the product or content, in which the like becomes a way to communicate their views and thoughts to other virtual users that they’ve never met before.

Your likes reveal more about you than you think.

Aside from the positive psychological impact of the Facebook like, as a function it’s certainly not without its issues. In the Spring of 2013, a piece of research conducted by psychologists at Cambridge University blew the lid on how this easily accessible digital record of your behavior can be used (ultimately without your consent) to extract sensitive personal information about youthe kind of information that you might not even share with your closest friends.

In the study, over 58,000 volunteers consensually provided their Facebook likes, detailed demographic profiles, and the results of several psychometric tests. Using logistic/linear regression, the researchers were able to predict individual psycho-demographic profiles simply from their likes. In a nutshell, they found that your likes can reveal everything from your sexual orientation, personality traits and IQ, to your race, age and gender. They can predict your religious and political views, whether your parents are separated, how happy you are, and even whether you use addictive substances or not.

But, what drives people to like things outside the boundaries of Facebook’s walls if the action is not accompanied by a social reward? You will find out the answer in the second part of this blog.

 

Liraz Margalit, Ph.D., analyzes online consumer behavior, incorporating theory and academic research into a conceptual framework.
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