6 Scientific Reasons Facebook Turns Everybody Into A Jerk

The internet had such promise.
6 Scientific Reasons Facebook Turns Everybody Into A Jerk

The internet had such promise. The World Wide Web was going to help us share information, learn about people from different places, and have access to all the porn. But then, naturally, people ruined it with their people-ness. There seems to be something about being social online that makes us forget everything our parents taught us about politeness. Fortunately, it's not all our fault, because there are some legitimate scientific reasons why everyone online acts like such a jerk.

Getting Attention On The Internet Gets You Literally High

6 Scientific Reasons Facebook Turns Everybody Into A Jerk

To people who were young enough to be fingerpainting when the internet happened, likes and shares are just natural progressions of gold stars and participation trophies. As human beings, we thrive on social acceptance, so it's all too easy to become addicted to all those digital bleeps and bloops affirming us. And just like any addiction, it can spawn some serious asshole behavior.


As you probably remember from your childhood drawings.

In a study at UCLA, teenagers had their brains scanned while viewing pictures they had submitted. The more likes their photos had received, the more the reward circuitry in their brain lit up like a firework, much in the way that same area responds to chocolate, sex, and hard drugs. For people, attention (validation's slutty sibling) can easily turn into pleasure-seeking behavior and, eventually, full-blown addiction. To our poor, stupid monkey brains, this is completely tribal. We see how many likes and comments and shares our posts get compared to those of other people, and we measure ourselves against them. If we have more, we are the king of the jungle. That social media stimulates this primal, addictive part of the brain is no coincidence. Companies like Facebook have never been coy about creating "obsession loops" that keep their users hitting refresh like it's the button that releases the morphine.

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Admit it. You want to click those so badly.

However, unlike drugs or cigarettes, there doesn't seem to be anything inherently harmful from getting some internet thumbs-ups, so why aren't we all walking along like smiley happy people, having discovered a whole new way for us to feel good about ourselves? Because internet affirmation is an empty high, a whole lot of baby formula with not a lot of cocaine. According to Dr. Larry Rosen, professor of psychology at California State University at Dominguez Hills, real-life empathy is six times more effective at making people believe they are being supported. And our monkey brain is still advanced enough that it can tell the difference -- so even a retweet storm will often leave us feeling hollow and emotionally malnourished. But on the flip side, a lack of likes hits just as hard as any real-life rejection. Not getting an instant positive click from a friend can quickly lead to feelings of resentment and anger. Many a Kimber-on-Kimber fight has broken out because of a poolside pic that was left unliked.

6 Scientific Reasons Facebook Turns Everybody Into A Jerk

Like this one from Kimber's J.J. Abrams period.

So the internet turns us all into a bunch of grumpy, tweaking addicts. No wonder no one has ever had a respectful argument on the internet. Being a righteous dick will always get more internet high-fives -- it'll just never make up for all those hugs you're missing out on.

The Human Brain Isn't Capable Of Interacting With So Many People

6 Scientific Reasons Facebook Turns Everybody Into A Jerk
Rawpixel Ltd/iStock

We want to think that the internet is a social tool, that liking and sharing and commenting make us part of a community. And nothing makes the accusations of being antisocial die down faster than pointing at a legion of Facebook friends or forum buddies. But those internet friends aren't really our friends. In fact, it's scientifically impossible to even slightly know that many people because of a little thing called the Dunbar Number.

6 Scientific Reasons Facebook Turns Everybody Into A Jerk

Cognitive theory is much more exciting when presented in balloon form.

We've talked before about what David Wong dubbed "the Monkeysphere," the idea that humans can only care about around 150 people at a time. The theory has its origins at a company called GORE-TEX. Its founder, Bill Gore, started making outdoor wear in his backyard, but then his company got more and more successful, until one day he walked into the building and realized he didn't know anyone who worked for him or what they did. Most people would be like "Sweet, I'm a really successful businessman" and run off to do coke off hookers in Vegas, but these faceless drones bothered Gore. In fact, this lack of social coziness wasn't just a bummer to Gore, it was also hurting his business. Turns out that if you don't know Dave from Accounting, you won't jump to answer his emails. From that moment, Gore decided to reduce his factory's staff to 150, and if the company needed more workers, he'd just build a new factory in the parking lot.

6 Scientific Reasons Facebook Turns Everybody Into A Jerk

Leaving people to get creative with how they parked their cars.

That Goldilocks-like amount has since been called the Dunbar Number, which the internet has proven impacts more than just worker efficiency. See, in your real life, you probably don't have more than 150 personal connections. But online relationships are a brave new world of crazy volumes. The average Facebook user has over 100 friends, yet doesn't know 20 percent of the people on their list in real life. It makes sense, since becoming "friends" with someone online only involves clicking a button, while in real life you have to do the heavy lifting like finding things to talk about, spending time together, and staring at their stupid face.

And it's not as if we're collecting friends like Pokemon for purely selfless reasons. Sure, one poll found that 54 percent of people accept friend requests out of politeness, but in second place at 34 percent was the need to look popular. And if wanting meaningless relationships with a bunch of strangers just to impress some other assholes we don't even care about isn't social, then we don't know what is.

The Written Word Makes It Impossible To Decipher Tone (Because Most Of Our Communication Happens Non-Verbally)

6 Scientific Reasons Facebook Turns Everybody Into A Jerk

Even though you have an array of punctuation marks and every emoticon you can possibly need (plus, like, some disco vampire), we have all had more than one awkward situation where our funny text message was misinterpreted as wanting to incite a race riot. Turns out it's crazy hard to determine what people's intentions are over the internet because it's crazy hard to get to know someone online. And that makes us paranoid.

6 Scientific Reasons Facebook Turns Everybody Into A Jerk

Always wear protection.

Because humans think about themselves approximately 99.9 percent of the time, they're really bad at communicating through writing. A 2005 study concluded that our ability to correctly sense the tone of an email is only slightly better than if we just guess wildly -- participants were able to figure out if an email was serious or sarcastic only 56 percent of the time. Relay the same message via phone and that success rate shoots up to 73 percent. That's because we often judge intent based on the person, not the message. The less personal info we get (which is very little via written messages), the more we rely on stereotypes to fill in the blanks. So how you interpret an email from Bill from HR will depend as much on the content as that one time you saw him slurp from a Federal Boob Inspector mug.

6 Scientific Reasons Facebook Turns Everybody Into A Jerk

"That's ... actually nice, Bill."
"I was trying to draw a- uh, never mind."

But the sender is just as guilty of being literary tone deaf. When we type something out, we know what the intention is and just lazily assume that the person who receives it also will. This arrogance is borne out of the fact that we overestimate how important our words are when delivering a message. When you type online, all other ways of communicating fall away, and seeing as we get 55 percent of the information from body language and 38 percent from tone of voice and inflection, that leaves only 7 percent from the actual words you type. And guess what? Because of the lack of emotional cues, our human dickbag brains instinctively misinterpret written messages at best neutrally and more often than not negatively. So combine our paranoia, our arrogance and the fact that we're not getting 93 percent of the message, and the result is that we're always going to think the worst of people on the internet.

Which is really bad, because ...

Anger Goes Viral Way Quicker Than Happiness (Because It Invigorates Us Into 'Action')

6 Scientific Reasons Facebook Turns Everybody Into A Jerk

Once you've sent those tweets or made those Facebook posts, you might notice that the negative ones seem to fare much better than the positive ones. Even more encouraging, you'll quickly find a whole mass of people who share and support your hatred of whatever's getting you down. That's because happy people generally don't care that much about likes or comments, but most people who get angry online are looking for some kind of validation for their feelings -- and boy oh boy are we willing to give it to them.

6 Scientific Reasons Facebook Turns Everybody Into A Jerk
Milenko Bokan/iStock

Just like you'd totally give this stranger the time of day in real life.

It's easy to be happy when someone you know gets married or has a baby, but that's usually where the exchange ends. The easiest way to bond with online peeps is not through happiness, but through anger, like you're the internet's shitty dad. A study of Weibo, China's version of Twitter, found that emotions travel strongly online, with one person's post quickly influencing another's state of mind. The emotion that traveled quickest was, of course, anger, especially toward "social problems and diplomatic issues" -- i.e., other people doing bad stuff. Joy was a distant second, because fuck your motivational quotes.

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This is complete and utter nonsense.

Anger is a "high-arousal emotion," which explains why people get so swept away in it -- and also every dysfunctional relationship we've ever been in. It makes us want to fucking DO SOMETHING. Not get off our butts or anything ridiculous like that, but definitely take some form of action -- like forwarding an email or commenting on a post. This causes a chain of anger, until you get your average internet comments section convinced they are going to change the world with their collective rage.

6 Scientific Reasons Facebook Turns Everybody Into A Jerk
Gonzalo Martín

Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to ... 8chan.

However, there was one emotion that, according to marketing professor Jonah Berger, outshone anger: awe, the intense feeling we get when witnessing true beauty or life-altering knowledge. But how often does that happen? Not nearly as often as the bad stuff. God, that makes us so ANGRY!

Huh, that outburst felt really good. That may have something to do with the fact that ...

Complaining On Social Media Feels Better Than Complaining In Real Life (Because We're Crowdsourcing Sympathy)

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In the "real world," we can always rely on friends, family and bartenders to lend an ear when we want to vent. But they also warn us from devolving into some bitter, nagging grump who does nothing but complain. Eventually, people start tuning you out if you keep sounding like a Taylor Swift song about her ex.

Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images for Tommy Hilfiger

You have to to be another level of hot to pull that off.

But on the internet, there's always someone willing to hear you talk shit about other people, and they, in turn, can validate your anger forever. You ARE right to think that man buns are stupid. That Starbucks barista SHOULD burn in hell for putting skim milk in your pumpkin spice latte. People in the political party you don't agree with WILL bring on Armageddon. The list of things to complain about is never-ending, as is the number of people willing to listen to and agree with you. Every retweet or comment makes you feel like you are a part of a unified group, which feels good to our monkey brains, even if that group is the internet equivalent of a pitchfork-waving mob.

You're also likely to be more vitriolic online than you are in real life. If you get angry in the middle of a social setting, you start feeling physically uncomfortable -- your heart starts racing and your palms start sweating, and you know everyone will judge you if you explode. You need to get those feelings out, but society tells us it's inappropriate to just start screaming in the middle of the International House of Pancakes. But shooting out 140 characters into the internet is so quick and impersonal, we can just start spewing bile as it comes to us, like some crazy person on the corner shouting about the government stealing their teeth.

And speaking of internet hobos ...

Anonymity Ruins Everything And Makes Us More Susceptible To Groupthink

6 Scientific Reasons Facebook Turns Everybody Into A Jerk

It's no secret that people on the internet hide behind fake names or anonymous accounts to be huge fucking dicks. Behind every avatar of an egg, frog or anime character is some dude who knows full well they'll get fired/grounded if people ever found out about their unfiltered opinions. But what's amazing is just how much effect those anonymous comments can have on people. And we're not just talking about getting famous people to leave Twitter.

6 Scientific Reasons Facebook Turns Everybody Into A Jerk
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

We love you, Leslie!

When commenters are allowed to be anonymous, everything seems to get worse. A study by the University of Houston analyzed 900 comments on articles about immigration, a topic everyone is famously cool and collected about. As it turns out, a whopping 53 percent of anonymous commenters were uncivil, compared to just 29 percent of people who had to register. That's because anonymity, ironically, encourages a deeper sense of community identity, which sounds great until you realize that it's actually robbing us of our individuality. Releasing your personal stake in a statement lets it become part of the hive mind, and that allows us to ditch all sense of responsibility. In other words, anonymity leads to groupthink, until one day you get whole websites like 8chan that are full of angry, faceless people all clogging up the echo chamber with their infinite circle-jerking.

6 Scientific Reasons Facebook Turns Everybody Into A Jerk

It's like an even more irritating version of this.

And these anonymous comments don't just hurt people's feelings -- they can actually influence the content that they're trashing. A study done by the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that when participants read a fake blog post and then the comments that followed, the comments actually impacted how they felt about the article. In fact, the more insulting and profane the comments, the stronger their effect, even going so far as to change some people's minds about what they had just read. The participants also had more polarized feelings on the subject, meaning comment sections are literally adding to the divisiveness of society, forcing people to react not to the thousand-word essay, but to the poorly spelled 12-word tirade three inches below the internet sanity line.

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Unless they flat-out ask you what you thought, let it go.

The natural human impulse to stand on the other side of the room from the biggest asshole still exists online, except it causes people to be more extremist in their views, which creates more assholes. The internet is a monster that feeds on your negative emotions, a swirling black spiral that does nothing but encourage reactionary outrage at the expense of nuance and joy and makes us feel like subhuman husks.

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Kathy wrote a very funny book called FUNERALS TO DIE FOR, and you can buy it here. Or follow her on Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter.

Also check out 6 Things You Learn Getting Paid To Troll People Online and 4 Things I Learned About Teenage Trolls (From Being One).

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