A new study finds that checking your Facebook profile can give you a temporary self-esteem boost, but then decreases motivation to perform well on cognitively demanding tasks.

Facebook has thoroughly permeated the daily life of Americans since it became publicly available in 2005, and all sorts of claims have been made about its psychological effect on the masses.

A small sample of the findings: it encourages narcissism, envy, and low self-esteem; damages relationships, increases anxiety, lowers self-control, is addictive, and even creates dangerous emotional dependence in certain users. Small wonder, then, that many users are intentionally dropping out of the social network.

Catalina Toma, a professor of communication arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, investigated Facebook's influence on users' self-esteem with the Implicit Association Test, a social psychology measure of people's underlying attitudes and thought processes.

The results were published in the June 2013 edition of the journal Media Psychology.

Measuring Your Facebook Profile's Effect on Self-Esteem

"Our culture places great value on having high self-esteem," Toma said in a news release. "For this reason, people typically inflate their level of self-esteem in self-report questionnaires."

"The Implicit Association Test removes this bias," she said, because participants cannot fake their responses as they can when answering self-report questionnaires.

The test asks users to promptly associate positive or negative adjectives to pronouns referring to themselves, such as "me," "myself," and "I", faster than they can think through their decisions.

People with high self-esteem tend to link positive words to themselves, said Toma, while those with low self-esteem will choose negative words more often.

Toma had participants spend five minutes browsing through either their own Facebook profile or that of a stranger, then complete a serial subtraction task, a concentration test of their ability to count down from a large number by sevens as quickly and accurately as possible.

She assumed that since Facebook profiles are typically tailored to emphasize users' social connections and positive memories, looking at one's own page would boost participant's self-esteem.

Indeed, the results showed that participants showed a significant increase in self-esteem on the Implicit Association Test after checking their own Facebook profiles.

Viewing Facebook Profile Decreases Motivation on Cognitive Task

The boost in self-esteem came at a cost, however - the people who viewed their own profiles tended not to try as hard on the subtraction task as those who looked at strangers' profiles.

The participants who viewed their own profiles attempted fewer answers on the selective subtraction task than the control participants, although they were just as accurate.

The findings parallel the logic of self-affirmation theory, which suggests that threats to self-esteem motivate people to do well.

"Performing well in a task can boost feelings of self-worth," said Toma. "However, if you already feel good about yourself because you looked at your Facebook profile, there is no psychological need to increase your self-worth by doing well in a laboratory task."

Toma concluded that viewing one's own profile is likely to decrease motivation on this particular cognitive task. She added the caveat that the study may not be generalizable to other aspects of life, since it only looks at the psychological effect of a specific part of Facebook on performance on a specific task.

"It does not show that Facebook use negatively affects college students' grades, for example. Future work is necessary to investigate the psychological effects of other Facebook activities, such as examining others' profiles or reading the newsfeed."

Source: Catalina L. Toma. Feeling Better But Doing Worse: Effects of Facebook Self-Presentation on Implicit Self-Esteem and Cognitive Task Performance. Media Psychology, 2013.