The psychology of very public displays of possessions
Sometimes we wonder why some people relentlessly share their pictures – including their selfies – on social media. Or why they broadcast the details of their romantic lives online? Or why they continuously post pictures of their possessions: their cars, handbags, or endless accessories?
Any observer of social media will have noticed that these trends have increased in recent years as the popularity of social media networks grow. But what is the psychology behind such behaviour?
Research on why people use social networks, particularly Facebook, suggests that personal factors like neuroticism, narcissism, shyness, self-esteem and self-worth contribute to their need for self-presentation on the internet.
While this technology gives an individual the power to control their image and express their identity, it also reveals some hidden part of their psyche.
Focusing on self-esteem, psychologists say that online oversharing could be driven by – and have an impact on – a person’s confidence. For example, the self-esteem of those posting many selfies may be tied to the comments and “likes” they get from other people, who would actually judge them based on how they look like, not on who they really are.
While seeking some approval is normal, psychologists say these people risk getting addicted to taking selfies and getting positive feedback. In cases when they received negative comments or didn’t get enough “likes”, their confidence could plummet and this might have an impact on their mental health.
One extreme example is a British teenager who reportedly tried to commit suicide after failing to take the perfect selfie. If media reports are to be believed, he said he spent 10 hours a day taking up to 200 pictures of himself.
The issue is more often observed among women, who face tremendous social pressure based on their appearance and are often judged by the way they look.
A recent study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking found that females who base their self-worth on their appearance tend to share more photos of themselves online to ultimately compete for attention. Sharing too many pictures of oneself is often associated with narcissism, but on the contrary, it can also be linked to low self-esteem.
Some other people’s confidence is tied to the strength of their romantic relationship and this is why they are more likely to use the social networking site to broadcast the details of their love lives, according to new research at Albright College in Pennsylvania.
Those people often have higher levels of relationship-contingent self-esteem – an unhealthy form of self-esteem that depends on the person’s romantic relationship – and so they use technology to express their happiness.
This can also be applied to people who post pictures of their luxurious possessions on social media: their self-esteem can be tied up with the things they own.
This phenomenon, known as psychological ownership, can produce positive and uplifting effects, and people sharing pictures of what they own could boost their confidence.
Research published on the Review of General Psychology in 2002 about the state of psychological ownership suggests its roots can be partly found in the human motive to belong. Those sharing their possessions seek to self-identify as part of a group.
In a society where many people identify themselves with their material possessions, sharing pictures of these possessions would help people to express their desired identity and inclination to be part of a certain group.
In the process, individuals come to find pleasure and comfort whenever they post images of their things online, which simultaneously helps them to reinforce continuity in their identity.
Another study from Harvard University, published this year in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, confirms this by finding that self-disclosure is strongly associated with increased activation in the brain’s pleasure and reward centers, which increases even more when people were told they had an audience.
This, the research explains, could be driven by something really simple, such as creating “social bonds” with other people.
Not all social media users are aware of the reasons why they share so much information about themselves online, or how the personal information they post is being perceived and interpreted by other people. But the psychological rewards of such activity surely makes it addictive.
One thing to learn here is that the whole phenomenon is highly complex and depends on individual psyches and experiences.
We should think about that next time we go through our social media feeds and instinctively have the desire to judge.
On Twitter: @AyeshaAlmazroui
Updated: August 18, 2014 04:00 AM