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Too Many 'Friends,' Too Few 'Likes'? Evolutionary Psychology and 'Facebook Depression'

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Psychologists (and subsequently the media) have defined 'Facebook depression' as the affective result of spending too much time on the social networking site (Selfhout et al., 2009; Kross et al., 2013). Some social psychologists have denied that Facebook is causally implicated in any such negative affect (Jelenchick et al., 2013). This article argues that if we want to understand modern mass media and new social media, we need a better understanding of the (old) psychology bequeathed us by natural selection (Barkow et al., 2012). Disentangling the relationship between social media and depression using evolutionary social competition theories of depression, I argue that the mismatch between current social milieu and the environment of evolutionary adaption affords some predictions about the use of social media as a trigger for mild depression or dysphoria. I hypothesize that users of Facebook may be more susceptible to causal triggers for mild depression under the following (specific) circumstances: (a) the greater the number of 'friends' that the user has online; (b) the greater the time that the user spends reading updates from this wide pool of friends; (c) the user does so regularly; and (d) the content of the updates tends to a bragging nature. I hypothesize that the frequency and the number of displays of higher status cues observed by the user may incur the perception of low relative social value among users (automatically triggering this response). The article concludes with directions for future research on the behavioral and cognitive effects of social media sites such as Facebook.
Too Many ‘Friends,’ Too Few ‘Likes’? Evolutionary Psychology
and ‘Facebook Depression’
C. R. Blease
University College Dublin
Psychologists (and subsequently the media) have defined ‘Facebook depression’ as the affective result of
spending too much time on the social networking site (Selfhout et al., 2009;Kross et al., 2013). Some
social psychologists have denied that Facebook is causally implicated in any such negative affect
(Jelenchick et al., 2013). This article argues that if we want to understand modern mass media and new
social media, we need a better understanding of the (old) psychology bequeathed us by natural selection
(Barkow et al., 2012). Disentangling the relationship between social media and depression using
evolutionary social competition theories of depression, I argue that the mismatch between current social
milieu and the environment of evolutionary adaption affords some predictions about the use of social
media as a trigger for mild depression or dysphoria. I hypothesize that users of Facebook may be more
susceptible to causal triggers for mild depression under the following (specific) circumstances: (a) the
greater the number of ‘friends’ that the user has online; (b) the greater the time that the user spends
reading updates from this wide pool of friends; (c) the user does so regularly; and (d) the content of the
updates tends to a bragging nature. I hypothesize that the frequency and the number of displays of higher
status cues observed by the user may incur the perception of low relative social value among users
(automatically triggering this response). The article concludes with directions for future research on the
behavioral and cognitive effects of social media sites such as Facebook.
Keywords: depression, evolutionary psychology, Facebook depression, social media, sociality
Depression is one of the leading causes of disability in the world
today (World Health Organization, 2010). The social networking
site Facebook now has 1.23 billion active users (Wakefield, 2014).
This article takes for its focus current research into the causal link
between usage of social network sites (‘SNS’) such as Facebook
and the symptoms of depression. Research into ‘Facebook depres-
sion’ has yielded conflicting results. In social psychology (and
beyond) the ‘ping-pong’ of debate has ensued without a winner
with both sides disputing how to interpret conflicting findings.
This article shows that absent an evolutionary perspective, re-
searchers are failing to orient their research efficiently. Theory
determines the questions that we ask and how we make sense of
those results. The evolutionary framework is a foundational ap-
proach: it enables us to make predictions about behavioral re-
sponses given specific environmental triggers and naturally se-
lected universal capacities. This article argues that the time should
be past when social psychologists could ignore evolution. I pro-
pose ways in which the evolutionary paradigm can illuminate how
people navigate social networking sites and elaborate on the con-
ditions that are likely to render users vulnerable to depression.
Controversy still exists over the evolutionary function (if any) of
depression and depressive states. In this article I examine some
promising (and convergent) theoretical claims that mildly depres-
sive cognition and behavior was selected because it was (and
arguably still is) an adaptive functional response to perceptions of
low relative social value.
1
Insofar as we can rely on this functional
hypothesis, it is eminently plausible that Facebook is a forum
where feelings of low relative social value are habitually elicited.
Therefore, to take this research beyond the realm of speculation we
need to ask: What are the online proximal triggers of the ultimate,
evolutionary functions of mild depression? Moreover, to determine
the features of Facebook that might lead to feelings of dysophoria
or mild depression we need to enquire what happens when an
individual logs on. What kinds of status updates and comments by
online ‘friends’ (and indeed, other public Facebook profiles) might
elicit feelings of depression? Do the profiles of some ‘friends’
garner more attention than others? Are there predictable patterns in
Facebook navigation? And, how do users manage their own pro-
files? This article begins to address these questions by building on
the recent work of Barkow and colleagues on the evolutionary
psychology of social media (Barkow, O’Gorman, & Rendell,
2012). It concludes by drawing some specific hypotheses about
when (and how) Facebook might be depressing.
The article is organized as follows. In Section One, I briefly
expound on the idiosyncratic features of SNS and take for my
focus Facebook which has long eclipsed other SNS as the most
widely used in the world. SNS are often referred to as ‘online
communities.’ Members typically display content about them-
selves (including photos, personal updates on their lives), and they
1
Determining whether depression is still functional today takes us
beyond the remit of this article.
I thank Professor Jerome Barkow for meticulous comments on a draft of
this article.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to C. R.
Blease, School of Philosophy, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin
4, Ireland. E-mail: charlotte.blease@ucd.ie
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2015, Vol. 19, No. 1, 1–13 1089-2680/15/$12.00 http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/gpr0000030
1
can browse the personal content of other members, befriend other
users, and interact with them. The hegemony of Facebook among
SNS is evinced by the slogan ‘Facebook depression’ and the
majority of recent studies examining the impact of SNS on well-
being have concentrated solely on Facebook usage.
In Section Two I survey the problematic and conflicting results
in the empirical literature on the causal link between the use of
social networking sites and depression. I find that the current social
psychological literature is often methodologically flawed and ex-
planatorily impoverished. I contend that if we are to motivate clear
hypotheses about the causal connection between the use of these
sites and depression, we need to integrate social psychology with
evolutionary cognitive science.
In Section Three I briefly discuss theories on the cognitive and
behavioral functions of depression in the environment of evolu-
tionary adaptation (EEA). I propose that social competition theo-
ries of depression provide one promising framework for explaining
function of depression: on these accounts, the functional mismatch
between the modern day social milieu and the EEA explains the
apparent rise in (at least) mild depression (Price, Sloman, Gardner,
et al., 1994/1999; see also Allen & Badcock, 2006). If mild
depression is associated with loss of relative standing, prestige,
and rank (if this was adaptive in the EEA) then arguably (in certain
contexts) it may also be adaptive today. Given this specific ulti-
mate evolutionary explanation (which is derived from social com-
petition and relative social evaluation theories of depression), how
might Facebook use be depressing? Facebook is a forum for
impression management where comparative status is a matter of
competition, and some of your ‘friends’ may be doing a better
management job than you are. The argument of Section Four is
that Facebook use triggers evolved mechanisms for such social
evaluation. When users are exposed to ‘friends’—who are habit-
ually presenting themselves in the best possible light—this may
lead to negative self-appraisals. I conclude, in Section Five, by
specifying the following conditions under which Facebook users
may be more susceptible to causal triggers for mild depressive
symptoms. I contend that individuals are more likely to suffer from
depression when (a) they have more online ‘friends,’ (b) the more
time they spend reading updates from this wide pool of ‘friends,’
(c) the more frequently the user reads these updates, (d) the content
of the updates tends to be of a bragging nature, and (e) the user
accesses such sites as a solitary pursuit. I argue that under these
conditions the user may be much more likely to incur the percep-
tion of low relative social value but, in addition, I contend that
some of these specifications (e.g., (b) the greater the time that the
user spends reading updates) also need to be the subject of enquiry
based on the evolved function of attraction biases. I propose that if
social media triggers depressive feelings the amount of time spent
online is not sufficient, on its own, to trigger this response: the user
must also recurrently perceive persistent displays of high status
from other users. I conclude by briefly advancing some directions
for future research.
Facebook 101
If we want to investigate how Facebook may elicit depressive
responses among its active members, we need to begin by saying
something about how the medium works. Therefore, for both the
initiated and uninitiated alike it is worth drawing attention to
several of the main features of Facebook.
As a social networking service, Facebook—which was founded
in 2004—allows its registered members to create a personal pro-
file, to browse and seek out other users and to exchange messages
with others, as well as to provide instant personal updates. Each
member of Facebook has a personal profile page where he or she
can provide ‘status updates.’ The profile page is something of a
personal blank canvas for users, and Facebook prompts members
with the question ‘What’s on your mind?’ This space specifically
allows individuals to insert their own comments, upload photos,
insert ‘tags’ of places they have visited, and even itemize ‘life
events’ (choosing from the subcategories of ‘Work and Educa-
tion,’ ‘Family and Relationships,’ Home and Living,’ ‘Health and
Wellness,’ and ‘Travel and Experiences’). Other sections of their
personal webpage enable users to provide lists of their personal
preferences (‘Movies You’ve Watched,’ ‘TV shows You’ve
Watched,’ and ‘Books You’ve Read’).
After creating their own profile, each member is entitled to
befriend other members (whom he or she can seek out via the
search engine). As a user, one befriends other members by sending
invitations, or ‘friend requests’ via an e-mail facility for contacting
others, and awaiting the outcome of whether invitees choose to
‘accept’ or ‘ignore’ you. Keeping abreast of the number of friends
one has (and, notably, other members have) is another feature of
Facebook: a ledger keeps each member up-to-date with the number
of ‘accepted’ friend requests that they have accumulated. It is also
possible to ‘unfriend’ people—and the only conspicuous means of
finding that one has been ‘unfriended’ is by checking one’s list of
friends (there are no e-mail updates for this feature).
Facebook friends can post messages and upload photos on each
others’ ‘wall’ (the aforementioned ‘status’ section of each individ-
ual’s webpage), and friends can also tag each other in photographs
(provide identifying labels of other members in photographs that
they upload). There are some noteworthy features of the format
with respect to communicating with other users. Every ‘status
update’ (be it a photo, comment, or link) can be ‘liked’ (evinced by
a thumbs up icon). Notably, however, no user can affirmatively
dislike any status updates (there is no ‘thumbs down’ icon). To
dislike—or, indeed to elaborate on one’s liking—or further com-
ment on a particular status update, users must insert a comment
below the update in question. The number of ‘likes’ and ‘com-
ments’ that any given posting elicits is also quantified in a public
tally so that users can observe the popularity or intensity of
dialogue postings. Friends can also choose to ‘promote’ or ‘share’
any update by posting it on other friends’ pages.
All this activity (updates, likes, comments, uploaded photo-
graphs, and so forth) is automatically added to a ‘newsfeed’ which
appears on every Facebook user’s log-in page. The ‘newsfeed’ is
customized, then, to automatically collate the status updates and
activity of each user’s friends. The resultant ‘Newsfeed’ thereby
makes visible the ‘likes’ and comments of friends of friends of the
user. Members are kept up-to-date about any responses to their
comments and status updates via e-mail and conspicuous alerts on
their personal Facebook page.
Another noteworthy feature of Facebook is the ‘chat’ facility.
This allows ‘instant messaging’ among friends (the term is often
abbreviated as ‘IM’). The chat or IM feature indicates who is
online, and provides notification of the last time friends logged
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onto Facebook and how long ago they logged off. Given the
newsfeed facility, this provides useful information: even if a user’s
friends have not responded to his or her status updates, the user can
ascertain who among these friends has recently logged onto Face-
book: it is, in principal, possible to speculate whether friends have
observed (thereby, ignored) one’s updates or chosen not to ‘like’ or
comment on them, if no response is forthcoming. At this juncture,
it is worth pointing out that—although the default settings on
Facebook allow public access to every aspect of one’s profile—it
is possible to adjust the privacy settings. For example, one can
restrict who has access to your list of friends, and one can also
‘hide’ the status updates of particular friends on one’s newsfeed.
Evidence shows that the majority of Facebook users (around 80%)
do not adjust their privacy settings (Lewis, Kaufman, & Christakis,
2008;Moreno et al., 2011); however, there have been observable
trends in how users have modified their privacy and disclosure
settings as a response to the growth and changes in Facebook.
Today users are less privacy-seeking than they used to be (indeed,
it takes some effort to maintain privacy for every posting on one’s
profile; Stutzman, Gross, & Acquisti, 2013).
Before turning to the research on the relationship between SNS
(and especially Facebook) on users’ wellbeing, it is necessary to
comment on the nature of the content exhibited in ‘status updates.’
We can note that at a folk anthropological level much has been
made of the content that typifies Facebook status updates. Many
commentators have observed Facebook is a medium of overween-
ing image management (Parker-Pope, 2012;Silver & Day, 2012).
As a recent user, I have observed that Facebook status updates
appear to cleave into a number of (not mutually exclusive) kinds,
three of which are worthy of mention. First, status updates that
reveal low negative affect on the part of the user; second, the (more
common) self-promoting updates; and third, updates that are strik-
ing for their Pooterish banality.
The first kind of status update, as recent social psychological
studies attest, is not uncommon: low negative affect and existential
angst are occasionally reported among users (“Having a bad day.
Sometimes I just wonder what it’s all about”; Patchin & Hinduja,
2010). One study estimates that, of the 90% of college students
who have Facebook profiles, 25% of users have—at one time or
another—disclosed reference to depressed mood (Moreno et al.,
2011). Such updates often elicit supportive comments from the
friends of such users (“Hey we all get like that.”; “What’s up?”).
Again, at a prescientific, observational level it appears that users
who express negative affect use the medium more often, commu-
nicating more ‘status updates.’ Evidently, the causal direction is
not established by this observation, and it may be that some users
(who are depressed) use Facebook as a form of ‘therapy’ or
diversion.
Activities that might typify the second cluster on our folk
taxonomy are self-promoting updates which include the uploading
of photographic evidence of recent holidays, graduations, wed-
dings, or the plentiful evidence of the user socializing among
off-line friends; indeed profile photographs often appear to display
not just flattering self-images (perhaps dressed up for a formal
event, or even professionally taken photographs) but ones that may
also include interesting backdrops (such as an exotic location).
Status updates in the self-promotion category might be illustrated
by prideful comments such as, “John’s school report came home—
I’m a very proud mum!” Or “Fifth article accepted for publication
this year—Phew!”
Third, examples of more pedestrian updates include comments
such as, “Just eating the biggest bowl of Haagen Dazs ice-cream
[smiley emoticon] while watching Breaking Bad.” Some users
appear prone to using the format to record the minutiae of daily
activities (as we will see, such updates may lead to attention bias
[in this case, avoidance] in reading newsfeeds). But many status
updates display something of a crude admixture of banality and
self-promotion: “I’ve just eaten the biggest bowl of Haagen Dazs
ice-cream and can’t move [embarrassed face emoticon] but in my
defense I did run my first half-marathon today [smiley face emot-
icon]”.
Also of note are the ‘conversations’ between friends that appear
in comments below posts. Perhaps owing to the public nature of
the interaction (again, with a folk anthropological hat on) these
comments may display more attempts at humor than face-to-face,
small group interactions. And of special interest are the responses
of friends of high status users. Those users who are high in status
(in the author’s own list, this included renowned friends who are
professors) appeared to receive more comments and more ‘likes’
for their posts. Oftentimes streams of comments were elicited by
one single posting by a high status user; the character of these
comments tends to flattering, and occasional obsequiousness. High
status users also appeared to be tagged by friends more often in
photographs, and to attract more friend postings on their own wall.
Folk observations provide an important starting point in any
social psychological investigation: they provide rough, revisable
insights into what attracts users’ attention and how users interface
with Facebook. But such cursory observations are unreliable with-
out further scientific investigation. In the next section I examine
some social psychological research on the effects of using the
Internet and Facebook.
Existing Research into ‘Facebook Depression’
The relationship between Internet use and wellbeing has been
the subject of study since the arrival of home computers and
Internet connections in U.S. households: by 1998 40% of U.S.
households had an Internet connection (Kraut et al., 1998); today,
the latest U.S. census figures show that more than 70% of Amer-
ican households have a home computer and Internet access (US
Census Bureau, 2013).
The first longitudinal study on the effects of the home Internet
use on health (dubbed the ‘HomeNet study’) set out to investigate
its impact on psychological wellbeing via questionnaires. The
study was launched in 1996, and data were collected over a
24-month period. The authors of the study concluded that there
was a statistically significant association between Internet use and
depression but made the (unsupported) inference that, “[T]he In-
ternet causes declines in social involvement and psychological
well-being” (italics added, Kraut et al., 1998, p. 1029). The re-
searchers hypothesized that the “causal mechanism” responsible
for this rise in depression was the displacement of strong off-line
social ties by “poorer quality social relationships” online (Kraut et
al., 1998, p. 1029): they dubbed this the “Internet paradox” be-
cause, they contended, here was a social technology that reduced
well-being (the assumption being that direct social interactions –
ceteris paribus – enhance psychological well-being).
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3
EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY AND ‘FACEBOOK DEPRESSION’
There are serious problems with this study. The purported
association between Internet use and depression in the study does
not warrant the authors’ stronger assertion of a causal link; the
inference to the conclusion that the Internet displaces strong social
ties is underdetermined by the evidence. In fact, the researchers
might equally have reached the opposite conclusion: in the study
there was no control group (a similar demographic without home
Internet access)—the authors might have argued that the social use
of the Internet helps to foster well-being by promoting stronger,
off-line social ties but intervening factors have acted to circumvent
such positive effects (they might have speculated, e.g., that the
concurrent rise in antidepressant advertising and prescriptions of
antidepressants led more people to report depressive symptoms
during the period of the study; Horwitz & Wakefield, 2007).
Second, the researchers also assumed that online relationships
tend to be more superficial (and therefore less conducive to psy-
chological well-being) than off-line relationships, but this cannot
be taken as a given without further explanation (see also: La Rose,
Eastin, and Gregg, 2001). Third, and related, there is a hidden
working assumption that (even if) online relationships are super-
ficial that this is inherently ‘bad’: again we might challenge this
conclusion as underdetermined (perhaps, numerous superficial on-
line relationships actually enhance well-being?)
Indeed, against the explanations proffered in the HomeNet
study, contemporaneous research involving 4,000 Internet users in
the United States found that more than 95% of individuals sur-
veyed did not substitute Internet use for time spent with close
friends and family (Nie & Erbring, 2000 cited in Bargh & Mc-
Kenna, 2004). Yet other studies have reached conclusions that
contradict the findings of the original HomeNet study (Shaw &
Gant, 2002). Rather than attempt to elaborate on their initial
research, the original HomeNet authors asserted in a subsequent
study that the initial negative effects of Internet use had “dissi-
pated” and users now “generally experienced positive effects of
using the Internet on communication, social involvement, and
well-being” (Kraut et al., 2002, p. 49).
At least one recent study has attempted to probe more deeply
into the relationship between the amount of time spent online and
depression (Morrison & Gore, 2010). The study, involving more
than 1,300 individuals, found that those users who spent four hours
online (compared with an average of two hours) were significantly
more likely to be moderately to severely depressed. As the authors
point out the study reveals nothing about the causal direction (if
any) of these findings: it may be, for instance, that depressed
individuals are more likely to use the Internet and that this explains
the correlation between Internet use and depressive affect. But
there are three major problems with this study and other current
Internet-well-being research. The first shortcoming is the opera-
tional term ‘Internet activity’ (see Kraut, Patterson, Lundmark, et
al., 1998;Kraut et al., 2002;Shaw & Gant, 2002). In the Morrison
and Gore study (2010), for example, the authors differentiated
between a variety of Internet activities (including ‘browsing,’
‘chat,’ ‘and ‘community’; 2010, p. 125). These differentiations are
not fine-grained enough to provide information about the nature of
the interactions. Consider the first of these activities: ‘browsing.’
What websites are subjects browsing? What is the content of these
websites? What factors might influence browsing patterns? What
are the immediate emotional responses with respect to the content
of the sites subjects are browsing? Indeed, who are these ‘average’
Internet users and what is their prior state of psychological well-
being before they go online? This is a problem that also extends to
numerous studies of SNS use and well-being (see Selfhout et al.,
2009;Pantic et al., 2012;Jelenchick, Eickhoff, & Moreno, 2013;
Kross et al., 2013).
We know that Facebook use encompasses a diverse range of
activities, including checking who is currently online, instant mes-
saging, reading one’s newsfeed, browsing photo galleries, com-
menting on friends’ status updates, and so on. The failure by
research to specify the nature of the online interactions and the
content that might elicit negative affect presents a serious imped-
iment in the determination of the relationship between psycholog-
ical well-being (specifically, depression) and Facebook usage. It is
perhaps unsurprising then that studies conducted so far have re-
vealed conflicting results: some affirm the claim that Facebook is
associated with depression (Pantic et al., 2012), others deny it
(Jelenchick, Eickhoff, & Moreno, 2013).
The second major problem with current research pertains to
measurements of psychological well-being. In assessing the rela-
tionship between Facebook use and ‘depression’ more needs to be
said about what is understood by the term depression and how we
measure well-being. Most studies use an established depression
scale such as the Beck Depression Inventory (BID) or the Chil-
dren’s Depression Inventory to compare depression scores with the
amount of time spent online (Selfhout et al., 2009;Morrison &
Gore, 2010;Pantic et al., 2012) Such scales may be helpful in
establishing whether depression is correlated with SNS (without
establishing causal direction) but we might also usefully ask: Are
SNS such as Facebook associated with milder negative affect such
as sadness? The BID subclassifies depression into “minimal de-
pression,” “mild depression,” “moderate depression” and “severe
depression”—but it is at least a possibility that SNS are associated
with subjective dissatisfaction or sadness—and it may be that this
is only measurable at the high end of minimal depression on the
BID. Finer grained, qualitative measurements are methodologi-
cally important.
One study has come close to investigating the association be-
tween sadness and Facebook use (Kross et al., 2013). The study by
Kross et al. (2013) examined shifts in subjective well-being (with-
out employing a depression inventory scale) and attempted to
improve on previous questionnaire studies by providing a real-time
assessment of affect. Conducted over 14 days it involved text-
messaging subjects five times per day to determine how much they
had used Facebook since the researchers’ last message, and asked
subjects (somewhat leading) questions including: “How lonely do
you feel right now?” “How worried are you right now?” “How
much direct [face-to-face or telephone] contact have you had since
we last asked?” Subjects’ answers were recorded on a slider scale.
The study concluded that Facebook use predicted a decline in
subjective well-being but that direct (off-line) social contact had
the opposite effect—it improved people’s subjective well-being
over time. There appears to be an explanatory assumption that lack
of direct or face to face contact is deleterious to well-being (and
this may well be the case). But it raises the question: Does
Facebook compare unfavorably with any other solitary activity
(such as sitting working on one’s laptop)? To test whether there is
something particularly depressing or emotionally deleterious about
Facebook use (compared to other solitary activities) we would
need to extend the study and provide an adequate control aimed at
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4BLEASE
testing the association between Facebook use—in particular—and
lower subjective well-being.
This leads to the third problem with current research: the ques-
tion of explanation. Prevailing explanations at the social psycho-
logical level demand greater scrutiny: consider the claim that
Facebook may be predictive of lower subjective well-being be-
cause it leads to “harmful social comparisons” (Kross et al., 2013).
What constitutes a harmful social comparison, why might there be
a tendency for social comparison, and in what contexts can we
expect this to arise? This not the only question left unanswered.
Consider the following: Do some friends command more attention
than others? Do some user-photographs or pictures attract more
attention when users browse? Do some status updates command
greater interest? Do users routinely observe numerical data such as
the number of ‘friends’ that other users have, or the number of
‘likes’ or comments that their postings and the postings of other
users’ attract?
When users log onto Facebook they may intend to use the
medium in a variety of ways: messaging friends, reading their
newsfeed, posting status updates, or browsing the pages of other
users. Social psychological research that surveys Facebook users
about their browsing patterns will always be vulnerable to report-
ing bias; for example, individuals may underestimate the time
spent browsing other users’ sites (and more generally, how much
time they regularly spend on Facebook). Determining how users in
fact navigate the medium is another matter. Psychology can gain
greater explanatory traction when it designs studies that are theo-
retically attentive to the underlying cognitive mechanisms acti-
vated during Facebook use. To answer the question ‘Why might
Facebook lead to depression?’ we need to address how this might
occur. This is where the evolutionary perspective affords us direc-
tion.
Evolutionary Psychology and Depression
Evolutionary psychology is concerned with ultimate causes’ of
psychological processes; in the case of depression it asks: what
recurrent problems in our ancestral environment (if any) were
solved by the suite of responses associated with depressive cog-
nition and behavior? This is distinct from questions about proxi-
mate triggers or local causes of depression which might occur
outside of the environment of evolutionary adaptiveness (EEA)
today (later in this section I will provide theories of ultimate
explanations and proximate triggers for depression). For now,
following Murphy (2005) and Varga (2012) we can identify three
accounts of the pathology of depression embedded within this
evolutionary psychological framework. First, so-called persistence
accounts contend that there are enduring problems between the
EEA and modern environments for which depression presents an
adaptive solution (Murphy, 2005;Varga, 2012, p. 42). On this
perspective, modern triggers of depression still elicit adaptive
responses. Second, it may be that depression was adaptive in the
EEA but the features of modern environments mean that it is no
longer adaptive: on this view, we hypothesize a mismatch between
the ancestral and modern environments. Third, it might be con-
tended that depression is (and never was) an adaptive cluster of
responses; on this view, depression is understood as some dys-
functional outlier, a dysregulation of an adaptive range of re-
sponses, or as the result of random—and nonadaptive—genetic
noise (cf. Keller & Miller, 2006).
This last consideration is worth serious attention because it
appears to undermine the premises of this article: Is depression an
adaptive response (as evolutionary psychiatry has tended to as-
sume) or is there no adaptive ‘story’ to tell? Indeed, we know that
genetic variation is usually diminished by natural selection yet no
clear, polygentic genetic markers have so far been located for
depression (Keller & Miller, 2006;Flint & Kendler, 2014). Does
this mean that depression was not selected for? To respond to the
antiadaptation challenge two important issues should be empha-
sized. First, in pursuing an evolutionary perspective it is crucial to
consider the utility of the distinction between depression and
sadness. For example, depressive responses and sadness appear to
occur on a functional continuum. Second, and related, if contextual
factors are built into evolutionary accounts of depression (and
note, contextual factors have been expunged from the Diagnostic
and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5)
in the diagnosis of major depressive disorder and mild depressive
disorder), the function of more serious depressive symptoms (in-
cluding suicidal ideation, e.g.) still needs to be assessed. Current
epidemiology is beset with validity problems because contextual
factors are overwhelmingly omitted from data collection. Cer-
tainly, if depression (or rather, a particular range of depressive
behaviors) is understood as an adaptive response to environmental
cues, we can begin to make predictions about the rise of depression
among certain groups or subpopulations, given specific our under-
standing of specific (and perhaps persistent) environmental trig-
gers (we will examine theories about such triggers, below). There-
fore, to appraise whether depression was adaptive we need to be
very clear on (a) what we mean by depression and (b) the ancestral
environment and the recurrent problems that may have solved by
depression. In short, it cannot be assumed that contemporary
psychiatric classifications are straightforward adaptations: each
condition deserves separate analysis. Nonetheless (as I will argue
and Keller & Miller [2006] point out) it remains plausible that
depression had some ancestral adaptive function but that modern
environmental conditions render these adaptations disorders. In the
remainder of this section, we will examine the purported adaptive,
psychological functions of depression (both severe or major de-
pression, and mild depressive states). We will now survey theories
aimed at explaining the function of depression.
Persistence accounts (those which consider major depression to
be adaptive today) include the social navigation hypothesis (Wat-
son & Andrews, 2002); the bargaining hypothesis of postpartum
depression (Hagen, 1999,2002); and the analytical rumination
hypothesis (Andrews & Thomson, 2009). All three accounts share
some overlapping claims. The social navigation hypothesis pro-
poses that depression promotes two functions: (a) it enables an
individual who is presented with complex and difficult social
situations time to ruminate and problem-solve; and (b) it signals a
cry for help and induces others (including coalitional partners) to
provide needed investment and resource allocation (Watson &
Andrews, 2002). Hagen’s theory might be construed as a special
case of the social navigation hypothesis: it amounts to the claim
that postpartum depression is an adaptive bargaining strategy
(1999, 2002). This is the view that depression amounts to ‘going
on strike’: Hagen hypothesizes that mothers who detect lack of
paternal or social support induce greater investment—as a sort of
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5
EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY AND ‘FACEBOOK DEPRESSION’
plea-bargaining strategy—when their depression causes the with-
drawal of their own maternal investment in their offspring. Finally,
the analytical rumination hypothesis forwarded by Andrews and
Thomson (2009) proposes the following:
[D]epression is a stress response mechanism: [1] that is triggered by
analytically difficult problems that influence the importance of
fitness-related goals; [2] that coordinates changes in body systems to
promote and sustain analysis of the triggering problem, otherwise
known as depressive rumination; [3] that helps people generate po-
tential solutions to the triggering problem. (p. 623)
We might distil persistence accounts of depression into two
hypotheses with related predictions: (a) cognition associated with
depression affords functional rumination of complex social prob-
lems, which trigger this response; and/or (b) depressive behavior
signals a ‘cry for help’ which elicits sympathy and/or coalitional
investment. First, with regard to Andrews and Thomson’s claim
that “depression is a stress response mechanism” and elicited by
“analytically difficult [social] problems” (Andrews & Thomson,
2009, p. 623), we need to ask: What makes these problems
analytically difficult’ and why does their solution in particular
require a ruminative response? Furthermore, what is meant by
‘depression’ here—severe (clinical) depression or something
milder such as dysphoria? Other evolutionary theorists have hy-
pothesized that depressive rumination is characterized by problem-
solving impairment and cognitive incapacitation (Hagen, 2011,p.
721; Price et al., 1994;Varga, 2012, p. 46). Nonetheless, the claim
that people with depression have more realistic perceptions of their
own abilities, and control over the world than the those who are not
depressed, is the subject of much debate in social psychology; the
body of research on ‘depressive realism’ has yielded mixed find-
ings. There is some evidence that people with mild depression or
dysphoria
2
have more realistic expectations about the future than
people who are clinically depressed and those who are not de-
pressed (the former appear to experience more negative illusions,
and the latter more positive ‘self’ illusions; Alloy & Abramson,
1979;Dunning & Story, 1991;Haaga & Beck, 1995;Carson,
Hollon, & Shelton, 2010; but also see: Kapçi & Cramer, 1998;
Albright & Henderson, 1995). There is also limited evidence that
people who are mildly depressed are better at evaluating how well
they are perceived by others (Weinstein, 1980;Dobson, 1989). So,
it may be that the depressive rumination hypothesis is supported if
its claims are weakened—if, for example, mild depressive cogni-
tion is adaptive in certain (as yet to be specified) contexts.
What about the second claim that arises in persistence accounts
that major depressive behavior motivates care or social support in
others? The evidence is inconclusive. There is some research to
show that depression tends to elicit stigmatizing responses even
among coalitional partners (Blease, 2012;Varga, 2012, pp. 46
47); and in these early studies Hagen concedes that levels of
postpartum depression are not predicted by perceived social and
familial support (Hagen, 2002, p. 323). Furthermore, the results of
Hagan’s studies depended on spousal testimony—an unreliable
method of collecting data (Hagen, 2002, p. 333). On the back of
these studies there is no conclusive evidence to determine whether
increased spousal investment occurs as a result of postpartum
depression. There may even be indirect evidence of the reverse
effect: Roberts et al. (2008) found that women (in particular) who
scored high on the neuroticism scale had significantly fewer kin in
their networks. To the extent that there is an overlap between
neuroticism and depressive symptomatology it may be that people
who are depressed ‘scare away’ their family and friends.
3
Inter-
estingly, however, Hagen’s latest work on postpartum depression
with the Shuar, a hunter-horticulturalist society in the Ecuadorian
Amazon, moves away from a plea-bargaining theory of postpartum
depression (Hagen & Barrett, 2007). In this latest research Hagen
and Barrett argue that postpartum depression is linked to parental
investment (social support, maternal health, resources, and infant
health problems) which acts to dial down investment in the new-
born baby if resources are diminished and costs incurred are high.
Turning now to so-called ‘mismatch’ models of depression,
these theories propose that (in ancestral environments) depressive
cognition and behavior served as a functional response to social
ranking but that modern social contexts render these responses
dysfunctional (Nesse & Williams, 1995;Price et al., 1994). One
prominent mismatch theory is the ‘social competition theory of
depression’ (Price et al., 1994). This is the view that the function
of depression is, “an unconscious, involuntary losing strategy,
enabling the individual to accept defeat in ritual agonistic encoun-
ters” (Price et al., 1994, p. 241). On this account, the incapacitating
features of depression (commonly: social withdrawal, subordinate
body posture, psychomotor retardation, feelings of low self-worth)
are explicable because, it is argued, this suite of behavior enables
individuals to retreat from agonistic social encounters, and to
signal inaction to dominant others without incurring physical dam-
age. Price et al. argue that this “de-escalating” strategy stands in
opposition to the mood elevation that occurs when an individual
perceives his superior fighting capacity against his rivals (Price et
al., 1994, p. 242). For Price et al. the suite of behavioral responses
that are automatically triggered in such encounters acts as a gauge
of what has been dubbed “resource holding potential.”
How does the social competition theory amount to a mismatch
between the EEA and modern environments, thereby giving rise to
depression? Price et al. also note that prestige has largely replaced
dominance as an indicator of social ranking and that self-esteem
has evolved from mechanisms that were originally adapted to
solve agnostic conflicts (Price et al., 1994, p. 246; see also: Leary,
2005). An interesting hypothesis that emerges from this viewpoint
is the prediction that the persistent perception of being outnum-
bered by high status individuals will elicit an involuntary response
of depressive cognition and behavior. In short, according to the
social competition theory, it is the overstimulation of such high
status cues in modern environments that can cause depressive
responses. In conjunction with insights from ‘depressive realism’
research we might ask: Do perceptions of low relative self-worth
undergird the ‘complex social situations’ that Andrews and Thom-
son (2009) propose trigger depression? Combining the insights of
both theories, it may be that ‘depressive rumination’ is triggered by
the perceived intensification of social competition and the feeling
of being out-competed, thereby causing lower status individuals to
retreat.
2
In this article I will not elaborate further on the distinction between
‘dysphoria’ and ‘mild depression’ though note that this requires further
clarification. For now, I will note that most evolutionary accounts of
depression appear to assume that there exists a functional continuum
between sadness, dysphoria, and mild depression.
3
My thanks to an anonymous reviewer for making this point.
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6BLEASE
It should also be noted that the social competition theory has
been criticized on the grounds that depressive episodes often
involve involuntary social withdrawal for months at a time: Hagen
argues that, for depression to be an adaptive response to agonistic
encounters, the individual should yield quickly but not be inca-
pacitated for such prolonged periods of time yet depression is
typified by such lengthy periods of incapacitation (Hagen, 2011,p.
718). In response, we might argue that this criticism is off the
mark: it needs to be shown that depressive symptoms do not abate
when social triggers are removed from the depressed individual’s
environment.
An additional mismatch theory—one that is compatible with the
social competition theory—is the ‘social risk hypothesis’ of de-
pression (Allen & Badcock, 2003,2006). This theory proposes that
mild depression is an adaptive response that evolved to aid risk-
aversive behavior in social contexts: for example, in threat situa-
tions, the suite of depressive functions includes hypersensitivity to
the social status of others, reducing one’s expectations of success
and sending signals of low relative self value to others. This theory
proposes that major depression is a dysregulation of an adaptive
range of responses. Insofar as it explains mild depressive cognition
and behavior as a response to negative evaluative comparisons, it
might be said to share the same theoretical purview as the social
competition theory. Gender disparities in depression also appear to
support this combined theory. The gender ratio for depression is
2:1 with the disparity emerging in adolescence, with girls more
susceptible to depression than boys. Pubertal status is a better predic-
tor of depression vulnerability than pubertal timing (Hyde, Mezulis, &
Abramson, 2008) and it has also been noted that peer sexual harass-
ment as a result of secondary sexual characteristics (rather than
primary estrogen levels per se) predicts depression (Petersen & Shib-
ley Hyde, 2009). Greater vulnerability to negative life events (girls are
twice as likely to be sexually abused as boys; Costello, Erkanli,
Fairbank, & Angold, 2002) as well as the pressure to conform to
gender roles, and wage inequality also support social risk and social
competition theories of depression. Furthermore, there is strong evi-
dence that vulnerability to depression increases during childhood (and
adulthood) if one is victim to, or witnesses, domestic violence and
abuse (Sternberg et al., 1993;Mezulis, Hyde, & Abramson, 2006);
this also adds weight to the combined hypothesis.
Clearly, there is controversy in the evolutionary literature over
the function of depression, but we can still locate some common
ground. Most accounts acknowledge that sadness and mild depres-
sive states perform psychological functions but that depressive
illness occurs when this function is dysregulated resulting in
‘major depression’ (Hagen, 2011, p. 717). Increased sensitivity to
comparative social standing—perhaps as a result of personal loss,
or being out-competed—also emerges as a common theme. In the
next section I therefore assume that some version of the (mis-
match) social competition theory combined with the social rumi-
nation hypothesis may present the best framework (presently avail-
able) for understanding the evolution of depression.
How Facebook Can Be Depressing
If mild depression is an adaptive functional response to percep-
tions of comparative low social value, Facebook may be a forum
which abounds in triggering cues. To take this research further, we
need to ask specific questions about how the features of Facebook
and individuals’ navigation of it may result in depressive re-
sponses. With respect to this, Barkow et al. argue that social
attention attractors are important in understanding how we use
mass media and new media (Barkow et al., 2012, pp. 123–127).
Drawing on their analysis, I will highlight two such adaptive
cognitive functions that are relevant to Facebook use: biases for
cues of (a) high status individuals; and (b) attractive individuals. I
will say why future research needs to focus on these kinds of
psychological biases, before turning to the matter of impression
management and why users of Facebook appear such masters of
self-spin (in this regard, of course, they may not be different from
nonusers).
First, why might users of Facebook preferentially attend to cues
of high status when navigating the site? In order to answer this
question and to avoid circularity in our definition of ‘high status,’
we need to say something about what constitutes high status cues
or behavior. The evolutionary literature has differentiated between
two kinds of social learning biases since early work by the prima-
tologist Michael Chance (1967;Chance & Jolly, 1970). In their
observations of social hierarchies and attention within chimpan-
zees and baboon-macaques, Chance and Jolly distinguished be-
tween “hedonic” and “agonistic” attention modes. The former they
characterized as relaxed communication and receptive learning
involving affection (such as mutual grooming, and hugs). The
latter they defined as constricted and disruptive learning, typified
by fear and aggression. Barkow’s work on prestige and status has
built on Chance’s early ethnography (Barkow, 1989, p. 179;
Barkow et al., 2012;Barkow, 2014) and more clearly defines
Chance’s hedonic mode as involving attention to prestigious indi-
viduals where learning is characterized by attending to those who
rank highly in some ability. More recently, Henrich and Gil-White
have also distinguished between “prestige” and “dominance” as
evolved biases for learning (Cheng, Tracy, Foulsham, Kingstone,
& Henrich, 2013;Henrich & Gil-White, 2001). These two modes
of attention (which I will refer to as prestige and dominance
biases) describe cognitive processes and suites of behavior asso-
ciated with attending to individuals (or rather, behavioral cues)
which indicate either prestige (that is to say, high quality skills) or
dominance (that is to say, agonistic or aggressive behavior). In
order to investigate Facebook use, both kinds of displays will be
pertinent.
First of all, however, we need to enquire: what clusters of
behavior are associated with prestige and its detection? Barkow
has proposed that natural selection has favored an ability to eval-
uate the rank or status of individuals in terms of their skills and
knowledge, and favored a suite of behaviors which are triggered
when individuals are perceived to be highly skilled in a particular
domain (Barkow, 1989, pp. 174ff). In short, evolution has be-
queathed a tendency to respond to prestigious individuals in ways
that enable us to learn from them—to copy their skills efficiently
by paying preferential attention to them (Barkow, 1989;Henrich &
Gil-White, 2001;Barkow et al., 2012). The evolution of this
learning capacity predicts that we respond to cues of prestige
(which may include so-called trappings of success such as in-
creased access to desired resources) with displays of deference,
prolonged gazing, directing our posture to the esteemed individual,
and effectively “kiss-up” to them (with displays of gratitude,
gift-giving, and so on; Henrich & Gil-White, 2001, p. 168ff); and
Henrich and Gil-White contend that social learners have “evolved
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7
EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY AND ‘FACEBOOK DEPRESSION’
dispositions to sycophantically ingratiate themselves with their
chosen models, so as to gain close proximity to, and prolonged
interaction with these models” (Henrich & Gil-White, 2001,p.
165). This cluster of behaviors ‘buys’ proximity to the highly
ranked individual (and indeed, rewards may be bequeathed to the
prestigious individual). The psychology of prestige, then, is a suite
of adaptations for detecting prestigious or high status individuals
and efficiently copying their skills. Importantly, there is also good
evidence that we give attention to individuals based on the obser-
vation that others are so doing: for example, the eye-gaze of others
can induce preferential attention in the gazed individual (Henrich
& Gil-White, 2001;Foulsham, Cheng, Tracy, Henrich, & King-
stone, 2010). As noted, we do not merely evaluate social rank
according to evidence of skill but according to cues of social
status. Indeed, social psychology has persistently shown that cues
that indicate wealth or affluence (indicated by clothing, e.g.) can
be powerful indicators of deference and attentional influence
(Lefkowitz, Blake, & Mouton, 1955;Bickman, 1974). In addition
(as Barkow et al. and Henrich and Gil-White have noted), when an
individual is perceived to command a high degree of deference or
popularity this too can elicit preferential attention. With respect to
this, one striking peculiarity that appears explicable on this evo-
lutionary framework is the ‘famous for being famous’ phenome-
non: attention begets attention in a kind of ‘rich get richer’ trend:
Barkow et al. contend that the tendency for popularity to be
conflated with ‘prestigious high status’ is particularly evident in
certain new media usage such as Twitter whereby the greater the
number of followers the greater the account holder’s status
(Barkow et al., 2012, p. 216). It may be that Facebook navigation
follows a similar trend of ‘befriending’ popular profiles.
How do the evolutionary functions of prestige help to better
organize research into Facebook navigation? Given that high status
tends to be inferred from evidence of success (free access to
desirable or scarce resources), we can predict that individuals who
display the trappings of prestige (including wealth) are likely to
command attention too. Therefore, quite aside from evidence of
special achievements or certain professional roles which might be
regarded as direct evidence of prestige, signs of wealth are also
likely to influence user attention: these might take the form of
photographic evidence of high value goods, expensive clothing,
exotic holidays, and so on. We can surmise that status updates that
mention special feats and achievements, or signal success will
command more attention than updates that recount day to day
activities. In addition, when it comes to Facebook it may be that
users pay particular attention to those profiles that already appear
to be popular (gauged through the number friends that a user has,
the number of ‘likes’ that their postings elicit, and the volume of
comments that users’ ‘status updates’ produce).
Displays of dominance (Chance’s ‘agonistic mode’) also occur
on Facebook. Dominant behavior involves aggressive displays,
manipulation and attacks on other individuals. Our evolved re-
sponse to such behavior (including our ability to detect it) involves
fear and avoidance (including gaze avoidance and hunched pos-
ture—“to stare is to challenge”—as well as furtive glances to
check the locality of the dominant individual (Henrich & Gil-
White, 2001, p. 168). Dominant behavior on Facebook might
include the posting of aggressive messages on another individuals’
Facebook wall or adding negative comments below photographs.
Such behavior has been given its own label—cyberbullying. The
possibility of ‘unfriending’ or even blocking individuals on Face-
book means that there is some level of added protection from
aggressors. However, we can also predict that dominant behavior
may manifest in fake profiles affording the possibility of attacking
other users in something of a covert-manner.
How might targets of such bullying respond? We can predict
that users who have been so targeted are likely to avoid ‘squaring
up’ to the aggressive individual: it is highly unlikely that some
targeted users will reply to any such comments, or to retaliate on
the aggressor’s Facebook wall. It may even be likely that targeted
users tend not to ‘unfriend’ or ‘block’ aggressive users (especially
if there is the possibility of direct face-to-face contact). The fre-
quency of logging onto Facebook may diminish for users who
have been so targeted but we can expect—on the basis of adaptive
responses in the evolution of subordinate behavior—that such
users may not abort their profiles but will check up on them
regularly (thereby maintaining—an albeit misplaced—vigilance
about the ‘proximity’ of the dominant individual in cyberspace).
A second consideration in understanding the new media and
evolutionary psychology is the attention attractor of physical at-
tractiveness. Evolutionary models propose that attractiveness is
valued as an indicator of health and fertility (and therefore, repro-
ductive value) and that there are gender differences in the premium
placed on attractiveness (Buss & Schmitt, 1993;Maner, Gailliot, &
DeWall, 2007). It is only from an evolutionary perspective that we
can explain why female attractiveness in particular is associated
with youth—it is a strong indicator of fertility. Furthermore, evo-
lutionary models propose that male attractiveness is highly valued
by females but that physical attractiveness is not the only trait to
which females will be attentionally attuned: signals of prestige will
also command preferential attention since this indicates male abil-
ity to access limited resources (Sadalla, Kenrick, & Vershure,
1987;Maner et al., 2003, p. 1108). This gender difference in
mating selectivity (with males placing a higher premium on at-
tractiveness than females and females being ‘pickier’ with respect
to mating partners) is also proposed by Trivers’ parental invest-
ment theory (Trivers, 1972). Trivers proposes that the significant
early disparities in parental investment mean that there is a ten-
dency for females to seek qualities other than physical attractive-
ness in a mate (that is, to seek traits that will signal benefit to her
offspring in the long-term).
Other evolutionary models go further by hypothesizing that
there will be attention bias among females toward attractive fe-
males. This intrasexual competition, it is hypothesized, serves as
an adaptive function by heightening vigilance (including mate
guarding) against potential female rivals (Buss & Shackelford,
1997). This hypothesis has received some indirect support from
eye-tracking studies which demonstrate that females and males not
only display significantly greater attention bias to images of at-
tractive females than those of average females but that this atten-
tion becomes “stuck” (it transforms into gazing). Researchers have
also found that attention bias is especially pronounced among
single men and women who feel insecure about their current
romantic relationship; furthermore, the tendency for gaze bias has
not so far been demonstrated for attractive male targets (Maner,
Gailliot, & DeWall, 2007).
These evolutionary theories lead to specific predictions when it
comes to Facebook use. It is likely that ‘aimless browsing’ is not
as random as users might consciously suppose. We can predict that
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8BLEASE
attractive images of male and female users will be ‘eye-catching,’
commanding user’s preferential attention, and that when browsing
profiles the most attractive female profiles will be subject to longer
attention time from both men and women. Furthermore, we can
expect this to be demonstrated not just by significantly greater
gaze time at profile images but by users spending more time
browsing the galleries of such profiles. And we can also predict
that these biases will be especially prominent among male and
female users who are single (perhaps evinced by their profile
status) as well as among female users who perceive themselves to
be in insecure relationships. Finally, we can predict that attention
bias to high status cues (as discussed previously) will be evinced
by both female and male users; correlatively, if users receive
‘likes’ or ‘comments’ from high status ‘friends’ this may result in
boosts in self-esteem and feelings of wellbeing.
From an evolutionary point of view we can expect Facebook to
abound in signs of ‘high status’: this is an arena for ‘impression
management.’ The term was coined by Erving Goffman in 1958
(Goffman, 1958) to describe the strategic behavior involved in
presenting a favorable image of oneself in the company of others.
When it comes to Facebook, some of your ‘friends’ may be
excelling in personal PR. However, all users will be involved in
some level of furtive self-promotion: ‘furtive’ because impression
management is not just the result of nonconscious psychological
processes – conscious awareness of any self-aggrandizement is an
exercise in subtle discretion. There are predictions that result from
this: it is more likely that one will read more about other users’
personal successes rather failures; users are more likely to upload
the most attractive images; and we can also expect a marked
tendency among female users to pay more attention to their profile
photographs and galleries (selecting their ‘best’ – most flattering
photos). Users will be selective in how they construct and edit their
status updates, perhaps selecting humorous material to upload or
insert as comments, and constructing comments that project a
positive image).
As Barkow points out, Goffman’s insights into the ‘presen-
tation of self in everyday life’(Barkow, 1989, pp. 74 –75) are
explicable and wholly expected from an evolutionary perspec-
tive. Namely, as Barkow elucidates, sociology and evolutionary
psychology have consistently observed: “[P]eople everywhere are
concerned with relative standing, with status and prestige...;
people preoccupied with sexuality and resource-related activities
of those around them...”(Barkow, 1989, p. 74). The key
difference in these research fields, as Barkow argues, is the ex-
planatory unity offered by the evolutionary perspective (Barkow,
1989, p. 75).
The evolutionary perspective on impression management gives
us further insights into possible proximal triggers for mild depres-
sion. Being confronted by conspicuously and overwhelmingly
positive impressions of one’s Facebook friends increases the oc-
casion for comparative evaluations, and escalates the risk for
negative appraisals: Facebook presents more opportunities to feel
like a loser. This risk is also intensified by the volume of profiles
one observes. Recent statistics reveal that, on average, American
users of Facebook have around 245 friends (Hampton et al., 2012)
and it is important, at this juncture, to compare this finding with
work on evolved social network sizes. Dunbar estimates ancestral
social group sizes of between 150 to 250, where younger people
tend to have larger network sizes (Dunbar, 1992;Zhou, Sornette,
Hill, & Dunbar, 2005). Research into social networks shows that
these groups are further structured into stratified layers which vary
inversely according to the quantity and quality of the relationships
(Sutcliffe et al., 2012). Specifically, social and evolutionary re-
search has found that humans tend to have a stronger inner support
clique of around 3 to 5 members, a less emotionally supportive
‘sympathy’ clique of around 12 to 15 members, followed by a
wider affinity group (a band) of roughly 50 members, and an active
network (or clan) of around 150 individuals (Sutcliffe et al., 2012).
So far research into online social networks has found some simi-
larities to the layers of relationships within Facebook to those
found offline: one study has predicted with an 80% success rate the
strength of offline social ties based on the quality and levels of
interaction of users online (Arnaboldi, Guazzini, & Passarella,
2013). It may be that users of Facebook consider many of their
online ‘friends’ as mere acquaintances rather than ‘real friends’:
the neologistic derogation “he or she is only a ‘Facebook
friend’” may partly substantiate this theory. On the other hand,
it may be unlikely that online ‘friends’ are fully coextensive
with ‘real world’ social contacts: for example, the former may
predominantly comprise individuals drawn from the same age
group. It would also be premature to conclude, on the basis of
this research, that online social media such as Facebook do not
present novel environments for eliciting a variety of (old)
affective responses (including depression or sadness). The issue
is how we tend to navigate Facebook and how the kinds of
profiles and information that act as attractors. When users have
the freedom to browse profiles anonymously, and when they
have a greater pool of online ‘friends’ they have more oppor-
tunities for comparative social evaluation. It is the hypothesis of
this article that it is the persistent exposure to certain cues on
Facebook that may be sufficient to trigger feelings of low
relative self-worth (which may be quantified on BID as at the
high end of ‘minimal depression’ or as ‘mild depression,’ or via
negative subjective reports).
‘Facebook Depression’: New Directions
In the Popperian spirit of bold conjecture this article advances
several specific predictions about the circumstances in which
Facebook users may be more susceptible to automatic, proximal
triggers for mild depression. Given the foregoing discussion of
social competition and relative social evaluation theories of de-
pression I contend that individuals are more likely to suffer from
depression when:
1. They have more online ‘friends’;
2. The greater the time spent reading updates from this wide
pool of friends;
3. The more frequently the user reads these updates; and
4. The content of the updates tends to a bragging nature.
The greater the exposure a user has to successful others (as
evinced by the content of profile images, galleries and status
updates), the greater is the opportunity for negative social evalu-
ation. We can also predict gender differences in the attention
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9
EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY AND ‘FACEBOOK DEPRESSION’
attractors on Facebook given the evidence from evolutionary and
social psychology on attraction attractors:
5. Attractive female images will command the greatest
attention.
If Facebook use tends to occur when individuals are alone
(perhaps when otherwise engaged in work, study, or solitary home
Internet use), the social comparisons triggered by Facebook may
be heightened—in such scenarios, the user logs onto Facebook and
observes the evidence of the successes, busy social lives, and
activities of other members. In short, solitary use of the Internet
already provides a context in which the user may (given specific
additional triggers) be susceptible to negative relative evaluations
since, at that time, the user has no concurrent, comparative evi-
dence of social support.
How might we test these predictions? One possible line of
research is to use live Facebook pages or to create mock up
profiles replete with comments, status updates, and galleries. The
content of mock-up profiles would vary according to status cues
(such as level of attractiveness, number of friends, profession,
levels of bragging in status updates, and so on). By testing sub-
jects’ subjective well-being before and after browsing such pro-
files, it may be possible to gauge differences in subjective affect:
negative self-evaluations may then be dependent on the content of
profiles viewed. In more elaborate set-ups, it may also be possible
to trace the navigation history of users in order to appraise which
aspects of the mock-up profiles command the most attention. One
limitation of such studies is that subjects would not be socially
connected to the mock-up profiles and this may have an impact on
comparative social evaluation. However, it also likely to be the
case that much Facebook browsing involves navigating the pro-
files of users who are not personally known to subjects—so this
might yet present valuable insights into the psychological effects
of Facebook use.
Ecological analysis of Facebook use may also be possible using
real-time assessment (e.g., texting subjects a number of times per
day over a specified time period to check whether they are on
Facebook, the nature of their interactions on Facebook, and to
gauge subjective well-being; see Kross et al., 2013). Additional
data that might be collected from subjects in such studies could
include information on subjects’ number of friends on Facebook,
how frequently they use Facebook, and information on whether
(and why) they block any friends on Facebook from their news-
feeds. Daily logging-in information would also be necessary: this
might include how often subject checked their newsfeeds in the
last few hours/day; what they did when they logged on (how many
status updates did they ‘like’ or comment on; how many people
‘liked’ their status updates or commented on them; what was the
valence or character of the status updates on their newsfeed; and
whether they instant-messaged with any friends). One problem
with this methodology (more so, potentially, than with Facebook
mock-up studies) is the possibility of transparency in research aims
and the risk of this influencing subjects’ testimonies about affec-
tive states.
Some final issues which I have not addressed in this article:
Points 2 and 3 (above) also demand further mechanistic analysis:
it has yet to be answered why certain users spend more time online,
and why they do so frequently. There are likely myriad reasons
why people log on to Facebook frequently; perhaps use increases
with ‘friends’ or social isolation, for example. There may also be
a strong feedback loop between volume of interaction and fre-
quency of checking Facebook. Perhaps users who are mildly
depressed are more prone to log on to Facebook, seeking company
or social contact. It may be that Facebook use intensifies depres-
sive feelings among such users (again depending on conditions of
interaction) and displaces time that could otherwise have been
spent in face-to-face social contact (Pinker, 2014). Following the
arguments in this chapter, we can predict that responses will also
depend on the range of ‘friends’ that the user has online. Further-
more, having ‘friend’ requests rejected might conceivably lead to
momentary feelings of mild depression especially if such requests
are denied by high status users. The relationship between account
deactivation and depression requires further examination.
4
All of
these are separate issues that deserve their own hypotheses and
follow-up study. Finally, it should also be emphasized that if
hypotheses 1 through 5 are corroborated this would thereby pro-
vide indirect support for those theories of depression which pro-
pose that low relative social evaluation acts as a key trigger. One
could certainly elect to base predictions about Facebook depres-
sion on different theories of depression; my goal has been to
provide an exemplary framework for understanding how and why
an evolutionary approach is fruitful.
Beyond further investigating ‘Facebook depression,’ however,
there may be other effects of the medium that are worthy of
enquiry (Krasnova et al., 2013). Perhaps ‘Facebook envy’ is prev-
alent among users. Envy, like depression, involves social evalua-
tions but where depression is hypothesized to be a modern-day
mismatch of an adaptive response, elicited by overstimulation of
high status prestige cues. It has been hypothesized that the adaptive
function of envy is to motivate and prompt action when one’s
nearest competitors are perceived to be out-competing one (Hill &
Buss, 2008). On Facebook, the triggers of envy therefore differ
from depression: envy may be triggered when users perceive that
peers whom they judge to be of similar social status and the same
relative age are faring better. This might arise when Facebook
users focus specifically on the status updates of a closed pool of
friends in their newsfeed (these may be friends or colleagues with
whom users also socialize with offline); compare this with the
prediction (in the case of Facebook depression) that a larger pool
of friends, and greater exposure to status updates may be involved
in triggering depressive affect. Importantly, however, to examine
‘Facebook envy’ (just as with ‘Facebook depression’) we need to
be clear about the cognitive mechanisms involved, the adaptive
function(s) of those mechanisms, and the environmental triggers
involved in eliciting those responses.
In future research it may also be necessary to overhaul our
theories of the evolutionary function (if any) of depression (and
envy). Expanding investigative domains from evolutionary psy-
chology to cross-cultural work in social psychology, cognitive
neuroscience, and neurobiology will be important in this endeavor;
as will expanding research into cognitive domains with parallels or
overlaps with depression (such as precaution, and security moti-
vation). In addition, the consequences of Facebook depression (or
4
One friend told me that she felt “immense relief” after deactivating her
Facebook account and that it was “one less daily pressure.”
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This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
10 BLEASE
sadness) deserve long term study. We know that even a single
depressive episode in adolescence can increase the risk for major
depressive disorder in later life: one study estimates that even one
mild depressive episode quintuples the risk for major depression
(Cuijpers, De Graaf, & van Dorsselaer, 2004). The point of this
article has been to show that any such theories have ramifications
for how we understand Internet use and its psychological effects.
The underlying message is that evolutionary psychology is not
some autonomous field within human science. Social psychology
needs relieved of its isolationism. The benefits of finally integrat-
ing evolution within the human sciences are explanatory consil-
ience, research expediency, and the resolution of countless spe-
cious scholarly disputes.
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Received November 9, 2014
Revision received January 27, 2015
Accepted January 27, 2015
Call for Papers in Review of General Psychology:
Special Issue on The Science of Prospection
Submission Deadline: July 1, 2015
The question of how people simulate possible future events and how such prospective thinking
changes behavior is an important dimension of human experience, but has only begun to emerge
from the shadows of scientific focus. This special issue of Review of General Psychology aims to
explore the range and depth of methods for how human behavior navigates toward the future, both
within psychology and in its surrounding disciplines. Drs. Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs will
serve as guest editors for this special issue, alongside Dr. Gerianne Alexander as the Editor of RGP.
Submissions providing a qualitative and quantitative analysis of future-oriented and prospective
theories are welcome. The study of prospection includes but is not limited to:
Predicting the future (including accuracy)
Future oriented mindsets
Planning
Goal pursuit and behavior change
Meaningfulness and meaning in life
Forward-thinking leadership
Emotions such as worry and hope
Manuscripts should be submitted through the APA Online Submission Portal (www.apa.org/pubs/
journals/gpr). Please include a cover letter indicating that the authors wish to submit for consider-
ation in the special issue on The Science of Prospection. Please note that submission for the special
issue does not indicate a guarantee of acceptance. All submissions will undergo the normal peer
review process. Manuscripts received by July 1, 2015 will be considered for inclusion in the special
issue.
Questions or inquiries about the special issue can be directed to the Guest Editors of the issue, Roy
Baumeister (baumeister@psy.fsu.edu), Kathleen Vohs (vohsx005@umn.edu), and Gerianne Alex-
ander, Editor of RGP (galexander@tamu.edu).
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13
EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY AND ‘FACEBOOK DEPRESSION’
... It is true that scholars have kept a great interest on how a 'Like' affects the receiver's selfesteem (Burrow & Rainone, 2017) and wellbeing (Coulthard & Ogden, 2018). Similarly, other studies explored the possible connection between social networking sites and depression (Blease, 2015), as well as other influence that social media might possess. In contrast, studies about the motive behind 'Liking' a social media post are scarce. ...
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... Although 'Like' comes across as an arbitrary social construct, the abundance or drought of 'Like' can affect its receivers-in this case, the people who upload the posts-profoundly. Similar studies done on Instagram's sister-platform, Facebook, have shown how people who receive a few 'Likes' fall into what psychologists describe as 'Facebook depression' (Blease, 2015). ...
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This study aims to find out how Instagram ‘Likes’ affect its receivers. The source of the data is in-depth interviews with four informants, two from each gender. The informants come from the age group of 18— 24 because adolescents born in the late 1990s or early 2000s grew up with the emergence of social media; thus. Coincidentally, people from the aforementioned age group are also the most susceptible to mental health issues. The author implemented ethnography in data collection and analyzed it using Cooley’s ‘looking-glass self’ theories. The findings reveal that Instagram ‘Likes’ have subliminal power over the receivers through the means of self-perception, interpersonal relations, and follow-up actions.Keywords: Instagram Like, Power relation, Looking-glass Self; Social media, Instagram
... Similarly, the UK's Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) claims that there is a clear evidence of the relationship between social media use and mental health issues based on a survey of nearly 1,500 people between the ages of 14-24 (10). According to some authors, the increase in usage frequency of social media significantly increases the risks of clinical disorders described (and diagnosed) as "Facebook depression, " "fear of missing out" (FOMO), and "social comparison orientation" (SCO) (11). Other risks include sexting (12), social media stalking (13), cyber-bullying (14), privacy breaches (15), and improper use of technology. ...
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Despite their increasing ubiquity in people's lives and incredible advantages in instantly interacting with others, social media's impact on subjective well-being is a source of concern worldwide and calls for up-to-date investigations of the role social media plays in mental health. Much research has discovered how habitual social media use may lead to addiction and negatively affect adolescents' school performance, social behavior, and interpersonal relationships. The present study was conducted to review the extant literature in the domain of social media and analyze global research productivity during 2013–2022. Bibliometric analysis was conducted on 501 articles that were extracted from the Scopus database using the keywords social media addiction and problematic social media use. The data were then uploaded to VOSviewer software to analyze citations, co-citations, and keyword co-occurrences. Volume, growth trajectory, geographic distribution of the literature, influential authors, intellectual structure of the literature, and the most prolific publishing sources were analyzed. The bibliometric analysis presented in this paper shows that the US, the UK, and Turkey accounted for 47% of the publications in this field. Most of the studies used quantitative methods in analyzing data and therefore aimed at testing relationships between variables. In addition, the findings in this study show that most analysis were cross-sectional. Studies were performed on undergraduate students between the ages of 19–25 on the use of two social media platforms: Facebook and Instagram. Limitations as well as research directions for future studies are also discussed.
... Similarly, the UK's Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) claims that there is a clear evidence of the relationship between social media use and mental health issues based on a survey of nearly 1,500 people between the ages of 14-24 (10). According to some authors, the increase in usage frequency of social media significantly increases the risks of clinical disorders described (and diagnosed) as "Facebook depression, " "fear of missing out" (FOMO), and "social comparison orientation" (SCO) (11). Other risks include sexting (12), social media stalking (13), cyber-bullying (14), privacy breaches (15), and improper use of technology. ...
Full-text available
Article
Despite their increasing ubiquity in people's lives and incredible advantages in instantly interacting with others, social media's impact on subjective well-being is a source of concern worldwide and calls for up-to-date investigations of the role social media plays in mental health. Much research has discovered how habitual social media use may lead to addiction and negatively affect adolescents' school performance, social behavior, and interpersonal relationships. The present study was conducted to review the extant literature in the domain of social media and analyze global research productivity during 2013–2022. Bibliometric analysis was conducted on 501 articles that were extracted from the Scopus database using the keywords social media addiction and problematic social media use. The data were then uploaded to VOSviewer software to analyze citations, co-citations, and keyword co-occurrences. Volume, growth trajectory, geographic distribution of the literature, influential authors, intellectual structure of the literature, and the most prolific publishing sources were analyzed. The bibliometric analysis presented in this paper shows that the US, the UK, and Turkey accounted for 47% of the publications in this field. Most of the studies used quantitative methods in analyzing data and therefore aimed at testing relationships between variables. In addition, the findings in this study show that most analysis were cross-sectional. Studies were performed on undergraduate students between the ages of 19–25 on the use of two social media platforms: Facebook and Instagram. Limitations as well as research directions for future studies are also discussed.
... Social media contain lightweight ways of expressing an evaluation of a post such as the Like button on Facebook. The number of Likes on Facebook is often treated as an index of popularity (Yu, Chen, & Kwok, 2011;Giglietto, 2012;Blease, 2015) and several researchers, mainly in the domain of marketing, have tried to identify the factors predicting whether a post would receive a Like. These studies usually tracked Facebook posts and used objective criteria, such as whether the post contains a link or a picture, as predictors. ...
Article
Lightweight evaluations of content, such as thumbs-up, Liking, and favoriting, are an important aspect of social media interactions. Although minimal, these acts can carry a variety of meanings and implications. Prior research has revealed various motives and identified some recurring themes, but is often based on small samples or survey procedures prone to memory bias. In the present research, we asked people to view posts they had recently Liked on Facebook and report motives for each concrete post. We offer insights into the prevalence of previously hypothesized motives, and their associations with the content of posts, the relationship between sender and receiver, and the personality of the sender.
... (5) As users have insufficient cues to gauge the authenticity of these positive self-presentations on SM, the effects of upward comparisons should be further amplified (e.g., Lup et al., 2015). (6) Much more so than in offline interactions, SM self-presentations are enriched by various popularity metrics such as likes, views, or comments, making it easier for other users to assess their relative standing in a social group (Blease, 2015). ...
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Research into the effects of social media on well-being often distinguishes “active” and “passive” use, with passive use supposedly more harmful to well-being (i.e., the passive use hypothesis). Recently, several studies and reviews have begun to question this hypothesis and its conceptual basis, the active/passive dichotomy. As this dichotomy has become a staple of social media research but evidence challenging its validity is mounting, a comprehensive debate on its pros, cons, and potential future is needed. This adversarial review brings together two voices – one more supportive, and the other more critical – toward the active/passive model. In constructive dialogue, we summarize and contrast our two opposing positions: The first position argues that the active/passive dichotomy is a useful framework because it adequately describes how and why passive use is (more) harmful for well-being. The second position challenges the validity of the dichotomy and the passive use hypothesis specifically. Arguments are presented alongside (a) the empirical basis, (b) conceptualization, and (c) operationalization of active and passive use, with particular focus on the passive use hypothesis. Rather than offering a conciliatory summary of the status quo, the goal of this review is to carve out key points of friction in the literature on the effects of social media through fruitful debate. We summarize our main agreements and unresolved disagreements on the merits and shortcomings of the active/passive dichotomy. In doing so, this review paves the way for researchers to decide whether and how they want to continue applying this lens in their future work.
... Further, SNS has introduced the concept of the 'like', their greatest reward. Users feel good whenever someone reacts to their SNS posts (Blease 2015;Hong, Chen, and Li 2017;Nadkarni and Hofmann 2012). The brain produces dopamine, which is known to excite cranial nerve cells and influence motivation and reward. ...
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This study empirically analyzed how ‘SNS-perceived playfulness, tendency of self-display, and information sharing’ affect ‘SNS addiction and exhaustion’ based on four major base theories, i.e. uses and gratifications, motivation, self-control, and motivational balancing theories. Furthermore, this study comparatively analyzed the influences of nationality on SNS addiction and exhaustion (fatigue syndrome) in six countries. The sample comprised a total of 1,198 people from six countries. Three statistics programmes (SmartPLS, GSCA Pro, and JASP) were used to approve the research hypotheses. (1) The SNS tendency of self-display and SNS information sharing had a positive effect on SNS addiction. (2) SNS perceived playfulness had a negative effect on SNS exhaustion, and SNS tendency of self-display had a positive effect. (3) SNS addiction had a positive effect on SNS exhaustion. (4) In the comparative country analysis, SNS tendency of self-display was the most influential factor on SNS addiction and exhaustion. SNS are highly convenient and practical, provide users with sensational entertainment, and enable exhibitionism (e.g. self-display, information sharing), thus potentially leading to SNS addiction, which in turn results in SNS exhaustion. Therefore, it identifies the appropriate antecedents, identifies country-specific differences, and proposes practical guidelines for users to prevent SNS addiction and exhaustion.
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The work of school counsellors has become complex with the increasing technological advances and adolescents' dependency on them. There is a surprising lack of study in the Indian context, aimed at school counsellor's challenges in dealing with adolescents' digital use. This paper provides better understanding of the challenges of school counsellors involving adolescents' digital use in Indian schools. Three significant themes emerged from the data analysis: (a) negative aspects of digital use among Indian adolescents, (b) the need to effectively teach how to navigate the digital world and (c) the challenge of integrating technology with traditional counselling approaches to educate adolescents about their digital use. Furthermore, this paper presents implications for school counselling practice and research within Indian context. School counsellors address challenging situations involving adolescents' use of digital media. School counsellors play a crucial role in teaching and modelling how to navigate the digital world. Little research has been conducted in the Indian context; hence this study is a good step forward to understand and acknowledge the challenges of school counsellors. School counsellors address challenging situations involving adolescents' use of digital media. School counsellors play a crucial role in teaching and modelling how to navigate the digital world. Little research has been conducted in the Indian context; hence this study is a good step forward to understand and acknowledge the challenges of school counsellors.
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Social integration is known to be beneficial for mental health. However, it is not clear whether this applies to online as well as offline relationships. In this paper, we explore the association between online friendship and symptoms of depression among adolescents. We combine data from the popular social networking site with survey data on high school students (N=144) and find that integration into the online network is a protective factor against depression. We also find that not all online connections are equally important: friendship ties with students from the same schools are stronger associated with depression than outside ties. In addition to friendship ties, we explore the effect of online interaction (“likes”). Overall, our results suggest that online relationships are associated with depression as well as offline friendship. However, the effect of more distant online connections is limited, while immediate social environment and peer relationships at school are more important.
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With the emergence of such videos addressing Tourette syndrome on YouTube, in which affected persons present themselves, Tourette experts observe an increasing number of patients showing Tourette-like symptoms. Interviews show that they are not only familiar with these videos but have also dealt with them in different ways. Medical analyses combined with the evaluations of the interviews give reason to believe that the videos can be interpreted as triggers for certain groups of people. The evaluation of the data on the media use of the patients traces their subjective use of social media as well as their opinions on central content to get insight on how the use of the videos in question is integrated into their media activities. It becomes apparent that the trigger function of the videos cannot be explained by a consistent mode of reception. Further contextual variables must be taken into account to understand the phenomenon.
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