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Understanding social comparison on Facebook

Facebook researchers Moira Burke, Justin Cheng, and Bethany de Gant received an honorable mention at the 2020 ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems for their paper, “Social comparison and Facebook: Feedback, positivity, and opportunities for comparison.” Burke and Cheng are Research Scientists within Core Data Science, and de Gant is a UX Researcher focused on well-being.

Social comparison is a foundational human process that we all can relate to. Burke, Cheng, and de Gant examined the question of whether social media is making it worse. They conducted a large, rigorous international study to try to answer that question, while looking for design opportunities that could promote more positivity and well-being on the platform.

We sat down with them to learn more about what inspired their research, how they conducted it, what the next steps are, and more.

Q: What was the inspiration behind the research?

Social comparison is a very common experience. When you see someone’s accomplishments or successes on Facebook, you can feel happy for them or even inspired — but sometimes you’re also left wondering why it doesn’t feel so great to you.

Social comparison can be a good thing when it’s inspirational or motivational. But it can also make people feel worse about themselves, like they’re not as good as everybody else. It’s also linked to depression. Our research primarily focused on the type of social comparison that can make people feel worse about themselves on social media.

We wanted to understand how often people experience social comparison on Facebook, who experiences it more than others, and what kinds of experiences worsen social comparison. Our goal is to use this knowledge to influence product design that better supports people’s online well-being.

Q: How is this research different from other research in this area?

There are two main differences. Most prior research relies on asking participants to recall their own online activities, which is difficult to do, versus measuring their actual behavior online. Our approach enabled us to get more precise measurements of online behavior.

Prior research had also been small-scale and conducted in just a few countries. Our study is global and may be the largest survey on social comparison ever done. This gives us the opportunity to understand how social comparison plays out worldwide.

Q: So what did you learn? What were your findings?

We learned about what kinds of experiences worsen social comparison, such as the following:

  • Seeing proportionally more posts that have a high number of likes or comments
  • Seeing proportionally more positivity in others’ posts
  • Spending more time looking at profiles, particularly one’s own
  • Seeing more content from people about their same age
  • Having more chances for comparison, through either larger Facebook friend networks or more time spent on Facebook

We also learned what types of people experience more social comparison. Teens experience more social comparison on Facebook than adults, although that’s true offline, as well, as teens are more subject to peer pressure than adults.

Gender differences depend on the geography. In the West, women tend to experience more social comparison, but in some Eastern countries, men experienced more social comparison.

Q: What did you find most surprising in your research?

One surprising finding was when we asked people to think of a recent time when they felt worse about themselves: One in five could recall a time they felt worse after seeing a post. We then asked if they wished they hadn’t seen the post, and only half said they wished they hadn’t seen it, while a third felt very happy for the poster. People have complex feelings about this, so there is no one easy answer.

Another surprising thing we learned through related qualitative interviews was that many people didn’t know about existing Facebook features that can help them reduce social comparison. For example, they didn’t know you could unfollow or snooze someone to hide their posts, or use the Your Time on Facebook program and ask for a nudge to get you to take a break.

Q: How did you conduct this research? What was your methodology?

We did an online survey of 37,000 people from 18 countries, asking them how often they felt worse because of social comparison on Facebook. We compared these responses with server log data that showed how the participants had used Facebook in the prior month. That helped us understand which kinds of Facebook experiences were more frequently linked to social comparison and which kinds of people were more likely to experience it.

We separately ran quantitative research with qualitative interviews in Mexico, India, and the United States to understand more about opportunities for product design.

Q: How does this research relate to platforms other than Facebook?

These findings likely apply to social media platforms that use mechanisms such as likes and comments. More broadly, on platforms where people prefer to present their best selves or where people spend more time curating content, we would likely expect to see more social comparison. We see less of that on platforms like Messenger and WhatsApp, where you are not able to show off your accomplishments.

Q: What can Facebook do to help people do less social comparison?

Some of the ways to reduce social comparison include providing people with tools to:

  • Help them change what they see in their feeds.
  • Reduce focus on feedback counts on other people’s posts.
  • Use filters for topics and people: promote, unfollow, snooze.
  • Be intentional with time, using tools like Your Time on Facebook.
  • Support meaningful interactions so that when comparisons do occur, people are less affected by them. News Feed ranking prioritizes posts that spark meaningful interactions.
  • Encourage the creation of more positive shared experiences to follow along on someone’s journey toward a goal, showing the process, not just the result.

Q: What are the next steps for this research?

We’re doing more research on social comparison on Instagram, a platform that is more visual and has younger users. Social comparison might be heightened when people are comparing how they look. We want to know how we can adjust the way these platforms work to promote more positive social comparisons that are inspirational. We use our research to make recommendations on how to design our products to foster more well-being.

To learn more about Facebook at CHI, visit our CHI 2020 page.

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