The psychology behind some of the most irritating people on social media

Social media. It’s been going through a bit of a rough patch recently with people blaming it for the successes of certain political figures while simultaneously amplifying the recruitment campaigns of terrorist networks and facilitating the growing problem of live streamed violence – it’s the sort of record even James Blunt couldn’t tweet away.

But these people aren’t the ones who ruin social media for the majority of us. We hear about them, of course, but they jeopardise our economy, our way of life and the occasional teen’s sleeping pattern more than they do our absent minded scrolling. We’re actually talking about the people who write #FoodPorn under a fried breakfast. The people who tag themselves as safe during a crisis in London – when they’ve never been further down the M1 than Sheffield. The people who, for all intents and purposes, are doing social media wrong.

Now, it’s incredibly easy to sit behind a keyboard and complain about these individuals but the difficulty lies in understanding why they do what they do. So let’s find out.

Before we go any further, it’s important to note that many of us have done at least one if not two of these posts in the past and there should be a residual feeling of shame for that, but at least you’ve learnt your lesson. If you’re a serial offender, on the other hand, this should help you to understand why you’re ruining social media for everyone and give you the tools you need to have a word with yourself afterwards.

For most of us, food, money and good relationships are the key to a happy life. Yes, there are those who are content wearing unbranded clothes, eating their exact daily recommended allowances and genuinely enjoying their own company for extended periods of time. These people are effectively demigods who we brand as loners and weirdos because they’re infinitely better at life than we will ever be.

Then there’s the rest of us who stagnate in the middle, occasionally over-indulging but mainly trying to save money until we’re 50 when we’ll feasibly be able to buy our first property.

The next tier up from this is reserved for those who tell us every time they eat out, every time they get a promotion and every time their parents or partner buys them a car with captions such as ‘Love my new toy!’ These people are exhibiting attributes of something called the Social Dominance Theory (SDT), created by two men called Sidanius and Pratto.

SDT works on the basis that in society there is a trait-based hierarchy and of course, as humans, we all want to be as close to the top as possible. These traits can range from age, gender, race or, most prevalently in western society, economic status. If you then see each level of the hierarchy as an in-group, a group with a shared interest or identity, you can begin to see why some people feel the need to publish these kinds of post.

If the content on your handles is a myriad of Bimmers, Michelin-star meals and holidays, your social dominance is fairly well asserted and your status won’t come under scrutiny. These people either do have a genuinely scary amount of money or they’re just regular Joe Soaps looking to secure their prestige by tempting people to live vicariously through their social channels. After all, it’s not like we have our own lives to lead, right?

It’s understandable that people who spam your feed purely with their own successes, make you want to log out of Facebook forever – but surely those who discuss current affairs can captivate your interest and engage you in some enthralling debate? Well yes, to an extent. That is before the second of our subjects emerges to make you lose your faith in humanity once more. A friend of mine posted a petition the other day to prevent a Chinese dog-eating festival. Why they can’t just watch mediocre bands, drink warm cans of Carling and sleep in a field like everyone else I don’t know. Each to their own and all that. Anyway, the usual cascade of people saying how terrible it was and how it should be stopped began. Enter the non-conformist.

Now, when you hear a word like ‘non-conformist’ you may immediately think of hipsters, art students or Rick from The Young Ones, if you’re of that ilk. However, two chaps called Smith and Bond found that across the world this word has many meanings and interpretations although, in Western culture, it’s centred predominantly around being individualistic and different from everyone else. Who’d have guessed? What’s interesting is that social media has facilitated their need for individuality, giving them a thin veneer of anonymity and, more importantly, a voice. So in effect what we’re talking about really is trolls.

Psychology Today has discussed the issue of trolls before and found them to show the traits of narcissists, psychopaths, and sadists. I thought this was a bit strong, and doesn’t necessarily give an accurate representation of the group as a whole, but one factor that we can all agree on is that these people need to feel like they are breaking away from the norm in order to attract attention, whether it be positive or negative. It’s a fairly desperate approach to getting noticed but it’s incredibly effective.

So, while everyone was on the path of agreement, about how terrible this festival was, the Non-Conformist decided on a different tact, “So you think all dogs should be saved but it’s ok to slaughter all other animals?” Not only does it sound like a line from a terrible Animal Farm spin off, it’s completely untrue. It was written purely to evoke a reaction. Which it did. The people took the bait, spewing venom and semi-accurate legislation everywhere, simultaneously validating the troll. It’s a shame really because non-conformity used to galvanise people into being creative: the punks, skinheads, hippies, mods, rockers – they all had a non-conformist attitude supported by music and fashion. The modern day equivalent is the keyboard warrior.

Being a bit of a non-conformist myself, I left the worst till last. There’s a special circle of hell reserved for people who put an unhappy smiley as their status and nothing else. You should see L and immediately want to destroy every electronic device you own. It’s the single most self-absorbed status a person can post and is usually followed by thick stream of responses along the lines of “U k bbe / bro” (delete where appropriate.) However, the one thing that baffles me is that these responses are inevitably followed by the fateful words:

“DW I don’t wanna talk about it.”

Now, if you’re asking yourself why they decided to put it on social media if they didn’t want to talk about it, you’re not alone. It’s the main reason I started writing this article – partly to find answers, partly because therapists say writing things down helps you to understand them. And they’re right.

When you burn yourself on something hot, you feel an excruciating amount of pain and, ideally, you learn never to touch the hot thing again. This is called classical conditioning and it’s what keeps us alive, which is great. Operant conditioning (OC), on the other hand, is the reason why conventionally attractive people sometimes post statuses saying that they’re ugly when they quite clearly aren’t. Not so great. OC is a type of behavioural learning where the consequences of our actions are rewarded or punished. We then take that feedback and decide whether to do the action again in the future or not. If you make a topical joke and people laugh, you’ll do it again to maintain positive feedback. If you make an inappropriate joke at work and get fired you’d hope you won’t do it again, although if the joke was that bad you’re likely to be a repeat offender.

Anyway, unless your friends are callous people, if you post a status saying you’re ugly or you publish the dreaded unhappy face an influx of positive responses should follow. This makes us feel good about ourselves and shows us that we’re loved. You can see it as an extension of times, when we were younger, where we’d cry and our parents or teachers would smother us with attention until we stopped. Babies fake cry specifically for this reason. Babies are manipulative.

So, back to asking ourselves why people post online, rather than just speaking to someone. It’s because they want affirmation of their popularity and they have a need to feel loved as immediately as possible. They need instant gratification. Basically, when you have hundreds of people on your social networks, surely a few will jump in to make you feel better about yourself? Or so you’d hope. You then learn that the action of leaking your insecurities online has the consequence of positive reinforcement in the form of your friends’ reactions. And there you have it, you’ve been operantly conditioned resulting in a strong chance that you’ll continue in your leaky ways.

It’s difficult because articles like these don’t actually tend to help the people they’re talking about; all they do is normalise their subject’s behaviours and give them a rationale for what they’re doing. Sort of like a horoscope but with names and statistics thrown in to give the illusion of scientific reasoning. However, the overarching idea as to why people do these things is clearly because they feel like they’re out of control and need reassurance, from the wider world, to let them know that they’re actually OK.

So the next time you recognise someone acting in one of these ways online, you could offer to meet up with them in person, try to make a connection and really make a difference. Or you could just block them – the choice is yours.

Harry Wright is a content manager at SHARE Creative, with a penchant for linking psychological theories to modern advertising techniques. Follow him on Twitter @hazmccaz

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