Who needs ‘friends’? Ditty_about_summer/Shutterstock.com
Ever felt like your peers have more pals than you do?
These days, with the rise of social media apps like Facebook and Instagram, it is easier than ever to benchmark the number of “friends” you have against your peers.
So, if you find yourself wondering how your social networks compare with other people’s, our latest research, published in Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, suggests that you are far from alone. Furthermore, we found that believing that your peers have more pals than you do – even if demonstrably false – can be harmful to your health.
Decades of research in psychology suggest that social comparisons are a fundamental human tendency. We compare ourselves with others to evaluate and understand our abilities, our social standing and even our own feelings.
When making social comparisons, people generally see themselves coming out on top – or at least above average. That is, they are often overconfident about their abilities, rating themselves above average in health, attractiveness and intelligence.
Yet, there is at least one domain where people tend to think that they are doing worse than their peers: emotional experiences.
Previous research by one of our colleagues, Alex Jordan at the Harvard Medical School, found that people underestimate how often their peers experience negative emotions, like depression or stress, and overestimate how often they experience positive ones, like happiness, pride and hope.
One reason for the latter tendency is that people also generally overestimate how socially connected others are. After all, being socially connected is one of the most important predictors of happiness. It is therefore important to understand whether beliefs about doing worse than our peers extend to social belonging and to understand how these beliefs arise.
Looking for ‘friends’? Evan Lorne/Shutterstock.com
Social media is making it a lot harder to avoid comparing our own connectedness with that of our peers.
Since the inception of Facebook in 2004, more than a billion people have created Facebook accounts, and today, its website is the most visited in the world. Americans spend about 56 billion minutes on Facebook each month.
While some of this time is spent actively messaging other people, the typical user uses the majority of his or her time on Facebook observing other people without posting – sometimes called “lurking.” Stated differently, people spend most of their time on social media gathering information about their peers’ lives.
And, social media posts are predominately focused on projecting the most positive versions of ourselves. Given the popularity of Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and LinkedIn, it is nearly impossible to avoid learning about our peers’ accomplishments. As a result, it is also nearly impossible to avoid using this information as a benchmark to compare our lives with those of our peers.