The first thing to note when it comes to social media psychology is that the way people behave on social media is not that far removed from how they behave in reality. Just as what people say and do in real life tells us who they are, how they act on social media reveals their personality too.
The same underlying motivations that drive the behaviour of individuals in real life are at play in the virtual world of social media.
The reasons why people share what they share on social media are numerous but when looked at via the lens of various psychological perspectives, a lot of motivations clear out from the vague haze of random posts, videos, and pictures.
These psychological perspectives are not necessarily mutually exclusive. A single social media sharing behaviour could be the result of a combination of motivations highlighted by these perspectives.
Let’s go over these perspectives one by one…
Beliefs and values
You hardly need an in-depth knowledge of human behaviour to understand that people like and share stuff on social media that match their beliefs and values.
A guy who favours capitalism, for example, will often post about it. Someone who believes democracy is the ideal form of government will often post about it.
We all have a tendency to reaffirm our beliefs once we’ve formed them. The next psychological perspective explains why…
Our beliefs make up our various identities which in turn make up our ego. Our ego is nothing but a set of beliefs that we have about ourselves. Our ego is how we see ourselves, our image.
The reason why people reaffirm their beliefs is that it helps them maintain or boost their ego.
If I support socialism then reaffirming the awesomeness of socialism boosts my ego because when I say “Socialism is awesome”, I’m indirectly saying, “I’m awesome because I support socialism which is awesome.” (see Why we want others to like what we like)
The same concept can be extended to one’s preferred political party, favourite sports team, celebrities, car, and phone models, etc.
Sometimes what people share on social media is just an attempt to get attention.
We all have an innate need to be wanted, liked and being attended to. But, in some people, this need is exaggerated, possibly because they received little attention from their primary caregivers during childhood.
Attention-seekers post more regularly on social media to replete their ‘attention tanks’. If they feel they’re aren’t getting the attention they want they can go to great extremes to force you to pay attention by posting high shock value stuff such as gory pictures, nudity, etc.
Mate value signalling
Social media provides a great platform for men and women to flaunt their value as a suitable mate. This evolutionary psychological perspective is a powerful factor explaining why people share what they share on social media.
Since men who’re resourceful and ambitious are perceived to be ‘high value’ mates, men often share things that directly or indirectly signal these traits.
This is why you see many men sharing pictures of cars, bikes, and gadgets, even setting these as their profile pictures. Resource signalling in men also includes showing off their intelligence (via humour, for example) and occupational achievements.
Mate value in women is predominantly signalled by physical beauty.
This is why the only activity of some women on Facebook is uploading or changing their pictures. This is also why women frequently use picturing sharing apps like Instagram that allows them to show off their beauty.
Besides beauty, women signal their mate value by displaying ‘nurturing’ behaviours.
Displaying nurturing behaviour allows women to signal, “I’m a good mother and I can take good care of babies with the help of my female friends.”
Ancestral women who were nurturing and formed strong relationships with other women to gather food and raise the young together were more successful reproductively than those who did not have these traits.
This is why you see women posting pictures of them holding a cute baby, animal, teddy bear, etc. and stuff that signals how much they cherish friendships and relationships.
When it’s a woman’s best friend’s birthday, you’re likely to see her post a picture of her and her best friend together, along with something like this written in the caption…
I see today is the birthday of my sweetheart, my love, my cutie pie Maria. Oh! dear Maria! Where do I start? As soon as I got the notification about your birthday, my mind drifted to those days we spent together, all the fun that we had when we……………..and so on.
On the contrary, men’s birthday wishes rarely go any longer than, “Happy birthday bro”.