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Feeling down? Head to Facebook, find someone worse off

Oct. 3, 2014
Courtesy of Ohio State University
and World Science staff

When peo­ple are in a bad mood, they’re more likely to ac­tively search so­cial net­work­ing sites like Face­book to find friends who are do­ing even worse than they are, a new study sug­gests.

Re­search­ers found that, in gen­er­al, peo­ple use so­cial me­dia to con­nect with peo­ple who are post­ing pos­i­tive and suc­cess-oriented up­dates.

“But when peo­ple are in a neg­a­tive mood, they start to show more in­ter­est in the less attrac­tive, less suc­cess­ful peo­ple on their so­cial me­dia sites,” said Sil­via Knobloch-Westerwick, co-author of the study and pro­fes­sor of com­mu­nica­t­ion at Ohio State Uni­vers­ity.

The study was pub­lished on­line in the jour­nal Com­put­ers in Hu­man Be­hav­ior and is to ap­pear in the De­cem­ber 2014 print edi­tion.

“Gen­er­ally, most of us look for the pos­i­tive on so­cial me­dia sites. But if you’re feel­ing vul­ner­a­ble, you’ll look for peo­ple on Face­book who are hav­ing a bad day or who aren’t as good at pre­sent­ing them­selves pos­i­tively, just to make your­self feel bet­ter,” said Benjamin Johnson, co-author of the study, a for­mer doc­toral stu­dent at Ohio State and now at VU Uni­ver­sity Amster­dam.

The study in­volved 168 col­lege stu­dents. Re­search­ers first put par­ti­ci­pants in a good or bad mood by hav­ing them take a test on fa­cial emo­tion rec­og­ni­tion. Re­gard­less of their an­swers, the stu­dents were ran­domly told their per­for­mance was “ter­ri­ble” (to put them in a bad mood) or “ex­cel­lent” (to put them in a good mood).

Af­ter­ward, all par­ti­ci­pants were asked to re­view what they were told was a new so­cial net­work­ing site called So­cia­lLink. The over­view page pre­sented pre­view pro­files of eight people, which the stu­dents could click on to read more.

The key to the study was that the eight pro­files were de­signed to make the peo­ple pro­filed ap­pear attrac­tive and suc­cess­ful – or un­attrac­tive or un­suc­cess­ful.

Each pro­filed per­son was ranked on a scale of 0 to 5 on both ca­reer suc­cess (num­ber of dol­lar signs next to their pro­file) and attrac­tiveness, or “hot­ness” (num­ber of hearts).

Each pro­file had ei­ther half of a dol­lar sign (low ca­reer suc­cess) or 4 1/2 dol­lar signs (high ca­reer suc­cess). They had ei­ther one-half heart (low attrac­tiveness) or 4 1/2 hearts (high attrac­tiveness).

The pro­file im­ages were blurred so that par­ti­ci­pants could not see what they ac­tu­ally looked like.

When par­ti­ci­pants clicked on the pro­files, they found that all the sta­tus up­dates were much the same. They were all rel­a­tively mun­dane and did­n’t dis­cuss any ca­reer or ac­a­dem­ic suc­cess, phys­i­cal ap­pearance or ro­mantic rela­t­ion­ships.

“So the only real dif­fer­ence be­tween the pro­files was the rat­ings of ca­reer suc­cess and attrac­tiveness sig­ni­fied by the dol­lar signs and hearts,” John­son said.

Over­all, the re­search­ers found that peo­ple tended to spend more time on the pro­files of peo­ple who were rat­ed as suc­cess­ful and attrac­tive.

But par­ti­ci­pants who had been put in a neg­a­tive mood spent sig­nif­i­cantly more time than oth­ers brows­ing the pro­files of peo­ple who had been rat­ed as un­suc­cess­ful and un­attrac­tive.

“If you need a self-es­teem boost, you’re go­ing to look at peo­ple worse off than you,” Knob­loch-Wester­wick said. “Y­ou’re probably not go­ing to be look­ing at the peo­ple who just got a great new job or just got mar­ried.

“One of the great ap­peals of so­cial net­work sites is that they al­low peo­ple to man­age their moods by choos­ing who they want to com­pare them­selves to.”


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When people are in a bad mood, they’re more likely to actively search social networking sites like Facebook to find friends who are doing even worse than they are, a new study suggests. Researchers found that, in general, people use social media to connect with people who are posting positive and success-oriented updates. “But when people are in a negative mood, they start to show more interest in the less attractive, less successful people on their social media sites,” said Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, co-author of the study and professor of communication at Ohio State University. The study was published online in the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is to appear in the December 2014 print edition. “Generally, most of us look for the positive on social media sites. But if you’re feeling vulnerable, you’ll look for people on Facebook who are having a bad day or who aren’t as good at presenting themselves positively, just to make yourself feel better,” Johnson said. The study involved 168 college students. Researchers first put participants in a good or bad mood by having them take a test on facial emotion recognition. Regardless of their answers, the students were randomly told their performance was “terrible” (to put them in a bad mood) or “excellent” (to put them in a good mood). Afterward, all participants were asked to review what they were told was a new social networking site called SocialLink. The overview page presented preview profiles of eight individuals, which the students could click on to read more. The key to the study was that the eight profiles were designed to make the people profiled appear attractive and successful – or unattractive or unsuccessful. Each profiled person was ranked on a scale of 0 to 5 on both career success (number of dollar signs next to their profile) and attractiveness, or “hotness” (number of hearts). Each profile had either half of a dollar sign (low career success) or 4 1/2 dollar signs (high career success). They had either one-half heart (low attractiveness) or 4 1/2 hearts (high attractiveness). The profile images were blurred so that participants could not see what they actually looked like. When participants clicked on the profiles, they found that all the status updates were much the same. They were all relatively mundane and didn’t discuss any career or academic success, physical appearance or romantic relationships. “So the only real difference between the profiles was the ratings of career success and attractiveness signified by the dollar signs and hearts,” Johnson said. Overall, the researchers found that people tended to spend more time on the profiles of people who were rated as successful and attractive. But participants who had been put in a negative mood spent significantly more time than others browsing the profiles of people who had been rated as unsuccessful and unattractive. “If you need a self-esteem boost, you’re going to look at people worse off than you,” Knobloch-Westerwick said. “You’re probably not going to be looking at the people who just got a great new job or just got married. “One of the great appeals of social network sites is that they allow people to manage their moods by choosing who they want to compare themselves to.”