How Your Facebook Friends May Unwittingly Hurt Your Feelings — And Your Intelligence

BUFFALO, N.Y. — They don’t mean it, but your community of Facebook friends could be affecting your thoughts and stirring a burst of negative emotions in you, leading to feelings of social exclusion, and even draining your intelligence, research shows.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Buffalo, showed that prominent social media sites tend to present users with information that may make them feel left out by their circle of friends. These negative interpretations of posts, the research found, actually inhibit intelligent thought in such a way that users are actually more receptive and vulnerable to advertising messages.

But researchers say that posts eliciting social exclusion typically don’t appear to be intentional. Because social media sites, by design, encourage sharing of information among friends, the interpretations of these messages from person to person can vary. That’s especially the case, the study shows, when a person sees friends engaging in something without them, causing them to feel excluded — even if it’s a conversation on a post.

“These findings are not only significant because we are talking about individuals’ emotions here, but it also raises questions about how exposure to these interactions affect one’s day-to-day functioning,” says lead author Jessica Covert, a graduate student in the school’s Department of Communication, in a release. “Offline research suggests that social exclusion evokes various physical and psychological consequences such as reduced complex cognitive thought.”

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For the study, Covert and her team created scenarios mirroring typical interactions on Facebook. Nearly 200 individuals participated in an experiment that exposed a portion of them to instances of social exclusion. The researchers gave one group a scenario in which two good friends shared information on social media that excluded the participant. The other group saw a newsfeed that presented no social exclusionary posts.

Those in the social exclusion group expressed feeling more negative emotions than the control group. Researchers say that these participants also used more “mental resources toward understanding their social networks, making them particularly sensitive to stimuli, such as advertising.” That’s because the brain usually self-regulates the feeling of social exclusion, because most well-adjusted people will logically conclude that they’re not being intentionally left out of their social circle. But this self-regulation comes at a cost: it consumes resources in the brain used for intelligent thought, hence opening an individual up to being persuaded by something like an advertisement.

“Facebook’s entire business model is built on advertising. It’s nothing but an advertising machine,” says Stefanone. “Given Facebook’s annual ad revenue, I think it’s a conversation worth having, that regular, benign and common use of this platform can lead to short-term inhibition of intelligent thought.”

The authors plan to use their theory to test in a future study how social media use may hamper intelligence.

The study was published in the journal Social Science Computer Review.

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