The Psychology of Social: Are We Hardwired to Use Social Media?

Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god. 


I’ve looked at online entertainment and I’ve looked at online tools, both in a quest to see where loyal and stable audiences might be found. But that leaves one huge part of the online landscape unexplored – online social media. In both my previous explorations, the scope of the quest quickly exploded into several posts. I think social media will be as difficult to restrict to a few posts, if not more so.

One thing that both entertainment and usefulness had in common was their foundation – our human drives. In any area I’ve explored up to now, I’ve always found our interactions with technology, as fickle as they may be, are layered over innate human drives with origins reaching back several thousands of generations. In entertainment, although the channels may have changed drastically in the past few decades (digital media, video games, virtual environments), our responses are predictably human. The things that make us cry, jump in our seats or laugh out loud really haven’t changed that much in many thousands of years. Humans adapt quickly to new technology, but our tastes remain reliably consistent.

Usefulness is a little different. In this case, our expectations of utility and the ever-rising bar of technology form somewhat of an arms race, with each upping the ante for the other. New tools allow us to do new things, which reset our expectations. These reset expectations cause us to periodically review the tools we use, and if they no longer match our expectations, we go looking for new tools. But even if we’re on the hunt for increased usefulness, we still use strategies that appear to have evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago on the savannah. I believe we forage for and evaluate useful technologies the same way we forage for food. This means that while technologies may change quickly, our behaviors towards them are remarkably predictable.

20090921_social_connectionsSo, what should we expect as we explore how the human need for society plays out in new online arenas? Again, I think it’s safe to say that our behaviors will be driven by innate human needs and strategies. So that seems to be as good a place as any to start.

In their book “Driven, How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices,” Harvard professors Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria tried to reduce human nature down to the lowest possible number of non-redundant factors. They came up with four irreducible drives:

  • The Need to Acquire
  • The Need to Bond
  • The Need to Learn
  • The Need to Defend

All human actions, all cultural trends, all societal behaviors will be driven by one or a combination of these factors. If Lawrence and Nohria are right, then the usage of social media should be no exception. Let’s look at the four to see how they might map onto social media usage.

The Need to Bond

I’ll start with the most obvious one – the need to Bond. Social media is all about bonding. This hits squarely at the heart of our social nature. As Aristotle said, we’re not built to be alone. Humans thrive in herds. And social media provides us a digitally mediated way to bond.

The complexity of our social bonds are staggering. It’s amazing to think of all the dimensions we impose on our social relationships. Things like status, gossip, empathy, reciprocity, jealousy, xenophobia, admiration, loyalty, love, hate and so many other emotionally charged factors constantly occupy our mind as we try to navigate the stormy waters of our social connections. One might be tempted to throw up our hands in frustration and live in social isolation, but we don’t. Why? Because evolution has proven conclusively that we’re better together than apart. That strategy has been hardwired into our genes. As much as maintaining a social network is a complete pain in the ass sometimes, it’s a necessary part of the human experience. Most times, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

The challenge, however, is that all this baggage will be hauled over to whatever new platforms we use to connect with others. This includes online social media. To be effective and engaging, a social media tool has to allow us to do the things we have always done to survive and thrive in our respective herd – whether it’s to increase the frequency of connection with family, gossip in real-time, brag more effectively to all of our acquaintances at once or reconnect with those that lie in the more out flung regions of our networks. While they’re all very human, these activities, when brought on to a publishing platform (which is a major feature of all social media) introduces a significant signal to noise issue.

The Need to Acquire

While we don’t usually acquire physical things through social media, we sure as hell use it to brag about the things we do acquire in the real world. A unhealthy proportion of social media activity is devoted to the acquisition of new cars, clothes, jewelry, trips, houses, boats – you name it, we tweet (or Facebook, or Instagram) about it. The arms race of social status is being waged daily on social media.

The Need to Learn

One of the biggest reasons why humans became social animals is that it was a much more efficient way to learn. In a herd, we don’t have to learn every lesson ourselves – we can learn from the experiences of other. Of course, that requires a way for lessons to spread throughout our networks. Stories, gossip, rumors – these are all social forms of information transmission. And they have all migrated onto our digital social media platforms.

The Need to Defend

This is probably the least social of Nohria and Lawrence’s Four Drives, at least as it might apply to use of social media. Humans need to defend ourselves, our kin, our community (or tribe, or nation) our possessions, our reputation, our status, our beliefs and our security. But, like all the drives, the need to defend, especially the defense of our beliefs, status or reputation, does play out in the online forum as well.

When looked at in the context of these four innate drives, it’s clear that the use of social media aligns well with our evolved requirements. It is just another channel we can use to let our pre-wired social tendencies play out. So, it passes the first gut-test. This is something we would do naturally, with or without the tools of social media. The next question is, how might our social activities change, for the good and the bad, when they’re mediated through digital channels? I’ll come back here in the next post.


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