Self-Image and Hills to Die On: Some Insights into Social Media Behaviors

I’m reading Influence by Robert Cialdini, and some parts of the book have been unsettling. Influence discusses strategies that are effective at changing people’s behavior and beliefs. Of course, not all techniques work on all people in all situations. But because they’re often effective enough, you’ll typically see them wielded by salespeople, political activists, cult leaders, and other folks who are deeply motivated to be persuasive.

One of the insights in the book is that people will often become the instruments of their own change. You nudge them towards a particular path, and they do the rest. Their brains begin to reinforce certain associations, build certain habits, and concoct rationalizations. People can easily overestimate how much control they have and can come to believe that an idea was their own all along.

I’ve also come across passages that provide insight into behaviors often seen on social media. The book initially came out in the 1980s, and the revised version I’m reading now was published in 2007. I think this was before the major social media sites became mainstream, so I don’t know if the author will bring them up at any point. But even though these excerpts don’t refer specifically to Twitter or Facebook, they’re still insightful about the way people often behave on those sites:

Once we have made up our minds about an issue, stubborn consistency allows us a very appealing luxury: We really don’t have to think about the issue anymore. We don’t have to sift through the blizzard of information we encounter every day to identify relevant facts; we don’t have to expend the mental energy to weigh the pros and cons; we don’t have to make any further tough decisions.

Now let’s consider the following point about publicly committing to an opinion. Cialdini talks about how writing in support of a belief or opinion makes you more likely to commit to it, especially when your statement gets shared with others. Even if you initially think you’re only make a mild concession or are writing to appease someone else, you can wind up aligning your emotions and beliefs with the statement you wrote, just for the sake of maintaining a consistent self-image:

Once an active commitment is made, then, self-image is squeezed from both sides by consistency pressures. From the inside, there is a pressure to bring self-image into line with action. From the outside, there is a sneakier pressure – a tendency to adjust this image according to the way others perceive us. And because others see us as believing what we have written (even when we’ve had little choice in the matter), we will once again experience a pull to bring self-image into line with the written statement.

Social media is made up of a blizzard of information, a mix of facts, falsehoods, strident opinions, and delicate bits of nuance that usually get blown away in the whirlwind. Sorting through all of that takes effort.

What takes less effort is to commit to a half-baked opinion with consistency. You consider what your social circle is doing or what your followers expect. You write something that seems favorable – maybe because you think it’s right or because you think it’s kind, polite, or a harmless concession to fitting in. And once you’ve written your statement, you share it with everyone. Now it gets harder for you to backtrack and revise. There’s a pressure to remain consistent with your ideas, even if they turn out to be incomplete or in need of heavy revisions. It’s much more difficult to change, or to even realize that in some ways you must change.

It’s probably harder for people writing under their real names on accounts with a lot of followers than it is for smaller, anonymous accounts. The need to stay consistent is a powerful force; we may not even be aware of its influence. And that’s even before you begin to factor in additional forms of pressure (like your preference to go along with what your social circle is doing, and the ostracism that may result if you change your mind about an issue).

By the way, in the excerpt above about the influential power of written statements, Cialdini was discussing American POWs during the Korean War. Read the book to find out more. Even without the threat of torture, the POWs could generally be induced to think more favorably about communism and collaborate with captors. Written statements were key to this.

(Quick edit to add the following point: Cialdini doesn’t argue that we’re powerless against various tendencies. In fact, he talks about some of the ways people can stop themselves from behaving automatically or habitually.)

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