Whenever I hop onto Facebook to do something specific—find a link I saved for later or see what’s happening on Buffer’s Facebook page, perhaps—something strange happens.

Despite my best intentions to stay on track and accomplish my goal, I get sucked in. Suddenly I’m checking my own notifications, looking at what’s been recently posted and generally forgetting why I came to Facebook in the first place.

This isn’t entirely by accident. There is science and psychology that explains why so many of us are glued to Facebook.

Researchers have discovered trends in the way that we perform every major action on Facebook—liking, posting, sharing, commenting and even lurking.

And there’s a ton of psychology involved in what makes Facebook so attractive in the first place. Here’s a look at the psychology of Facebook: what makes us like, post, share and keep coming back for more.

psychology of facebook

Why we love Facebook so much: It taps the brain’s pleasure center

Lots of studies have worked toward figuring out what exactly goes on in our brains when we’re participating in social media—specifically, Facebook.

A recent one discovered a strong connection between Facebook and the brain’s reward center, called the nucleus accumbens. This area processes rewarding feelings about things like food, sex, money and social acceptance.

When we get positive feedback on Facebook, the feeling lights up this part of our brain. The greater the intensity of our Facebook use, the greater the reward.

Another fascinating study recorded physiological reactions like pupil dilation in volunteers as they looked at their Facebook accounts to find that browsing Facebook can evoke what they call flow state, the feeling you get when you’re totally and happily engrossed in a project or new skill.

Why we “like:” Identity, empathy and practicality

Perhaps the most easily recognized currency of Facebook is the “like.”

According to Facebook:

“Like” is a way to give positive feedback or to connect with things you care about on Facebook. You can like content that your friends post to give them feedback or like a Page that you want to connect with on Facebook.

When the Pew Research Center surveyed thousands of Americans about their social media lives, they discovered that 44% of Facebook users “like” content posted by their friends at least once a day, with 29% doing so several times per day.

So what makes us like, or not like, a particular status, photo or page? Is there a method to liking? Here are some reasons why we like:

It’s a quick and easy nod

Maybe the easiest way to figure out what the like means to us is to stop using it. That’s what Elan Morgan did in a 2-week experiment she chronicled on Medium. Here’s what she discovered:

“The Like is the wordless nod of support in a loud room. It’s the easiest of yesses, I-agrees, and me-toos. I actually felt pangs of guilt over not liking some updates, as though the absence of my particular Like would translate as a disapproval or a withholding of affection. I felt as though my ability to communicate had been somehow hobbled. The Like function has saved me so much comment-typing over the years that I likely could have written a very quippy, War-and-Peace-length novel by now.”

To affirm something about ourselves

One element of Facebook that we may not realize is how often we use the Like to affirm something about ourselves. In a study of more than 58,000 people who made their likes public through a Facebook app, researchers discovered that Likes could predict a number of identification traits that users had not disclosed:

“Feeding people’s “likes” into an algorithm, information hidden in the lists of favorites predicted whether someone was white or African American with 95% accuracy, whether they were a gay male with 88% accuracy, and even identified participants as a Democrat or Republican with 85% accuracy.  The ‘likes’ list predicted gender with 93% accuracy and age could be reliably determined 75% of the time.”

To express virtual empathy

And sometimes we like in order to show solidarity or unity with a friend or acquaintance and their way of thinking. Social media can be a way of gaining “virtual empathy”—and that empathy can have real-world implications.

A study reported in Psychology Today showed that spending more time using social networks and engaging in instant message chats predicted more ability to be virtual empathic and that virtual empathy was a good indicator of being able to express real-world empathy.

Because it’s practical/we’ll get something in return

When it comes to how we choose to like brands and companies, the motivation is a bit simpler. A Syncapse study found that most people seem to make these decision based on practical reasons, like wanting to receive coupons and regular updates from companies they like.

Study explains why we like brands on Facebook

Whereas our reasons for not liking a brand focus on privacy and quality of the social media experience:

Reasons for not liking a brand on Facebook

Marketing takeaway: Likes are the penny of social media currency—spend them freely if you like, but don’t expect too much in return.

Why we comment

The answer to this one may seem kinda obvious—we comment when we have something to say!

One interesting things about receiving comments is how our brains reacts to those as compared to likes. Moira Burke, who is studying 1,200 Facebook users in an ongoing experiment, has found that personal messages are more satisfying to receivers than the one-click communication of likes. She calls them “composed communication:”

“People who received composed communication became less lonely, while people who received one-click communication experienced no change in loneliness,” she said…. Even better than sending a private Facebook message is the semi-public conversation, the kind of back-and-forth in which you half ignore the other people who may be listening in. “People whose friends write to them semi-publicly on Facebook experience decreases in loneliness,” Burke says.

Elan Morgan, mentioned earlier for her experiment in quitting likes for 2 weeks, found an additional benefit to prioritizing commenting over “Liking”—it effectively retrained the Facebook algorithm to give her more of the content she wanted.

“Now that I am commenting more on Facebook and not clicking Like on anything at all, my feed has relaxed and become more conversational. It’s like all the shouty attention-getters were ushered out of the room as soon as I stopped incidentally asking for those kinds of updates by using the Like function.”

Marketing takeaway: Comments are a powerful emotional driver. Make the most of them by engaging often with your Facebook community and replying to fans’ comments to keep the conversation going.

Why we post status updates

A Pew Research study shows that although users “like” their friends’ content and comment on photos relatively frequently, most don’t change their own status that often.

  • 10% of Facebook users change or update their own status on Facebook on a daily basis
  • 4% updating their status several times per day
  • 25% of Facebook users say that they never change or update their own Facebook status

This makes sense, given that the same study showed that “oversharing” was one of Facebook’s biggest annoyances for users:

oversharing is top dislike on Facebok

So why do many of us take the time to update our status on Facebook? What is the motivation, and what are we hoping to get out of the experience? Here’s the science behind posting to Facebook.

Posting makes us feel connected

Researchers at the University of Arizona monitored a group of students and tracked their “loneliness levels” while posting Facebook status updates. The study found that when students updated their Facebook statuses more often, they reported lower levels of loneliness:

loneliness on Facebook study

This was true even if no one liked or commented on their posts! Researcher link the drop in loneliness to an increase in feeling more socially connected.

On the other hand, when people see their social media statuses are not being engaged with as much as their peers, they can begin to feel like they don’t belong, as seen in this experiment.

What stops us from posting? A self-censoring study

Now that we know why we post, what do we know about when we don’t post? Researchers at Facebook conducted a study on self-censorship (that is, the posts you write and never actually publish).

Over 17 days, they tracked the activity of 3.9 million users and saw 71 percent of users type out at least one status or comment they decided not to submit. On average, users changed their mind about 4.52 statuses and 3.2 comments.

Facebook self censorship study
These charts show the number of censored (in red) and published (in blue) comments and posts during the study, and where on Facebook they were made.

Researchers theorize that people are more likely to self-censor when they feel their audience is hard to define. Facebook audiences tend to be quite diverse which makes it hard to appeal to everyone. Users were less likely to censor their comments on someone else’s post because the audience was more concrete.

Marketing takeaway: People engage the most of Facebook when they feel connected to one another and understood by their audience. It’s a bonus if they think they’ll get a response in return. Can you create those conditions on your brand’s Facebook page?

Why we share: A guide to more shareable content

The New York Times did an awesome study on why we share a few years ago that remains one of the most informative on the topic of social media sharing. This study identified five major drivers for sharing:

  • To bring valuable and entertaining content to one another. 49% of respondents say sharing allows them to inform others of products they care about and potentially change opinions or encourage action.
  • To define ourselves to others.  68% of respondents said they share to give others a better sense of who they are and what they care about.
  • To grow and nourish our relationships. 78% of respondents said they share information online because it enables them to stay connected to people they may not otherwise stay in touch with
  • For self-fulfillment. 69% said they share information because it allows them to feel more involved in the world.
  • To get the word out about causes they care about.  84% of respondents share because it is a good way to support causes or issues they care about.

Our friends at CoSchedule put all this into an easy-to-remember infographic:

why people share on social media

Another worldwide poll by Ipsos offers some similar findings, noting that around the globe, people seek primarily:

  • to share interesting things (61%)
  • to share important things (43%)
  • to share funny things (43%)
  • to let others know what I believe in and who I really am (37%)
  • to recommend a product, service, movie, book, etc (30%)
  • to add my support to a cause, an organization or a belief (29%)
  • to share unique things (26%)
  • to let others know what I’m doing (22%)
  • to add to a thread or conversation (20%)
  • to show I’m in the know (10%)

Here’s a cool country-by-country breakdown:

global sharing habits

One more thing we know about what gets shared: High-share content tends to trigger a high-arousal emotion, like amusement, fear or anger, as opposed to a low-arousal emotion like sadness or contentment.

Marketing takeaway: For content that racks up the shares, tap into one of these urges.

  • Create really entertaining or very useful content that will help your audience gain social status by looking smart, cool or “in the know”
  • Create content that helps your audience share more of themselves with others. You can use your brand as a rallying point and identifier or simply help them share a message that taps into who they really are
  • Create content that helps your audience engage with one another and interact together

One last note: What happens when we lurk and don’t participate

Is there a darker side to Facebook? Some of the studies I uncovered worried that Facebook could be making us more lonely, or isolated, or jealous of all the seemingly-perfect lives we see there. This down side of Facebook seems to emerge mostly when we become passive viewers of Facebook and not a part of the experience.

2010 study from Carnegie Mellon found that, when people engaged on Facebook—posting, messaging, Liking, etc.—their feelings of general social capital increased, while loneliness decreased. But when the study participants simply lurked, Facebook acted in the opposite way, increasing their sense of loneliness and isolation.

According to researcher Moira Burke, lurking on Facebook correlates to an increase in depression. “If two women each talk to their friends the same amount of time, but one of them spends more time reading about friends on Facebook as well, the one reading tends to grow slightly more depressed,” Burke says.

Do these findings ring true to you?

It turns out there is psychology behind almost every element of the Facebook experience—and researchers can’t seem to get enough of studying our habits there.

How do these findings fit with your experience? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments or on Facebook! 

Looking for a better way to share on social media?

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Written by Courtney Seiter

Courtney writes about social media, diversity and workplace culture at Buffer. She runs Girls to the Moon on the side and pets every dog she sees.

  • Very interesting to see what motivates us to take part in social. Great read.

    As marketers we should also keep in mind that the way some participate is far different from others. There is no standard for use. In addition, different brands will see different behavior from their users. B2C brands will generally see more likes, comments, and shares while B2B see less. While the message from a soft-drink maker appeals to many and may be great for sharing with your friends and family on Facebook, someone that works and sees a message about enterprise network security products is less likely to share it with their friends and family because they won’t find it interesting. We need to be aware of these differences in how people consume and interact with content and remember that no social following is created equal.

    • This is such a great one to keep in mind! For instance, I would guess that the way marketers use social media sites is far from typical!

      • wael.salman

        you always have so interesting posts and articles 🙂

        Thank you

  • What a wonderful article! You point out that there are several reasons users like a post. To agree with the ideas in the post, to empathize with the poster, self affirmation, etc. it would be interesting if Facebook implemented a deeper system for likes. What if, for example, upon liking a post, the user was presented with an option to select a reason for liking the post. Something similar to the “x” where you can flag a post as offensive or spam or just not relevant to you.

    • Wow, what an interesting idea, Ryan!

      • Welpy Team

        + this would be a great insight for brands and sponsored posts.

    • That is actually a great idea. Did you ever suggest it to them?

      • No I haven’t.

        • Elivan Souza

          Do you think people would bother to answer?

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    • Alvaro De Ramon Murillo

      Amazing Ryan! They just include it! 😀

  • Courtney, a truly excellent article that had me reading from the edge of my seat – albeit a bit sheepishly, because it did perfectly describe my own experience with Facebook. As much as I want to criticize it and ignore it, FB is actually a part of my life. My business associates post and I comment – that’s one important way I stay in touch with them. My children post and I comment and often they comment back which takes away the mild feelings of disconnect that we don’t live near each other and don’t talk often enough. I post and others comment and it gives me a sense of belonging to a community. I imagine most people feel this way.
    Had to stop and comment so you would know your article touched me :O)

    • Thanks so much for sharing so openly, Mari! It’s fascinating to me how ingrained Facebook is in our lives now, for the very reasons you mention!

  • Makes a whole lot of sense if you ask me Courtney – love the collection of global data (somewhat of a white paper). Up until recently, I used Facebook as a means to private message friends or purely for amusement (rarely liked or commented). I thought to myself, what’s the point of being on social if you’re not going to engage. My liking and sharing habits have now changed – if a friend posts something which I like, I will hit the ‘like’ button…afterall, people share because they believe their friends care about what they have to say.

    • How cool to hear about the evolution of your Facebook experience! I can definitely relate. 🙂

  • Taking into consideration the psychology of consumers, understanding why they behave the way they do, what they do on Facebook, why they do it, and how you can understand them better is a sign of an advanced marketer, most definitely. Too often we’re sucked into the realm of “here’s my content strategy” and “this is my typical user” and what the connection between them is, but people are far more complex than that and you have to take into consideration their behaviour, nature and how they interact on social platforms. A very valuable resource, nice one Courtney! 🙂

    • Great point, Avtar! Maybe that’s why I love diving into the psychology side so much. People are fascinating!

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  • Thomas T Abraham

    Fantastic insights! Loads of data, well presented!

  • Marina Arbat Bofill

    very interesting Courtney!

  • Hi Courtney! Thanks for the great overview and useful takeaways. These findings totally fit with my personal experience on Facebook – good to know how this works in our brains 🙂
    P.S. The link to the Buffer’s Facebook page in the first paragraph doesn’t work

    • Oooh, thanks so much for the heads up on the link. Fixed it up!

  • I’m a travel blogger, so being “present” on social media is part of my job. However, I’ve become virtually acquainted with people all over the world via FB and I’m also much more likely to stay in touch with people I meet IRL (in real life) on my travels via Facebook. I’ve noticed that FB seems to be more aggressively “introducing” me to possible friends. If it’s a person with whom I share over 50 mutual FB friends, I figure it’s a solid introduction. I work alone writing a lot, but I don’t feel lonely—-probably because of FB. I like that on social media, I can interact on my own schedule and others can too. I often receive comments or likes hours, or even days, after I post something.

    • Great point, Suzanne! We talk a lot about asynchronous communication here at Buffer as a distributed and remote team; Facebook is so handy for this type of communication!

    • Lynn Hoang

      nice

  • BRAVO! This is excellent. I’m always telling my clients that Facebook is about the user. Cater to a great user experience and you will see results. Thank you for putting together such a great post! Definitely sharing.

    • Thanks so much for taking a look, Monica! It means a lot that you found it useful enough to share!

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  • Jeremy Poland

    ***COMMENTING TO MAKE YOU FEEL GOOD***
    Great article Courtney! Very interesting data! I’m curious what kind of content people will come up with to test these statements out.
    Something more engaging than “comment your favorite color!”… 😉
    Thanks!

  • milanadjanski

    like

  • Eric Ngo

    Great Post! There were so many great takeaways from this article!

  • This is a masterpiece! Thank you so much, it explains more about social media addiction! 🙂

  • Karan S

    Great post! I really like that you touched upon the “need to know the target audience” as a driver of social comments. Brands are trying to create communities on their Facebook pages, and while they have the right content and strategy in place, these pages rarely incite a sense of community among users that like the page. I think the reason for this is that page fans find it difficult to sense the pulse of the community due to a diverse audience. This reiterates that brands need to get quality fans over quantity, as that will not only improve page engagement rate, but will also make fans feel more connected with other like-minded users.

    • Thanks, Karan! Yup, it can be tricky to get focused and engaged enough to create a true community!

  • Loved this! What an excellent balance of fascinating info and takeaways. I’m totally going to be thinking more about my liking and commenting. 🙂

  • Fantastic article! You cover amazing points and I’ll be using this as a part of my proposals and strategies for clients. Thank you for creating it.

  • Steffan Hernandez

    This is the best article I’ve read all year.

  • Haris Javed

    I’m not into liking, commenting on or sharing every other post on facebook in other words you might say I’m lurking on facebook but I’ve never felt or crept into any depression at all as you pointed out in the article. I have a very active real life with friends I engage with like there’s no tomorrow and virtually WhatsApp has me active almost all the time which actually makes facebook chat almost redundant to boot.

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    Nice article you got here.. 😊
    I once thought of doing this as my research paper before but i don’t have established sources..and here it is now! 😀

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  • Keith

    Great article Coutney ! I really enjoyed reading it I guess we live in such a “me me me me all about me” society that Facebook is truly the answer to that society…including me ! I get so sick of Facebook that I deactivate my account every other day or so( do I really want to see every meal you eat? Do I want to know every step you take , every stop you make in any given day ?) but I always seem to jump right back in…Mark certainly found that niche that people were looking for and after 700,000 millions users and many billions of dollars later it will be very interesting to watch what happens to future social media .. what could they possibly come up with next ?? I am at a road block now with my beloved Facebook.. said I had potential malware and they had to scan my pc before I could log in.. a screen pops up and tell you to download F Secure and if it doesnt start automatically, then download manually.. I did all those steps come back with a clean report but still get the same window when I try to log in again….. I guess life as I know it with Facebook is now over ? Facebook makes it next to impossible to communicate if you cannot log in… I have tried everything so I guess our journey together is now over !If you don’t want me that is just fine !!! with 700,000 users I am sure they will not miss me but with all the money they spend for development to keep users you would think a flaw as big as this would not go unnoticed !! Farewell Facebook …… sniff, sniff

  • Elivan Souza

    It has been more than a year I posted on Facebook. I used to comment, but then everything becomes a reason to verbal abuse. Now, I just look at what is of my interest and that’s it! No more interaction.

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  • Paul Tucker

    This fascinates me! Great read, @Courtney!

  • Meg McGuire

    Totally fascinating! I wonder if they’ve done studies on that “black hole” factor that you mentioned wherein you enter and forget why you’re there because you get sucked into something else. I know there have been general internet use studies done on how we view the screen and what we look at, in what order, and for how long…I wonder if that’s why facebook changes it’s “face” so often…looking for the eternal black hole that sucks us in forever? Haha. Really, though, I appreciate that at least some of these results show that social media can have a positive impact on us and that it isn’t always negative. Thanks for the share!

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  • Alvaro De Ramon Murillo

    Thank you Courtney for this amazing and interesting post, keep going! 😉 🙂 <3

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  • Miloud Bahadi

    very interesting article, i deactivated my Facebook account for 1 month and couple days, my intention was is to leave the social media life for a while and focus on some important things in my life, but amazingly i felt like i was resurrected again, i don’t look at my phone every second i eat my meals without looking at my phone, i don’t worry a lot about all what going on on peoples lives, and i found out that our curiosity to know what people are doing is what makes us checking peoples updates … the time of from Facebook made me feel i have plenty of time to do things i was reading the books i was lazy to read, i used the time i used to spend on Facebook to learn new things online, i was very productive at work, by the way i kept my business Facebook account but it does not feel totally like a personal Facebook , most of the private messages i receive are inquiries about certain product i advertise ,and i wasn’t addicted to it at all, now i reactivated my personal Facebook but for some reason i look at Facebook in a different perspective .

  • Cee Cee Lemon

    I think I may be broken becuase all social media makes me do is Immediatly get turned off it whenever I am forced to use it. I get no pleasure

  • Kaylene

    Facebook reflects a person’s popularity, also! I have a friend, very distant from his family, who is very hurt when they don’t bother to like, or comment, on the relatively infrequent pictures he post of himself or his family. His family, who live nearer to each other in this country, interact with each other much more than they do with him. He lives in another country. I think it’s partly because they don’t have a true relationship because they’re seperate by thousands of miles.

    Does anyone have any suggestion on how I can console him? He is so hurt by their ignoring his daughters pictures especially. Again, he only post actual pictures infrequently, Christmas, Birthdays, etc.