Schadenfacebook | Hidden Brain Many studies have shown that people who use social media may be unhappier than those who don't. This week on Hidden Brain, we explore the psychological effect social media has on us.

When It Comes To Our Lives On Social Media, 'There's Always Another Story'

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SHANKAR VEDANTAM (HOST): This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam.


JIM CAREY (ACTOR): (As Truman Burbank) Good morning.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Morning.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) Good morning.

CAREY: (As Truman Burbank) Oh, and in case I don't see you - good afternoon, good evening and goodnight.

VEDANTAM: In the 1998 movie "The Truman Show," an insurance adjuster slowly discovers that his entire life is a sham. His wife, his best friend, his neighbors - they're all actors playing roles in a reality show conceived by a mad television producer. When he figures this out, Truman Burbank starts dreaming about escape, but he finds he's trapped. Even the traffic seems coordinated to prevent him from leaving town.


CAREY: (As Truman Burbank) Blocked at every turn. Beautifully synchronized don't you agree?

LAURA LINNEY (ACTRESS): (As Meryl Burbank) You're blaming me for the traffic?

CAREY: (As Truman Burbank) Should I?

VEDANTAM: On today's show, we explore the idea that many of us are living in our own private version of "The Truman Show." Unlike the movie, our prisons are of our own making. They are the fictional worlds we create for ourselves on social media.

RACHEL LEONARD: You're kind of curating your life, just these very specific moments - the best of the best - that you're putting up there with no context.

VEDANTAM: Today, hundreds of strangers might observe intimate details of your life just like the viewers who observe Truman's every step in the movie. Truman found that living inside a television set kept him from discovering his real life. Researchers are finding that the curated versions of our lives that we post on Facebook and Instagram have real consequences in our actual lives.

You don't need me to tell you that there are positive things about social media, too. Millions of people use these sites to connect with friends and family, but there's a cost. As you watch the seemingly idyllic lives of your friends on social media, you may find a little voice pointing out that your vacations are dull by contrast, that your kid never scores the winning goal, that your relationships seem to be painted in gray while everyone else's seem to be in technicolor.

OHAD BARZILAY (TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY): Using Facebook make you more comparative. You compare yourself to others more often, you judge yourself. Am I better or worse then my friends? Am I my happier? Are they happier? And so on.

VEDANTAM: The cost of the lives we invent on social media this week on HIDDEN BRAIN.

Rachel Leonard is a free spirit. In her 20s and 30s, she lived all over the United States.

LEONARD: In Colorado, in upstate New York, and I lived in Vermont for a long time. And then I was living in Asheville, N.C.

VEDANTAM: And she traveled all over the world. She met lots of different people in all these places. To keep in touch with them, she signed up for Facebook.

LEONARD: I was traveling in Central America in 2006 and 2007, and I did not have a phone. And I was in pretty remote areas. I signed up then because I kept meeting all these wonderful people. And one of the ways to immediately, you know, connect with them was to friend them on Facebook.

VEDANTAM: The site became an important tool for Rachel to keep in touch with people she had met on her travels to share her adventures with friends and family back home.

LEONARD: That's actually when I started sharing, like, my travels with other friends, my pictures of my trip.

VEDANTAM: But as much as Rachel loved travelling and felt good about the choices she'd made in her life, other feelings started to sneak up on her. Having Facebook also allowed her to see what everyone else was up to while she was backpacking in Central America or moving from one city to another.

LEONARD: You know, everybody is getting married. Some people have one child. Some people have two children. All my friends have these high-power jobs, and they own houses and all of these things.

VEDANTAM: These feelings were at the back of her mind a few years later when she met a guy and decided to start a relationship.

LEONARD: I met him, and I had been planning to leave the country and go to Southeast Asia to teach. And I met him in December, and I was supposed to leave in June. And I didn't go.

VEDANTAM: Her new boyfriend asked her to stay with him in Asheville, N.C. She wasn't sure it was the right thing to do, but she agreed.

LEONARD: It was a turning point in my life in lots of ways because up until then, I'd kind of been this free spirit and did what I wanted and traveled a lot and still had that wanderlust. But I was also 33 and kind of looking around and realizing that other people were getting married and having kids, and I decided maybe I should try this out.

VEDANTAM: Soon, like so many of her friends, she was posting pictures and details about her happy relationship.

LEONARD: We got engaged pretty quickly. And, you know, at this time, I'm posting my pictures. I'm posting our hikes. We lived in, you know, the Blue Ridge Mountains, so we'd have these beautiful hikes and this lovely little town, and, of course, I'm posting all of this.

VEDANTAM: Her engagement was chronicled - the new house they moved into, the view from the porch. All of it looked beautiful on Facebook.

LEONARD: If you looked only from the porch, you could see mountains straight. But if you looked to the left, you could see this huge factory. But, of course, I didn't take pictures of the factory because why would you do that?

VEDANTAM: Because Facebook is not a place for pictures of ugly factories.

LEONARD: It was very taboo not to share positivity. No one ever put negative stuff on there, and if they did, people were like what's going on with blah, blah, blah? So it was always about being positive and showing your best side and your best moments.

VEDANTAM: Facebook is also not a place for ambivalence. Celebrating triumph - that's welcome. Mourning a tragedy - that's OK, too. Expressing uncertainty and doubt - not so much. We all intuitively understand the rules. Posts about engagements and babies will receive ravenous applause. News about a grandparent passing away will elicit virtual hugs. But fears about not making rent, marital tensions, hesitations about becoming a parent - those are forboden (ph).

Rachel started to feel constricted. The more she posted about her happy life on social media, the greater the disconnect she felt with her real life. "The Truman Show" she had invented online increasingly felt like a trap.

LEONARD: I know now that at the time, while it looked great and it looked right, it didn't really feel right for me. But I think that putting it out there and having my friends say, oh, this looks so wonderful. You look so happy. This is great. It was kind of my way of convincing myself it was. And I'd say that the more things didn't feel great, the more I posted.

VEDANTAM: The gulf widened between her real relationship and the Facebook version.

LEONARD: What I'm not posting is that we fought a lot and what seemed to be kind of perfect to other people was not.

VEDANTAM: When the new couple took a trip to Charleston, Rachel says her friends on Facebook only saw the beautiful pictures. She posted photos of the two of them sitting on the beach, drinking mimosas, eating good food.

LEONARD: And really we were fighting the entire time. I had actually tried to break up with him, and it was a miserable trap, you know, but I didn't tell anybody that. And I, you know - what I shared was the pictures of us in front of the fountain or at the aquarium or eating something delicious and not that we fought 90 percent of the time. You're kind of curating your life. It's just these very specific moments - the best of the best - that you're putting up there with no context.

VEDANTAM: More and more, Rachel found that she was turning to social media for validation. She wanted confirmation from her social media feed that her life was on track. The more she posted photos of her relationship, the more positive feedback she got. Like...

LEONARD: I'm so happy for you. You're finally settling down - because I'd been traveling forever - and, you know, you look great. You two look beautiful together.

VEDANTAM: So Rachel convinced herself that this was what she wanted. She had constructed a beautiful version of the truth and now she felt she had to live it. She got married, posted photos of the wedding. She says that she and her husband moved to a new city. They both got jobs, they bought a house, put down roots.

LEONARD: You know on the outside, it looked like we had this beautiful new house and he had this great new job. And I had this great new job and still things were not good.

VEDANTAM: The house looked beautiful from the outside, but ended up being costly and difficult to fix. Worse than that, Rachel increasingly felt she was with the wrong person.

LEONARD: The best way that I can put it is that we were just not suited for each other. And I knew it. I think that part of my psyche was just trying to ignore all of these signs that were just this person and I were not - we were not matched well.

VEDANTAM: Rachel quickly got pregnant. She had a difficult pregnancy. But, again, that wasn't something she shared on social media.

LEONARD: It was taboo to say that this doesn't feel good. This is really hard, as if you're not grateful that you were pregnant. And instead of being able to say those things out loud, I just posted pictures of my growing belly, and, you know, cute things and working on the nursery. And, you know, things like that instead of really focusing or sharing what was going on for me internally.

VEDANTAM: The unhappier Rachel felt, the more she posted. And she spent a lot of time looking at other people's posts, too.

LEONARD: I would just scour other people's lives. I would just - to compare, you know, their happiness against my happiness. You know, am I - I felt like I shouldn't be feeling the way I was feeling.

VEDANTAM: It seemed like the grass was always greener for everyone else. Everyone else seemed more successful, happier in their marriages, having more fun with their pregnancies and the early days of motherhood.

Eventually Rachel's marriage fell apart. She says she decided to move back to Cleveland where her family is from, along with her son. And in that moment, something happened.

LEONARD: You know, what was really interesting was when I knew I was moving back to Cleveland, I was trying to kind of put feelers out there because I knew I needed to find a job. And I didn't know how to say it without really saying what was going on. And so I, you know, posted that my son and I were coming back to Cleveland, and we'd be there in June. And I was looking for some - you know, a new adventure or - something like that, put some spin on it.

And I got so many private messages from friends of mine who were like are you guys getting divorced, blah, blah, blah and I have been separated for six months or we're getting divorced or I've been divorced for two years. I had no idea. These are people who I looked at their lives and maybe if I hadn't been so hyper focused on my life, I would have maybe noticed that their husbands were not in all the pictures anymore. It was eye-opening.

VEDANTAM: Once the spell was broken, Rachel realized something.

LEONARD: I look at social media differently now. In fact, when people are posting a ton of stuff, I'm always kind of like, I wonder what other story is happening, not that there has to be doom and gloom and negativity, but there's always another story. There's always something else going on. There's context you could never pick up if you didn't know.

VEDANTAM: There's always another story. We might know this intellectually, but we still often feel a sense of social comparison when we look at our social media feeds.

BARZILAY: So it's not that you think that others are happier than you are, but you need to prove yourself to yourself over and over again, and these social comparison engagement makes you less happy.

VEDANTAM: When we come back, we'll explore how the amount of time you spend on social media can determine how happy you are. Stay with us.


VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. When I heard Rachel's story, I kept thinking about this tragic irony. She constructed a fake world to keep up with the happy lives of her friends on Facebook, but many of her friends were doing exactly the same thing. They were trying to keep up with her. Everyone was posting pictures of their beautiful vacation, and no one was saying anything about the fight they'd had during the car trip.

Many studies have shown that people who use social media frequently appear to be unhappier than those who don't. But until recently, it was impossible to say whether this was correlation or causation. Do lonely people spend more time on social media in an effort to escape their loneliness or is social media itself causing people to feel isolated? A recent study at Tel Aviv University has provided what may be the first experiment to sort out causation from correlation.

BARZILAY: Yes. So my name is Ohad Barzilay, and I am a faculty member at the Coller School of Management in Tel Aviv University.

VEDANTAM: Ohad and colleagues wanted to test whether spending time on Facebook actually made people feel worse. They happened on what psychologists call a natural experiment. A security firm in Israel decided to restrict the Facebook use of its employees. No one was allowed to use Facebook at all for security reasons. The employees had to delete their accounts if they wanted to continue working for the company.

But then after some time, the firm decided to allow some employees to reopen their accounts. They effectively created two groups - one that used Facebook, one that didn't. None of these people were choosing which group to be in, so it couldn't be that people who were unhappy were the ones choosing to use Facebook. Ohad and his colleagues collected data about the employees from the time no one was allowed to use Facebook and a few months after some employees were allowed to use the social media website.

BARZILAY: We decided to focus on Facebook effect on social comparison, the perceptions of others' lives and happiness.

VEDANTAM: Social comparison, the very thing Rachel struggled with looking at other people's lives and trying to figure out whether she measured up.

LEONARD: I would just scour other people's lives. I would just - to compare, you know, their happiness against my happiness.

VEDANTAM: Ohad and his colleagues looked at both groups, and they found a few interesting things.

BARZILAY: Our first finding is that using Facebook make you more comparative. You compare yourself to others more often, you judge yourself, you compare am I better or worse than my friends? Am I happier? Are they happier? And so on.

VEDANTAM: One surprising thing is that the study did not find that people thought others had better lives. They weren't fooled by all the happy vacation and anniversary pictures posted by their friends.

BARZILAY: We know that people post on Facebook mostly positive things, and they under-post negative things about their lives. So other studies have argued that users that use Facebook think that their friends have better lives than they have. So we did not find any support for this argument, and we think that maybe people make a correction in their perception. And they know that people present a better version of themselves.

VEDANTAM: In other words, many people reach the same conclusion that Rachel did.

LEONARD: There's always another story.

VEDANTAM: In spite of this, the researchers found that the employees who used Facebook became less happy over time compared to those who were prevented from using Facebook.

BARZILAY: Being engaged in excessive social comparison decreased one's happiness. So it's not that you think that others are happier than you are, but you need to prove yourself to yourself over and over again. And this social comparison engagement makes you less happy.

VEDANTAM: You need to prove yourself to yourself over and over again. In other words, it's not enough for many of us to know we're having a good time. It's not enough to take a beautiful photo, filter it, post it, see how our friends react. We also want our lives to be better or at least as good as the lives of our friends.

Comparing yourself to others doesn't just steal happiness because you discover that other people seem happier than you are. Comparing yourself to others steals happiness because the very act of comparison takes you out of the life you're living, it takes you out of the moment. The fear that others are leading happier lives than you are has a common nickname - fomo (ph), the fear of missing out.

BARBARA KAHN (UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA): This particular thing of fomo for me came from my daughter. My daughter's in her late 20s, and I just observed her friends and she experiencing fomo and just driving themselves crazy from it.

VEDANTAM: Barbara Kahn is a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who studies perception and decision making. She became interested in studying fomo after observing a situation with one of her daughter's friends.

KAHN: One of her friends chose to go to a wedding in a beautiful locale, instead of going to a beach weekend where the other friends were going to be. And instead of enjoying the wedding that she was at, she was looking at Facebook and looking at the activities of her friends at this beach weekend, which was a routine thing. It wasn't a special occasion at all.

VEDANTAM: Here's the crucial part. The friend who went to the exotic locale for the wedding didn't think the beach was a better option. She chose to go to the wedding because she felt it was the better choice. Seeing her friends back at the beach didn't make her question her decision, but it did take her mind away from the beautiful spot she was in.

KAHN: I think people make decisions and then fomo undermines their enjoyment of the decisions that they've made.

VEDANTAM: Now, as Barbara Kahn points out, fomo means a lot of different things to different people. It's entirely possible, for example, that the friends who went to the beach vacation were looking at photos from the beautiful destination wedding and feeling like they were the ones who were missing out. But Barbara says the type of fomo she ended up focusing on through a series of experiments is a very specific feeling.

KAHN: What we found out from a lot of the experiments that we ran - the thing that was generating the fomo, the feelings of fear of missing out, it isn't really a fear. It's like a social anxiety, and it's really more about what are your friends doing in building up their social group history that you're missing out on? So it's not really about the experience per se.

In all of our experiments, we found that it was really more function of an anxiety that something might happen in a group experience that will shape the group history in the future that you may not be part of. And that will undermine your group belongingness. And in fact when we went back and said, OK, if you could make this decision again, would you choose to go to the beach weekend or to the wedding - although we didn't use that example in our studies but that kind of thing - would you choose to go to the clearly better experience or would you go to do the routine thing your friends were doing on a regular basis?

Almost every time, people said, oh, no, I'd go to the exotic event. It wasn't that they didn't think that the exotic event was better and the smarter decision. They had no regret about making that decision. What they were anxious about - and were using the word anxiety - was that maybe something would happen in the group that would forever change the dynamics of the group and they wouldn't have been there when it happened.

VEDANTAM: To be sure, envy and social anxiety were not invented by Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat. But Barbara Khan says these platforms make us much more aware of all the things that are happening without us. She's run a series of experiments each with a couple hundred undergraduates testing the hypothesis that fomo undermines our happiness with the decisions we've made.

KAHN: What I think social media does is it allows you to see these routine things your friends are doing that you really never paid much attention to before. But when you see it on your phone or, you know, if you're looking on the tablet or online and you're just observing that your friends are doing something and you're not there, that's something you didn't get to see before. And suddenly you had this, pang, I wonder what they're talking about or what's happening? I'm not there.

VEDANTAM: So even if you spent the day ziplining through the Costa Rican rainforest, when you get back to your hotel that night and check Facebook knowing your friends are having a barbecue in Poughkeepsie diminishes some of the pleasure of the ziplining adventure. After seeing the photos of your friends in Poughkeepsie, Costa Rica now seems a little less magical. Fomo, the fear of missing out leads to actually missing out.

KAHN: Assume you have an opportunity to go to a concert of a musician you love and you never get to see or you get to go to an exotic vacation, and you choose to do that rather than go to a routine barbecue with your friends. It's exactly set up like that. So we say assume you do that.

Then the experiment is in one condition we say now assume while you're out on vacation, you pick up your phone and you see your friends enjoying themselves at the barbecue. And in the other condition, which is control condition, you pick up your phone and you scroll and you look at something. But it's not pictures of your friends. And then what we do is we - before we ask you to look at those pictures before that manipulation, we measure how much you're enjoying your Hawaii vacation or the exotic concert or whatever. We have you either look at the pictures of your friends or not.

And then we measure again how much are you enjoying where you are now? And what we find is a significant increase in enjoyment when you've looked at the pictures. Then when you haven't.

VEDANTAM: Barbara Kahn and her team are doing more experiments. But if their findings hold, they say something really sad about our use of social media. The fictional worlds we construct there can make our friends feel their lives are inadequate and the fictional worlds our friends construct can make our lives feel duller than they actually are.

As for Rachel, she's in a new relationship now, and she says she's happy. She has a new job, and she and her son are doing well. But she doesn't feel the need to publicize any of this on Facebook.

LEONARD: I don't take a lot of pictures anymore. If I'm there in a moment and I'm having that moment, who's the picture for? You know? Is it for me to remember or is it - you know, I'm trying to live more presently for myself and for my son and just for my own mental well-being.

VEDANTAM: She's asked her new boyfriend not to post about their relationship on social media either. This time, the good moments and the bad will be theirs alone.

This week's episode was produced by Maggie Penman and edited by Tara Boyle. Our team includes Jenny Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen and Renee Klahr. Our intern is Chloe Connelly. For more HIDDEN BRAIN, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Actually - hang on a second, maybe you should take a little break from social media and just listen for my stories each week on your local public radio station.

Our unsung hero of this week is NPR CEO Jarl Mohn. Jarl has a poster in his office that sums up his management philosophy. It's also his attitude toward life. The poster says be kind, be kind, be kind. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

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