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How to Spot Toxic Facebook Friends

Research shows that a user's Facebook posts reveals their true personality.

Dark Personalities Display Their True Colors Online

We make friends quickly on social media, which is ironic given the absence of the visual, verbal, and behavioral cues that we use every day to size each other up offline. Although most friends, fans, and followers are friendly, encouraging, and sometimes even inspiring, other disembodied personalities are online for all the wrong reasons.

Not all antagonists and trolls are "anonymous." Many have catchy screen names, with alluring photos to match. You cannot spot their antisocial tendencies through their handsome avatar (it is easy to swipe a glamour shot off the Internet), or their impressive profile—because online, anyone can claim anything. But if you know what to look for, you can spot their true personality through what they post.

Facebook Frenemies Revealed

Most dark personalities fly under the radar on social media because they are not overtly threatening or insulting. Nonetheless, research indicates that their dysfunctional personalities are detectible through their Facebook posts.

Reece Akhtar et al. (2018) found that the “dark side” of personality, defined as “non-clinical dysfunctional dispositions,” was detectible through the language posters used in their Facebook status updates.[i]

Using the Hogan Development Survey (HDS), described as a “psychometric inventory” designed to measure “maladaptive and dysfunctional behavioral dispositions at work,” they discovered that language used in social media posting correlated with HDS scores.

One category was Bold, described as people who are self-aggrandizing, superficially charming, and self-confident. Bold individuals believe they are entitled to superior status because they see themselves as superior to others. Accordingly, Akhtar et al. found posts from Bold users were likely to showcase their achievements, power, the future, and of course, themselves.

Excitable individuals were described as people whose confused expectations rendered them temperamental and moody, as well as emotionally volatile. Their posts, rarely expressed in the first person, were more likely to express negative rather than positive emotion.

Individuals classified as Dutiful were described as people who are loyal and eager to please, but unwilling to go against the tide of public opinion. Accordingly, their posts focused on friends and family, contained positive emotion, but failed to express certainty. Their language reflects the desire to avoid controversy, and the inability to make decisions.

Akhtar et al. note that HDS results have been found to predict behavior in the workplace, because research indicates that individuals behave similarly both on and offline. They also, however, acknowledge the work-life boundaries, privacy, and ethical concerns surrounding the use of social media date in recruitment hiring decisions.

For some dark personalities, however, subtlety is not their strong suit.

Dark Personalities Illuminated Through Insulting and Offensive Posts

In “Dark personalities on Facebook,” Bogolyubova et al. (2018) found a link between types of user and communication posted.[ii]

Writing threats or comments that were degrading or insulting in response to the Facebook posts of others were the harmful online behaviors most commonly reported. Regarding gender differences, men were more likely to post aggressive comments or send threatening or insulting messages. There was no gender difference in disseminating the private information of others. The two unique predictors of engaging in harmful behavior online were male gender and psychopathy.

Regarding dark triad traits (narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism), the men in the study were more likely than the women to score higher in Machiavellianism and psychopathy. There was no statistically significant gender-based difference when it came to scores of narcissism, and no statistically significant link between narcissism or Machiavellianism and the tendency to engage in harmful online behavior.

This study was interesting as well because of the age range of the participants. Unlike many psychological studies, which are performed on college students, the mean age of participants in the study by Bogolyubova et al. was 44.96 years. Over 25 percent of the participants reported engaging in harmful behaviors online.

Separating Friend From Foe is Easier in Person

Social media has definite social benefits, and allows people to keep in contact with friends and loved ones around the globe. But in some respects, it is more valuable as a supplement to existing relationships, than a method of venturing into new ones—unless both parties are willing to move slow and steady.

Interpersonal bonding is more fulfilling in person. This is true whether it occurs in a living room, an office break room, or a company boardroom. When we only communicate electronically, we sacrifice the opportunity to establish both chemistry and credibility. And regarding perception, we miss both green lights and red flags. For a healthy balance, online friending, liking, and texting should complement offline relationships, not replace them.


[i]Reece Akhtar, Dave Winsborough, Uri Ort, Abigail Johnson, and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, “Detecting the Dark Side of Personality Using Social Media Status Updates,” Personality and Individual Differences 132 (2018): 90–97.

[ii]Olga Bogolyubova, Polina Panicheva, Roman Tikhonov, Viktor Ivanov, and Yanina Ledovaya, “Dark personalities on Facebook: Harmful online behaviors and language,” Computers in Human Behavior 78 (2018): 151-159.

More from Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.
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