The Psychology of Social Media

This week, we’re having a most interesting discussion in my Integrated Communication class about the psychological implications of social media – specifically, how the human ego drives social media activity and engagement.

Here’s an edited version of a post I shared with the class:

As we can see, social media is the most effective platform for stimulating audience engagement and two-way communication. But what is the genesis of this behavior, and why do users respond positively to requests for product reviews and user-generated content?

The answer very likely comes from the field of psychology and, in particular, the human ego. I found numerous articles on the topic of social media and ego-driven audience response; one written by Dr. Aaron Balick, provides some excellent insights into ego-driven audience response.

As professional communicators / social scientists, we need to fully understand human psychology and behavior in order to best serve our clients and their audiences.

As Balick states, "Psychology has long been interested in what motivates people. The idea is that if we can understand primary human motivation, we can better understand the choices that we make." He adds that, "... social media comes to the service of the ego (possibly at the expense of the self) and the ego interacts with the social network as an extension of the ways in which our individual egos negotiate the world in any case. [If] we think of the ego as an estate agent, its three most important needs are 'recognition, recognition, recognition.'"

Here again, social media is really the only space where users can seek - and obtain - recognition, not only from other audience members, but also from the company itself. Being recognized and acknowledged in very public forums can be both affirming and exciting for many people.

With the availability of today’s sophisticated tracking and demographic / psychographic data, strategic communicators can get to know their audiences on an almost intimate level.

In addition, communicators may be able to stimulate desirable consumer behavior by providing various avenues for user ego gratification on social media sites (e.g. rewards for UGC, selfies, and product-use videos).

According to Coronado (2015), “… the architecture of various social networks (such as Facebook) enables particular agencies of the psyche to express themselves through one’s status updates and posts.” Coronado’s research investigates what she calls, “the three-act play of the id, ego and superego (tripartite psyche) in revealing one’s personality though one’s status and posts in Facebook.”

For those who might need a quick refresher, here is a quick breakdown of the id, ego, and superego:

“The Id is the unorganized part of the psyche that contains a human’s instinctual drives. The Id is the only part of the psyche that is present at birth and it is the source of our bodily needs, wants, desires, and impulses. [The] Ego has a set of psychic functions able to distinguish between fantasy and reality. It organizes thoughts and makes sense of the world. The Ego represents reason and common sense. The ego is said to serve three masters: the external world, the Id, and the Super-Ego. [The] Super-Ego reflects the internalization of cultural rules, mainly taught by parents applying their guidance and influence” (Siegfried, 2014). See this link for the full article.

The proliferation of social media messages – and humans’ subliminal response to them – creates a very powerful space for companies to influence audiences. Of particular interest is whether or not audience members are aware of ego-driven responses. Using the Kardashians as an example, one could posit that they are. Either way, communicators must be sensitive to their audiences’ psychological response in order to avoid unintentional manipulation.

According to Berger (2016), “The basis of modern media effectiveness is a language within a language—one that communicates to each of us at a level beneath our conscious awareness, one that reaches into the uncharted mechanism of the human unconscious. This is a language based upon the human ability to subliminally or subconsciously or unconsciously perceive information. This is a language that today has actually produced the profit base for North American mass communication media.”

As professional communicators, I believe it’s extremely important that we gain a solid understanding of both psychology and social psychology, and that we approach our work from the perspective of the scholar-practitioner. While our clients may be focused on generating profits, our role as the ethical compass is to ensure the development and maintenance of positive and meaningful audience relationships.

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Debra Davenport Ph.D. is a member of the online faculty of Purdue’s online Master of Science in Communication degree program. The program can be completed in just 20 months and covers numerous topics critical for advancement in the communication industry, including crisis communication, social media engagement, focus group planning and implementation, survey design and survey analysis, public relations theory, professional writing, and communication ethics.

About the Author
Debra Davenport is the president and CEO of Davenport Public Relations, a full-service firm with offices in Phoenix and Los Angeles. She is a faculty member with Purdue’s Brian Lamb School of Communication where she teaches in the MS in Communication program.

*The views and opinions expressed are of the author and do not represent the Brian Lamb School of Communication.

Berger A.A. (2016) A Psychoanalytic Approach to Marketing. In: Marketing and American Consumer Culture. Palgrave Macmillan