What Can You Learn About People from Facebook?

Research shows that personality predicts what topics we discuss on Facebook

Posted Jul 02, 2015

pixabay.com/ CC0 Public Domain
Source: pixabay.com/ CC0 Public Domain

As anyone who uses Facebook knows, different people post updates about different things: Your high school friend sharing photos of her kids, your cousin complaining about physical illness, your colleague opining on politics, your friend posting funny animal videos. But what drives people to post what they do? A new study examines how our personality relates to the type of content we present on Facebook. It turns out that people’s topic choice might tell you as much about them as the content of their posts.

In a survey of 555 Facebook users, Tara Marshall and colleagues examined the relationship between personality and the topics people chose to discuss on Facebook.1

The researchers examined a set of traits known as the “Big 5” personality traits:2

They also examined self-esteem, and narcissism (not clinical narcissistic personality disorder, merely the personality tendency).

Participants rated how often they posted about 20 different topics, some of which fell into specific categories:

  • Social activities and everyday life: Social activities, something funny that occurred, everyday activities, pets, sporting events
  • Intellectual Themes: Political views, current events, research or science, their own creative output such as art or writing
  • Achievement: Achieving goals, accomplishments, work or school
  • Diet and exercise
  • Religious beliefs
  • One’s own children
  • One’s romantic relationship
  • Quotes or song lyrics
  • One’s travels
  • One’s opinion of movies or TV shows

Participants also reported on their motives for using Facebook (attention-seeking, need to feel accepted by others, self-expression, communication with others, and to find and disseminate information), how many likes and comments they typically got on their posts, and their frequency of Facebook use.

So, who tends to post what on Facebook? 

  • Extraverts were more likely to post about social activities and their everyday lives, and this was due largely to their desire to use Facebook as a tool for communicating with others. 
  • Those high in neuroticism were more likely to use Facebook to seek attention and validation from others, but neuroticism wasn’t related to the tendency to post about any particular topic. 
  • Those high in openness were more likely to post updates about their intellectual interests and to use Facebook as a way to find information, with this information-seeking motive explaining their tendency to post about such topics. This suggests that for those high in openness, their Facebook activities are more about sharing information than socializing. 
  • Conscientious individuals were more likely to post updates about their children, but analysis showed it wasn’t due to a desire to communicate with friends. The authors speculated that perhaps it was due to competitiveness over parenting. However, it’s not clear if the authors controlled for whether or not the participant had children, so it’s possible that conscientious individuals are just more likely to have children or that the mere experience of having children increases one’s conscientiousness. If that is the case, the finding that conscientious people post about their children more might simply be a function of their being more likely to have children. It is also possible that among parents, conscientious people spend more time on child-rearing and thus spend more time talking about it on Facebook.
  • Surprisingly, agreeableness was unrelated to people’s tendency to post about relationships or social activities. 
  • Those with low self-esteem were more likely to post updates about their romantic partner and to use Facebook as a means of self-expression (rather than validation).The authors hypothesized that people with low self-esteem might post about their relationship at times when they feel their relationship is somehow threatened. Once again, I’d like to know if they controlled for whether or not the participant was in a relationship. Otherwise, it’s possible that people with low self-esteem are more likely to be in a relationship in the first place (although that seems somewhat less likely).
  • Narcissists were more likely to post about their achievements, with such postings being motivated by that desire to get validation. Narcissists were also more likely to post about diet and exercise, perhaps as a way of showing how much they value physical attractiveness

All analyses controlled for age, sex, frequency of updating, and number of friends, so that these variables can be ruled out as possible explanations for their results. Also, when interpreting these results, it’s important to remember that most people have a mix of many of these traits, and their personalities are not dominated by a single trait. For example, someone could be highly extraverted and highly open at the same time. So these results suggest that such individuals would post more about both their social activities and intellectual matters. 

And with any study of this sort, there are always concerns that people are not accurately recalling how often they post about particular topics. Thus, it is also important to examine actual Facebook profiles and see if similar results are obtained. 

The researchers also investigated who received the most likes and comments on their Facebook posts. Narcissists reported receiving the greatest number of likes and comments, particularly if they posted about achievements. This is surprising, given that narcissists are typically less liked on Facebook.3 It could be that narcissists post more appealing updates, perhaps as a way to impress people, or that achievement posts, which are more common among narcissists, are likely to garner more likes regardless of who posts them. It is also possible that narcissists simply misremembered how much approval they got for their updates, which would be consistent with their general tendency to falsely remember others responding more positively to them than they really did.4 

People who updated about social activities and everyday life, their children, and their achievements tended to receive the most likes and comments, whereas people who posted about intellectual topics received the fewest likes. The authors suggest that this could mean that people who post about highly liked topics are more liked themselves, but they acknowledge that their results leave other possibilities open.

For example people may feel socially obligated to like or comment on certain types of social milestones or achievements. If someone posts that they just got engaged or received a promotion, friends may feel the need to like the post, as an acknowledgment. Your friends are more likely to feel obligated to say “Your new baby is so cute” than to say “that’s an interesting news story you posted about the presidential race”.  To add to that, Facebook itself pushes certain types of posts to the top of people’s news feeds, so such posts will get even more likes. Also the intellectual posts may garner less attention because they can't be absorbed quickly – I can easily appreciate the adorable photo of my friend’s cat and click “like” as I scroll down my newsfeed, but I don’t always have time to click on and read the potentially fascinating Psychology Today article she has linked to.

Overall, this research shows people differ quite a bit in what they like to share on Facebook. So you may be able to learn something about your friends' personalities from the kinds of topics they post, not just the specific content of what they post.  

Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at Albright College, who studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow her on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior. Read more articles by Dr. Seidman on Close Encounters.
References

1 Marshall, T. C., Lefringhausen, K., & Ferenczi, N. (2015). The Big Five, self-esteem, and narcissism as predictors of the topics people write about in Facebook status updates.  Personality and Individual Differences, 85, 35-40.

2 McCrae, R. R., & Costa, P. T., Jr. (1997). Personality trait structure as a human universal. American Psychologist, 52, 509-516.

3 Kauten, R. L., Lui, J. H. L., Stary, A. K., & Christopher, T. B. (2015). Purging my friends list. Good luck making the cut”: Perceptions of narcissism on Facebook. Computers in Human Behavior 51(A), 244–254. 

4 Rhodewalt, F., & Eddings, S. K. (2002). Narcissus reflects: Memory distortion in response to ego-relevant feedback among high- and low-narcissistic men. Journal of Research in Personality, 36, 97-116. 

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