Personality Linked to Surveillance and Jealousy on Facebook

New research examines how personality relates to Facebook use in relationships.

Posted May 11, 2018

Source: Vladeep/Shutterstock

Social media sites have provided us with unprecedented access to the lives of our friends, acquaintances, and romantic partners, letting us connect with (and spy on) people in our social network like never before. We declare our relationships to the world by making them "Facebook official" and sharing couple photos. We can also see what our partners have been up to and who they're friends with by taking a peek at their online profiles. In my own research, I wanted to see how these unique features of social media play out in people's romantic relationships, and whether personality is linked to how a person uses social media in a relationship.

Research on mate retention suggests there are many strategies people use to hold onto their romantic partners and prevent rivals from stealing them away. Two common strategies are direct guarding and public signals. Direct guarding involves making sure your partner is not pursuing anyone else. This can involve reading a partner's emails or going through their things. On social media, it's easier than ever to engage in this kind of surveillance. Public signals involve showing the world your partner is taken, as when you publicly put your arm around your partner or buy an engagement ring. On social media, the signals can be quite blatant and can be broadcast to a large audience. In addition, you can post affectionate comments and snuggly photos that far exceed the public displays of affection that you and your partner normally show to others in your offline lives.

In my own research, I surveyed 257 adults about the extent to which they engaged in three kinds of mate retention behaviors on Facebook:

  • Surveillance/monitoring: Reading your partner's posts and friends list
  • Public displays: Posting photos or status updates about the relationship
  • Excessive displays: Posting photos or updates that are potentially embarrassing and express more affection than you normally show offline

I further asked how often they had experienced certain negative relationship effects due to using Facebook. Specifically they were asked how often something they saw on Facebook made them feel jealous and how often they had a conflict with their partner regarding Facebook use.

Participants also completed a measure of the Big 5 personality traits:

The results showed that neuroticism was linked to more jealousy, more Facebook-related conflict, and greater partner surveillance. I also found that the link between neuroticism and these Facebook-related relationship difficulties was explained by surveillance. That is, those high in neuroticism experience jealousy and conflict as a result of Facebook because they spend more time monitoring their partners' activities.

Extraverts were more likely to publicly display their relationships to others by posting photos and statuses about the relationship. This is consistent with research that shows that offline, extraverts are more likely to use public signals to let the world know their partner is taken. Surprisingly, extraverts were also more likely to monitor their partners' activity on Facebook and to have conflicts over Facebook use.

People high in conscientiousness tend to be cautious and practical. Thus, research has indicated that they normally do not reveal too much on social media and are particularly prone to feelings of regret when they do post something inappropriate. In this study, I found that conscientious people were less likely to engage in "excessive displays" of affection, in line with the cautious nature of those who would not want to misrepresent their relationships online or embarrass themselves or their partners. However, I also found that conscientious people were more likely to engage in general public displays of their relationship, posting photos and status updates about their relationship. It is possible that conscientious people believe this is healthy for the relationship and thus they are doing it to maintain a positive relationship or please their partner.

There were also some interesting differences in Facebook behavior that depended upon the length or seriousness of participants' relationships. People who were in longer relationships were less likely to get jealous over their partners' Facebook activity. This suggests that as the relationship progresses, people become more secure and less suspicious about a partner's activities. Those in longer relationships were also more likely to post photographs and statuses about their relationships, but were less likely to engage in "excessive displays." This could be because general posts about the relationship and photos of the couple together are merely signs that the relationship is serious and the couple spends a lot of time together, whereas excessive displays may be a sign of insecurity among those in the early stages of their relationships. I also found that neuroticism was associated with more excessive displays—but only for people who were in less serious relationships.  This also suggests that insecurity is at the heart of these excessive displays.

Some mate retention strategies on Facebook are fairly harmless. However, monitoring a partner's activities or posting over-the-top affectionate content could be problematic or a sign of insecurity. Ultimately, how likely someone is to use Facebook in ways that harm their relationship depends, in part, on their personality.


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