Social media: it’s everywhere you look, everywhere you go, and involved with everything you do. Social media has made pop-stars out of people who once thought themselves alone, and loners out of people who once thought themselves important. Social media has been the foundation for a world-wide apathetic approach to personal information security and has given rise to a new era (and industry) of hacking. It has lead to success, failure, suicide, and even murder. Strangely, in the less than 10 years, “social media” became a part of the modern world culture. Faster than the spread of Christianity, war, science, ideology and any other world-wide phenomena, social media rose to power in the blink of an eye. But, how?
The answer may very well lie in a well-established psychological concept known as cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance occurs when an individual’s actions, thoughts, or behaviors contradicts the world-view (and, by world-view, this could be as simple as 2 people or as massive as the entire planet’s population). In the world of deviant behavior, cognitive dissonance is exhibited when a person does something contentious with the law or a moral or ethic code and tries to justify or make excuses for themselves. Not limited to just deviant thinking, cognitive dissonance is present in the everyday lives of every person on the planet. The premise is simple: people need to be right. In Maslow’s (and later on, more evolved models), hierarchy of human needs, from the very first stage of physiological needs, to belonging, and finally self-actualization, people have both a physical and neurological need to avoid pain. When questions arise that contend with our thoughts, actions, or behaviors (our internal world-view), it creates conflict. Conflict leads to added thinking processes, questioning ourselves (including our identities and belonging in the world), and as I’ve written about before, overloads our brains.
To better understand this, imagine the following situation:
It’s 10:00 pm and you are at a red light in your car, the roads are empty, and you’ve been waiting there for more than 3 minutes. After a while, most people would start to question whether or not the light is “ever going to turn green.” Soon, a stream of thoughts follow: “I want to get to where I’m going,” “It’s late and I am tired,” and so on. The red light has become a persecutor and the natural, human position to take is that of a victim: “This is unfair,” “I wonder if the light is broken,” “The stupid City needs to fix their lights,” and so on. This is painful. No one likes to be a victim. It feels unnatural, causes you to question your self-worth, and challenges the premise that you can be happy (or have a good day or whether or not you are even a good person). Almost everyone has gone through a situation similar to this.
Now comes the dissonance: By driving through the red light, knowing it’s illegal, you are suddenly faced with two, conflicting world-views: 1) you’re being victimized and need out of the situation by driving through the red light, and 2) driving through the red light is illegal and breaking the rules. If you want to see this on a more conscious level, check out this Youtube video demonstrating both consonant and dissonant music. Dissonance is inharmonious. It’s actually no different than chewing on tin foil, scratching nails across a chalkboard, or hitting your toe with a hammer. It’s unpleasant to the point of being unbearable. Remember, pain is only an interpretation of the brain to tell you that you’ve gone too far in one direction or the other. In this case, you know that breaking the rules (because you’ve learned this as a licensed driver), is going too far and will get you in trouble, but not doing is possibly pushing you too far in the other direction. Trouble is not good, it is the path toward pain, and thus:
Your decision to make things better could make things worse.
It’s this type of situation where a person is pushed to the extreme and needs temporary relief that forms the basis for addictions like smoking and drinking (where the temporary moment of relief has to be justified against the longer term pain that will probably be worse than any short-term pain). You can’t act on dissonance. This is why the human psyche has developed its own set of tools to overcome this problem (for example): “There’s no one here, I’m not endangering anyone’s life, and clearly, the only way out is to go!” This is called “justification” and it’s one small part of a long list of thinking errors that all work together to accomplish the unified goal of avoiding responsibility (or the longer-term consequences for the immediate relief). On the other hand, “justification” by itself is not wrong if it results in better decision making: “I know I need to get home, but I know it’s breaking the rules, and so, I can just be patient.”
However, when it comes to cognitive dissonance, it doesn’t matter which decision you made. It is the old adage: “You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t.” Those who ran the red light and were pulled over by law enforcement get that immediate reinforcement that their own thinking was somehow flawed, further reinforcing a lifetime (growing) list of self-doubt that stays with them. Those who got home late may be glad they’re safe, but they never faced their victim (the red light), and remain a victim. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rules, but I’m addressing the majority of all human beings. Even the person who waited has thought in their head, “I hate that light.”
Worse, for both people, they now have to contend with the fact that their enemy was an unseen and unknown force. The “light” didn’t assault them (it is only a light bulb, after all). What assaulted them was their own conscience and cognitive processes. Unfortunately, unless you’re “into” self-harm, that doesn’t work. “You” cannot physically, logically, or emotionally be your own enemy otherwise, you have no means of “fighting” back, since it still results in you being hurt (thus, the “blame” game begins!). To overcome this, a new thinking path arises:
Confirmation of my world-view.
“I hate it when I get stuck at that light – it never changes even though I just sit there and wait.”
“It was so unfair I got a ticket, I didn’t hurt anybody and that stupid light was clearly broken.”
Two entirely separate paths came back to the same course: the need to be justified in your decision. If someone says, “Oh, that happens to me all the time and it doesn’t bother me,” what do you say? Here’s a response you’ll NEVER hear: “You know, that’s a really good point. I like that long red light and I’m going back there so I can be stuck in my car for hours because that’s a good thing.” Sound childish? It’s not. It is a perfect example of why we do not accept contradictions to our world view. So, when you hear, “Yeah, that sucks, it sounds like you didn’t deserve a ticket,” suddenly, your whole perspective changes. You are no longer a victim! It “WASN’T YOUR FAULT“. And, thus, your thinking was justified, you know you were in the right even if you do have to pay a ticket and you can get back on the road without having to stop at every red light feeling like a victim. Does it make sense now why you might hear an alcoholic say, “I just need a shot of tequila to ‘face the day‘,“? Even if you didn’t “beat down” your enemy physically, you were given a dosage of good old “acceptance” and a booster shot of “self esteem”, and it was a reward mechanism that made you feel better!
This brings us to a new theory I am proposing here (at least for me it is new): “The Social Cognitive Dissonance Theory.” Now, of course, the example I gave above is based on already well-established psychological principals. However, the Social Cognitive Dissonance Theory crosses the threshold into social media by addressing blogging, tweeting, Imgur, Youtube, Yelp, Pinterest, and other sources based on similar psychological principals of social networking … but rather than be about “why” people socially network, it’s more focused on “how” social media / networking exploded into the world scene almost overnight. It is the same principal that could be used to better explain the appearance of guests on shows like “America’s Got Talent”. The principal theory is this: the need to fit in, be love, be admired, and be wanted is more important than any other human need.
How does social media fit in?
The internet (which I will digress from expressing all my disgruntlement with for the moment in time), did something amazing (yet terrible) for individuals: it opened the door for one person to be in front of millions with the click of a button (and cheap enough that everyone could do it)! Justification of an individuals’ thinking (their world-view or position) by mom or dad is great … but the acceptance of millions is more addictive than any drug in the world. For some, this new media was an effective tool: in America, Ex-President Obama used Twitter to launch an expansive information campaign that literally won him an election (because he fed into an entire nation’s need to be accepted and recognized). For the rest of the world, services like MySpace, Facebook, and others allow people to post ideas, thoughts, and opinions for all to read (each being their own “important” person or “person of interest”). Even better than just getting to share with the world, opinions and responses came back live and in real-time. This type of immediate feedback was no different than the schemes used by slot machines in casinos. Whether the feedback was good or bad – it was immediate (meeting that basic primal need of instant gratification).
According to the Social Cognitive Dissonance Theory: justification and reinforcement of one’s world-view is such a powerful, primal need that the immediate gratification of online approval was more attractive, addictive, and effective than any drug on the market. At the onset of social media there was a lot of flaming and hatred mixed in with the good, resulting in ongoing, heated communications. The negative replies resulted in on-line verbal wars (and eventually the start of trolling), and positive replies reinforced the posters’ world-view. Suddenly, people felt justified that their opinions mattered, and if they didn’t, they could fight until someone finally agreed with them and select that feedback as the justification of their position. Facebook intentionally mislabeled “anonymous strangers who appear as though they happen to agree with you“, as “friends“, and not only were people finding their world-view justified, but the basic need for love and acceptance was being simultaneously fulfilled. Dissonance ends, resolution is reached, and the world is better … sort of.
People looking for information blindly accepted it, right or wrong, because these were their “friends” who justified their position and it’s all they needed to feel important (like the stuffed animal parent for Harlow’s monkey experiments). Even posting factual blogs or “how-to’s” reinforced the “need for acceptance” as posters were being accepted as experts, even outside of any area of knowledge or expertise they may have. Within a few years, it was no longer enough that a close-circle of friends agreed, people wanted more (power corrupts absolutely). While an over-packed world of people who somehow could not (seemingly) meet other people was separating the masses, the internet offered an alternate solution: “Stay at home and we’ll come to you!” It’s sort of a hard concept to object to: utilizing laziness and the “easy” road as a way to end dissonance and bring about joy.
Another major aspect of social media’s instant success was that the unimportant became important. Thus, the fact you may not be a rock star or famous Hollywood actor was no longer an issue. People could write about any stupid idea, thought, or perception that they had and everyone was interested (since even negative commenters, no matter how negative, were at least still taking the time to read the posters’ work and thus contributed to their self-importance). Acceptance reached all new levels (especially as the 80’s had worked hard to put a divide in people … but I will digress on that for now). People virtually went into the homes of others and it no longer required experience, skill, effort, time, or opportunity.
The result? There are billions of people online with an opinion. Every single one of those people want their opinion to matter so they belong and are justified in their world-view; and social media was the key. People do tend to group themselves together for the very same reasons of “need” and “belonging” and the internet offered some very large groups. What should have taken decades to infiltrate the whole of the world (cell phones, twitter accounts, Youtube video posters, and so on), sprang up in a few years’ time. This was accelerated by a compounding effect that came about because the commenters could also communicate to one another. Thus, a single post became a forum for thousands to each fight for the highest rating approval. Every blog, tweet, and yelp review was an opportunity to tear others down to fulfill the false ideals that lifted them up (filling that false sense of control, “being right”, and power over others). Posting any social media information suddenly resulted in commenting. Commenting resulted in more commenting which then resulted in more posting and … you have a digital phenomenon that moved at a pace so rapid that the world was literally blind-sided by it (and all because society may have failed to recognize that “attention” and “belonging” were more powerful than any other function in human development; although, in fairness, no other model has existed in history that could have supported this so well).
In steps Corporate America!
Opportunity was afoot. These folks saw what was happening WAY early on. Their “sheeple” (aka the “consumer”) were ripe for manipulation. Social media became integrated into cellular phones, tablets, and web pages (including printed media). The video camera industry took a decade of zero advancements and whipped out Go-Pros to boost their ratings. Worse, Hollywood had suddenly realized that its famous actors and actresses were beginning to take a back-seat to the ordinary, every-day people they had been trying to keep as media slaves. To combat this, the Hollywood “stars” joined the social media stream and suddenly:
It wasn’t just approval you could get, it was the approval of someone who already had the approval of a million other people and in minutes (thus the term, “trending”) you could have the approval of tens of millions. It’s no different than introducing children to candy and subsequently, Halloween. Even cocaine and heroine addicts get on routines which hold them over and then re-dose at a speed commensurate with their body’s rate of adaptation. Social media acceptance is a drug that seemingly has no limitations on the max intake. Thus, the more approval a person has, the more their drive (and there’s no “schedule”). This is the basis for megalomaniacs and even some serial killers (those who seek fame and recognition).
And, with corporate America shoving social media into everyone’s face, integrating into their digital lives, and manipulating the world with this drug, rather than being saturated with too many Facebook “friends” or Yelp “reviews”, people looked to the digital world for everything in their lives: humor, knowledge, science, and more. Why? Social media fed them what I theorize may be one of the most important human needs: “ego”. Vanity may be one of the single most powerful drivers in the universe, even over the physical needs of food, air, and water. People have even been known to surrender food and water to focus on their on-line experience. However, the experiences are not always great. Regardless, even though online humor is often times not very funny at all and the scary is boring, in order to evolve and survive, the”expectation” bar is set lower. Rather than move into higher levels of morality and well-being, the idea of unimportant opinions being somehow elevated, depraved creativity being rewarded, and virtual cruelty to other human beings all become reward mechanisms of acceptance and the higher level brain functions unique to human evolution are stunted.
Of course, one would have to lower the bar (below the floor!) to accept the internet. While smoking, drugs, and drinking require an addict to forget about the damages, to agree with anything on the internet (that you would want to agree with so it keeps fulfilling your needs, too), one has but to lower their expectations of performance and output. Thus, as a person moves up in satisfying the hierarchy of needs, in the new model (above left), without developing real friendships, problem solving is crippled (because, in practice, it doesn’t work in “real-world” interpersonal experiences and becomes a contention / dissonance). Self esteem is massively boosted, not based on performance, but rather it is based on an altered world-view used to justify and build up belonging and cripples the creativity process, that coupled with problem solving, results in the denial of the truth (because on-line ‘esteem” and solutions from anonymous/ faceless posting have contradictory values and results in real life).
True love and belonging are never fulfilled, safety and security are hollow (as the same buffers in the digital world and abandonment of personal identification security curtail real-life esteem and strength built from having a strong/ solid personal identity), and there is a pause in development. This leads to depression, anxiety, stress, and the massive influx of psychological problems and issues currently facing the world today. Even food is set after esteem and love – and this is justified in the real-world issues regarding weight, appearance, and artificially generated / manipulated behaviors such as anorexia, diet trends, popularity on appearances, etc.). Conversely, we know that teaching is most effective when rewarded. It doesn’t have to be food or the basic “physiological needs”, which substantiates that acceptance, love, and belonging, are by far the most important elements in human development.
This model is also a more well-developed basis for all deviant (criminal) thinking behavior. This is present in “criminal” and “non-criminal” portions of society (which is important to identify in less obvious “non-criminal” sources to ensure integrity in the analysis). For example, this handout, from the “Addiction Technology Transfer Center” is entitled: “Thinking errors characteristic of the criminal“. If you read it, everything is about how the “criminal” thinks and the “criminal” acts and is the most racist/biased, obtuse manner of thinking and labeling that spurns the potential for recovery and health in the world. As it is represented as supposedly “educating” material, it is so misguided in its representation of the truth that it borderlines on psychotic:
“Anger is a basic part of the criminal’s way of life. He or she responds angrily to anything interpreted as opposing what he or she wants. Anger is, for the criminal, a major way of controlling people and situations.“
Is it true that there are some criminals who are extremely angry? Yes. Is it true that there are some criminals who are not? Yes. Is it true that there are people who are not “criminals” that are extremely high-strung and angry? Yes. What an article like this one misses is the fact that “stereotyping”, “assuming” and “labeling” are also parts of criminal type behavior! Worse, “justifying” an article as “educational” to ignore the precepts of psychology and proper care and treatment for recovery is disconnected criminal-type thinking! The point is, it is more easy to see where actual criminal “behavior” occurs as it is an external response, but the goal is to identify where the criminal “thinking” occurs in main-stream society to justify a revised model of needs. Clearly, the writer of the article is willing to put someone else under their feet to be recognized as an “expert”, when clearly, they are not.
Another perfect example is the “Slenderman Stabbing case“. For anyone familiar with “Slenderman“, the premise of the argument in the court case justifying that a teens’ behavior was the result of mental illness whereby she was somehow appeasing slenderman was a complete abuse of justice. I’m not judging the teen – that’s for you to decide (if you so choose). I’m addressing the fact that misinformation, social media, and a stunted level of development outside of the social/digital world gives way to not only criminal behavior in children, but it further integrates itself into all those around it setting false precepts and hollow cultural standards of right and wrong where fame gained through social media does not require skill, talent, or even anything good. It only requires attention – and in the rapid growth of a completely unknown (like the effects of social media), there was no time to for a controlled introduction and in the wake of this overnight phenomenon, even “bad” gets attention.
Unfortunately, society itself is reinforcing dissonance. With the advent of social media and the recognition by authority figures that the internet and disclosure of a person’s behaviors and actions (without consent), can boost their goals (which are not stopping crime as crime has become more prevalent), privacy is being rapidly abolished. You already know it, but most likely, like everyone else, feel as though there’s nothing you can do to stop it. It’s not that the massive influx of cameras, tracked cell phones, and other intrusions by themselves are a problem, but coupling that with the “need” to fit in and belong and the contradictory anxiety and fear of always being watched (which inevitably, for everyone, leaves people feeling as though they are automatically distrusted regardless of what they’ve done), is a problem. George Orwell’s book, 1984, best demonstrated that “control” does not create a society of lawful people. It creates distrust, an increased level of ‘sneaking’ around, and literally promotes criminal behavior (justified by the fact a person’s trust or value is now always at question, no matter what they do). Of course, law enforcement programs like D.A.R.E. never worked, either, but unfortunately, the rapid onset of social media and a failure to learn from the past are now contributing to a rise in criminal behavior and activity as authority figures continue to set a standard of distrust and manipulation. If anything you say or do can be “interpreted” by an over-zealous legal system that continues to spiral down-hill in its focus on public safety – going out in public is a problem, you feel less safe and less “belonging”, and will turn to more social media to combat this. It is literally a self-perpetuating problem that “will” grow.
So, now you have the premise for the “Social Cognitive Dissonance Theory”. It explains how social media / networking became a world-wide phenomenon based on the principle that self-esteem, love, and ‘belonging’ generate the most addictive chemical releases in the human brain. It explains why people do social drugs, engage in “jack-ass” behaviors, and subject themselves to harm regardless of physiological needs. It explains a part of the equation that has contributed to a massive decline in cultural values, psychological disorders, misinformation, and a general unhealthiness around the world. One of the best examples of the importance of “belonging” as a weapon is that of North Korea. They literally manipulated over 3 generations of their own people to feel hated and neglected by the world. Everything the masses were deprived of (food, water, family, and life) were all based on the lie that the Imperialists (America), and the rest of the world, hated them. Their “saviors”, became the corrupted leaders who are heroes by restoring love, accepting their own people, falsely elevating them using a “Hitlarian” “superior race” agenda, and making them feel accepted as a part of their “artificial” family. A lack of social acceptance and love is such a powerful tool for manipulation that it worked better than starvation and torture.
I’m not saying social media is “bad”. I’m saying that it grew too fast. Now, the warnings being issued about the effects fall on deaf ears like the warnings about cigarettes issued 100 years after their initial release. I don’t know if there’s a fix or a cure or how to even address the matter now that Corporate America has stuck its ugly face into the mix and is using social media to bolster its bottom line. After all, what good is it to try and help someone quit the addiction when the Corporations are feeding it more and more everyday? No, I’m not saying that it’s the “fault” of corporations, they’re just another obstacle that has complicated the solution.
Thanks for reading.
(Please note I am not a doctor, psychologist, psychiatrist, or other health professional. I am a Systems analyst, so surprisingly, I know more. Still, it means you should consult one of those health professionals first since they’re supposed to know what they are talking about! You know, because … legal reasons!)
“After all, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named did great things. Terrible! Yes. But great.” – Ollivander (Harry Potter)