When describing narcissism, most psychologists begin by mentioning an excess of self-love and then add arrogance, a lack of empathy, and an overwhelming need for admiration to the list. Now a team of researchers who investigated Facebook and Twitter show that active use of social networking sites is inspired by exactly these narcissistic traits. In fact, having examined active use of Facebook and Twitter, the researchers discovered that, among those narcissists who are still in college, tweeting is the preferred mode of expression, while adult narcissists favor Facebook. “Platform differences explain the differences in active usage on Facebook versus Twitter,” wrote the authors in their study, which is published in Computers in Human Behavior.

Psychological Motivation

A team of North Carolina-based social scientists recruited 515 college undergraduates and 669 adults, whose average age was 32, to participate in an online survey. First, participants completed a Narcissistic Personality Inventory, an online series of 40 paired statements in which the one that best reflects their personality is selected. Then, the participants recorded how often they tweeted and/or updated their Facebook status during a routine day. Analyzing the data, the researchers came to the easy-to-predict conclusion that narcissism appears to be “a primary driver for the desire for followers, which in turn drives tweets.”

Yet they also discovered narcissism to be a stronger predictor of active tweeting than active posting on Facebook. “In fact, we found no significant direct or indirect relationship with active usage on Facebook for the college sample…,” wrote the authors, who added, “…platform differences (i.e., microblogging versus profile-based) may explain the importance of active usage on Twitter relative to Facebook. That is, with Twitter, narcissistic motives for usage all manifest through tweeting while Facebook provides other mechanisms to achieve narcissistic motives.” Because millennials grew up using Facebook, the researchers suppose, it is part of their social norm to use it as a simple tool for communication. Among even slightly older people, though, Facebook is not part of their norm and so they require a more calculating reason for updating their status.

Even if age groups have separate preferences, both sites offer a maximum of attention for a minimum of real interaction and so provide a perfect playground for inherent narcissism. And speaking of status updates, a forthcoming study investigates social status as it relates to public behavior and arrives at a more interesting conclusion.

Behavior as Status Symbol

A team of researchers from Harvard Business School examined how people react to nonconforming behaviors, such as entering a luxury boutique wearing gym clothes rather than an elegant outfit. The researchers noted that signalling theory, which examines communication between individuals, suggests that a signal is only effective when it is both costly and observable by others. “Since nonconformity often has a social cost, observers may infer that a nonconforming individual is in a powerful position that allows her to risk the social costs of nonconformity without fear of losing her place in the social hierarchy,” wrote the authors.

In a series of studies, then, they demonstrated that under certain conditions people conferred higher status — and competence — to nonconforming individuals as opposed to those who behaved as expected. For instance, shop assistants who worked in a luxury boutique in Milan thought a female customer wearing gym clothes and a jean jacket was of higher status than a woman who was more "properly dressed.” Yet the researchers also found that such positive interpretations of nonconforming behavior disappeared in three contexts: when the nonconforming behavior was depicted as unintentional; when the observer was unfamiliar with the environment; and when there were no shared standards of conduct on which to understand behavior.

Sources: Davenport SW, Bergman SM, Bergman JZ, Fearrington ME. Twitter versus Facebook: Exploring the role of narcissism in the motives and usage of different social media platforms. Computers in Human Behavior. 2014.

Bellezza S, Gino F, Keinan A. The Red Sneakers Effect: Inferring Status and Competence from Signals of Nonconformity. Journal of Consumer Research. 2014.