BUFFALO, NY — Self-image goals are associated with and predict intent to share self-promotional content on social media, and there’s some evidence that compassionate goals may share helpful, prosocial content on social media, according to a new study Studies at the University at Buffalo.
People want to look good online and they design their image to present themselves in the best possible light. And while the motivation to help others may not be immediately present in people with compassionate goals, the study shows how simple tasks can encourage users to engage in prosocial content.
The findings, published in the journal Cyberpsychology, offer opportunities to harness interpersonal goals in ways that can potentially transform real-world sharing behaviors on social media.
“Social media literacy programs should integrate these insights in a way that teaches children how to use these platforms to have a positive impact on others by cultivating prosocial motivations,” says Zena Toh, a PhD student in communications at UB College of Arts and Sciences, and the first author of the paper. “Also, I’m very interested in understanding the results in terms of who might be more vulnerable to ‘slacktivism’, the idea of supporting a cause with little engagement, and whether these targets increase people’s efforts to actively contribute to these social causes engage, advance or decrease.”
Toh says social media is relational by nature, connecting people across different networks. This interpersonal nature led her to investigate whether goals in interpersonal relationships affect the content people share on social media, a technology that has about 4 billion users across multiple platforms, about half of the world’s population.
“It’s interesting to know how much of our decision-making is based on our close relationships,” she says. “As our interactions with others become more digital, it’s important to think about why we choose to share certain types of content and how these seemingly insignificant social media posts can impact our relationships.”
For the study, Toh and her co-author David Lee, PhD, UB Assistant Professor of Communications, recruited a representative sample of 327 participants with Instagram accounts. Participants completed online surveys that measured their motivation to build a positive self-image (self-image goals) and goals that promote the well-being of others (compassionate goals). Toh and Lee found that participants with high self-image goals were more willing to share self-promotional content, even at the expense of others; In contrast, those who performed well on Compassionate Goals were more willing to share prosocial content on social media.
In a follow-up study, researchers experimentally prompted participants to have self-image goals or compassionate goals by asking participants to write about how they could use social media content to enhance their own image and benefit others, respectively. The researchers then assessed the participants’ intention to share different types of content on social media. Results showed that participants induced with self-image goals were more willing to share self-promoting content than prosocial content compared to those induced with compassionate goals.
“In turn, this design can easily be tailored to teaching media literacy,” says Toh. “One way could be to get students to keep a journal of how they use social media and ask them to think carefully about what they are trying to achieve with their content and how their contributions impact people’s well-being might others.”
Toh believes the result can be generalized beyond Instagram as well.
“This study focused on individual goals and not on what a platform offers users,” she says. “Nevertheless, I’m curious to explore how idiosyncrasies of different platforms interact with people’s intention to share content.”
As social media in all its forms become more and more established in the communication landscape, a continuous examination of their nature and the motivations of the participants becomes critical.
“So much has been talked about on these platforms about issues like body image, cyberbullying, and social comparisons,” says Lee. “I think it’s important to understand why these things happen and try to mitigate these behaviors by targeting the psychological mechanisms responsible.
“This research is a first step in that direction,” he says.