Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Student examines links between social media use and narcissism

Recent psychological research has shown links between Facebook usage and narcissism—a personality trait characterized by an inflated sense of importance, a constant quest of admiration from others, and a lack of empathy. What does that mean about the millions of people who check Facebook daily?

Penny Trieu ’15 wants to find out. She is using her summer research project to study the links between activity on the social network and narcissism. Particularly, she wants to find out whether engaging in different activities on Facebook in different affects a user’s personality.

Trieu said that scientists have tracked an increase in narcissism over the past 40 years. The increase began after a period of “positive psychology” that focused on self-esteem. “The theory was that if you have a high self-esteem, everything will work out well for you,” she said. “Parents and schools started to work on ways of raising kids that builds self-esteem, regardless of the accomplishments of the children.”

Those attempts, however, can lead to negative repercussions related to narcissism. For example, people who are accustomed to receiving a reward regardless of their performance might not know how to handle a minor failure. “It’s healthy to accept that, rather than inflate self-esteem by saying everybody wins,” Trieu said.

Social media may have magnified the effects for self-esteem among some users. Trieu started wondering about that as she saw many people posting multiple self-portraits and talking openly about their accomplishments and other good things about their lives. She then read scientific studies about links between Facebook and self-esteem and started formulating ideas for her own project.

This summer, Trieu has read many research studies about links between Facebook and narcissism. She has worked with project advisor, Beth Schwartz, the Catherine E. & William E. Thoresen Chair in Social Sciences and assistant dean of the College, about those studies to glean ideas for an original research project.

Trieu plans to have participants use Facebook in different ways. Some would share photos and information about themselves. Others would use the network to post photos and talk about other people. She will have each group participate in an activity to help gauge narcissism.

Trieu and Schwartz believe that focusing Facebook use on interacting with others might decrease traits of narcissism. “Research in the past has shown that connection to others leads to lower levels of aggression and narcissism,” Schwartz said. “It could be that it’s not going on Facebook, but it’s what you’re doing on Facebook that leads to narcissism.”

Trieu plans to begin her own research on the topic sometime this fall and continue in the spring.