Fact: Most people act differently online than they do in real life.
Whether we're more engaging, less polite or bolder in our political assertions, we tend to present our digital personas differently than we present ourselves in reality.
But why exactly do we feel empowered enough to act a certain way on social networking platforms like Facebook? The site requires users to sign up with their real names, so we're not truly anonymous or far removed from virtual conversation. Even so, our behavior online can be... less than charming.
Professors Keith Wilcox of Columbia University and Andrew T. Stephen of the University of Pittsburgh set out to answer this question in their study titled "Are Close Friends the Enemy? Online Social Networks, Self-Esteem, and Self-Control," which was recently accepted for publication in the Journal of Consumer Research.
In a series of five experiments, the authors illustrate the effects social networking has on individuals. Wilcox and Stephen's main argument states that "people present a positive self-view to others" when online, leading to a increase in self-esteem and decrease in self-control.
"Think of it as a licensing effect: You feel good about yourself so you feel a sense of entitlement," Wilcox told The Wall Street Journal. Essentially, individuals want to protect their "enhanced view" of the world, he states. Hence why occasionally, people post comments on Facebook they would probably never say aloud.
On the flip side, a Utah Valley University study from 2011 found that the longer college students surfed Facebook, the worse they felt about their own lives. So whose research is right? How can self-esteem both rise and plummet via the same social networking platform?
While both studies make different points, the information from Utah found that users who didn't personally know their Facebook "friends" very well believed that "others had better lives," leading to lower self-esteem. In Wilcox and Stephen's study, their main research stems from those Facebook users who are interacting with "strong ties," or close friends. According to their work, these more intimate interactions lead to an elevated self-esteem.
Below we've gathered seven reasons why we act differently online, all taken from Wilcox and Stephen's social networking research. We also highlight the findings from their five experiments on self-esteem and self-control. Check out the slideshow, and then let us know your thoughts: Do you or any of your friends act differently on Facebook? Are you more snarky or less shy online? Tell us in the comments section or tweet us at [@HuffPostTech]. Then flip through the six things easier to resist than social media, or read about why people might think you're a psychopath if you don't have a Facebook account.
We Know We're Being Watched
Apparently, all those "Likes" and comments on Facebook profiles <em>do</em> affect our perceptions of ourselves. <a href="http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2155864" target="_hplink">In the first experiment conducted by Wilcox and Stephen</a>, two groups of people were tested. One group was told to write about the experience of browsing on Facebook, while the second group <em>actually</em> browsed the social networking site. The researchers expected those people who had strong ties, or close friends and family they interact with online, to have a higher level of self-confidence after browsing Facebook, than those who had been writing. They were right: <blockquote>We argue that, because people care about the image they present to close friends on social networks, social network use enhances self-esteem in users who are focused on close friends (i.e., strong ties) while browsing their social network.</blockquote>
We Can Choose What Information People See About Us
Think about this: What do you post on Facebook? Pictures of family smiling at the beach, wedding photos, job updates, etc. While not every post is necessarily positive, we certainly limit what negative things viewers can see. Experiment two was comprised of a series of studies which further support the idea that we focus on self-presentation online. Keeping up with our online identity makes us feel good, and increases self-esteem. <a href="http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2155864" target="_hplink">Wilcox and Stephen's research states the following</a>: <blockquote>Specifically, the results show that social network use only enhances self-esteem for those focused on strong ties when they were cued to think about the information they are presenting to others while browsing a social network.</blockquote>
When We Feel Comfortable Online, We Sometimes Go Overboard
The third, fourth and fifth experiments conducted by Wilcox and Stephen found that, due to the increase in self-confidence, many users had a loss of self-control. (This might explain the trolling and online bullying some participate in via Facebook.) Loss of self-control was determined by several statistics: First, those who were heavier users of Facebook and had a high percentage of close ties (or close friends/family) in their network were found to have a higher body mass as well as more credit card debt. These characteristics were labeled signs of poor self-control. Also, in study three specifically, those who browsed Facebook for five minutes (and who have strong ties in their network) would opt for a chocolate chip cookie over a granola bar, more so than those who had not been on Facebook. With this drop in self-control, it was shown that "Facebook use can lead people to engage in more indulgent or impulsive behavior," per the report.
Reading Other People's Posts Can Make Us Less Self-Aware
In the fourth experiment, subjects were given ten anagrams to solve, with about 90 percent of them being unsolvable. As they theorized, those who had browsed Facebook before attempting to solve the anagrams were much quicker to give up verses those who had been offline. After the experiment, each person was administered a self-awareness scale. Overall, those who had been on Facebook were less self-aware. The research states the following: <blockquote>When people use social networks they spend a significant amount of time reading postings (i.e., status updates) that contain other people's feelings, thoughts and activities (Worthan 2011). Thus, by focusing users on others, and away from the self, browsing a social network may reduce self-awareness, which would also lower self-control. </blockquote>
We Care Less About What Our 'Weak Ties' Think
When was the last time you talked to some of your Facebook "friends?" Wilcox and Stephen point out in their research that most people with close friends, or strong ties, hope to impress those people. <em>They</em> are where the focus of self-preservation is directed (as opposed to weak ties).
It's Easier To Hate Online Personas Than It Is To Hate People In Real Life
"[I]n offline social interactions, people can adapt." But with "online social networks people have less ability to tailor their message," states the research. So while you might get along with someone in person, don't be surprised if you disagree with several of their post on Facebook. Essentially, their ideas are left uncensored or unaffected by social context -- these posts are not "tailored" to you.
We Want To Impress Our Friends
Strong ties, or close friends, are the root of our self-esteem inflation and determine how we act on Facebook. In the end, they are who we want to impress, why we keep up with digital appearances and what we ultimately base our online identity on.
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