When we typically think of kids who are the victims of school bullying, what comes to mind are isolated youth who do not fit in. A new study from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, however, shows that when that harassment occurs online, the victims tend to be in mainstream social groups at the school – and they are often friends or former friends, not strangers.
The research is part of a burgeoning field of study into the effects of social media on everyday relationships and behavior. Personality and social psychologists are finding surprising ways in which people's online environments and relationships reflect and influence their real-world ones, as presented today at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) annual meeting today in New Orleans.
"Researchers have known for a while that individuals give unique cues about who they are with the things they own, clothes they wear, things they say and do. However, though these cues are informative to knowing who someone truly is, they were not always so easily accessible to our entire social network," says Lindsay Graham of the University of Texas, Austin, one of today's presenters at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) annual meeting this week.
"Now with much of our lives being lived online, and the boundaries having been blurred between who sees these cues and who doesn't, it is all the more important to pay attention to the kinds of impressions we are giving off to those around us." More than 3,600 scientists are in attendance at the meeting in New Orleans from January 17-19, 2013. The Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) promotes scientific research that explores how people think, behave, feel, and interact. The Society is the largest organization of social and personality psychologists in the world.
The emerging image of the cyber-bully
Some statistics indicate that as many as 160,000 students a year skip school just to avoid being harassed, and texting and social media are making it easier than ever to harass classmates. Victimization from schoolmates has been correlated with everything from depression and anxiety to thoughts of suicide and struggles with academics.
To study so-called "cyber-aggression" – harassment that occurs online – Diane Felmlee of the Pennsylvania State University and Robert Faris of the University of California, Davis, studied 788 students at a preparatory school in Long Island. They mapped the students' social network structure relative to online harassment: asking students to name their close friends, which schoolmates they have picked on or been mean to, and which schoolmates had picked on them.
What they found was that cyber-aggression occurs in the mainstream of the school and largely among friends, former friends, and former dating partners. They also found that non-heterosexual students were more likely to be the victims. Examples of the types of harassment found online were posting humiliating photos, texting vicious rumors, posting that a student is gay and making fun of him, and pretending to befriend a lonely person.
"Cyber-aggression occurred most often among relatively popular young people, rather than among those on the fringes of the school hierarchy," Felmlee says, according to the January 19, 2013 news release, From bullying to relationships: Mapping our online communications. "Those engaging in cyber-aggression also were unlikely to target strangers but often were in close relationships with their victims at one point in time, close enough to know how to harm them." The researchers found that some of the processes that contribute to aggression in school include jockeying for status, enforcing norms of conformity, and competing for girlfriends or boyfriends.
How our online image affects our relationships
Even more innocuous online interactions can prove problematic for offline relationships, psychologists are finding. One new study shows that disclosing more about ourselves online actually lessens intimacy and satisfaction among romantic couples.
"We found that contrary to the research on offline self-disclosure, which shows that more offline disclosure leads to higher intimacy and relationship satisfaction between both romantic couples and friends," explains Juwon Lee of the University of Kansas, in the news release. "Online self-disclosure was negatively associated with intimacy and satisfaction between couples."
In a series of studies, Lee and colleagues found that greater usage of Facebook predicted lower satisfaction in romantic relationships but not in friendships. In one study, the researchers created two different mock Facebook walls: one that had a high degree of self-disclosure. For example, many personal pictures and personal status updates such as "Just had a fight with Mom" or "Pretty interesting training at work today") and one that had a low degree of self-disclosure. (Another example would be neutral status updates such as "Nice weather today").
They asked the participants to imagine that one of the walls was their partner's and then measured their relationship intimacy and satisfaction. Those who had the walls with high levels of self-disclosure reported less intimacy and satisfaction with their relationships compared to those with the more minimal walls.
Online self-disclosure was negatively associated with intimacy and satisfaction between couples
"Disclosing a high degree of personal information online, regardless of whether or not the information is related to your partner or relationship, will likely negatively affect your romantic relationship," Lee says, according to the January 19, 2013 news release, "From bullying to relationships: Mapping our online communications." How our online image matches us offline Researchers are also investigating how closely the information we disclose online mirrors who we are offline. In two new sets of studies, psychologists looked to World of Warcraft players and to profiles of people who frequent cafes and bars.
"With more and more of our lives being lived both in the physical and virtual worlds, it's important to understand the kinds of impressions we give off to others through the traces we leave behind in our environments," says Graham of the University of Texas, Austin, co-author of the studies with Sam Gosling. "Whether we're creating a screen name or avatar for ourselves, or broadcasting that the bar or coffee shop down the street is one of our frequent hangouts, we are inevitably telling those around us something about who we are as individuals."
"World of Warcraft" players study
In the study about World of Warcraft players, the researchers found that although people can make consistent judgments about a player's personality, those impressions do not match how the players view themselves. In the second set of studies, they examined 50 randomly selected cafes and bars in the Austin area and looked at the profile pictures of people who frequent those establishment using the social networking site Foursquare.com. Just by looking at the profile photos of the frequent patrons for each location, observers were able to assess the personality the typical patron (e.g., extraverted, likeable, narcissistic), the activities likely to occur at the establishment (e.g., drinking, surfing the web, flirting), and the atmosphere or "vibe" of the location itself (e.g., sophisticated, clean, kitsch-y).
For comparison, the researchers sent a second set of observers to the same locations to make the same assessments in person. "Interestingly, we found that when we compared the impressions formed from just the profiles with those formed from the establishments themselves, there was quite a bit of overlap," Graham says. "Impressions were consistent no matter what type of stimuli an observer sees – suggesting there is some cohesion in the types of people who go to certain places and the places themselves."
How communication channels shape what we say
Aside from creating images of ourselves online, people increasingly use social media – including Twitter, Facebook, and blogs – to communicate a variety information, including about consumer products. Exactly which modes of communication we choose, online versus offline, affects how we talk and what we talk about, a new study finds.
Jonah Berger of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and colleagues analyzed more than 21,000 everyday conversations on- and offline. They found that online posts and texts provide people the opportunity to take pauses in conversations, and thus more carefully craft what they say. As a result, those conversations tend to be more interesting than conversations face-to-face or over the phone.
The researchers measured interest by "coding" the conversations, which came from the Keller Fay Group, a research marketing firm that tracks which brands and products consumers talk about. Brands such Christian Dior and products such as the Audi A6 scored as highly interesting, while brands like Ross and products like insurance scored as not at all interesting.
"These findings shed light on how communication channels shape interpersonal communication and the psychological drivers of word-of-mouth more broadly," says Berger, who is author of the upcoming book Contagious: Why Things Catch On.. "They underscore the old maxim of thinking twice before you open your mouth." The press conference on this research "Bullying, Relationships, and Personality: How the Social Media World Maps to Social Reality" took place January 19, 2013, at the SPSP annual meeting. More than 3,600 scientists are in attendance at the meeting in New Orleans from Jan. 17-19. SPSP promotes scientific research that explores how people think, behave, feel, and interact. The Society is the largest organization of social and personality psychologists in the world. How we choose to spend our money on purchases affects our health and happiness, according to a different study presented at the SPSP meeting on the same day.
Scientists examine connections between well-being and gratitude in new study
Another study also was presented this week at the SPSP meeting. We all know that getting a good night's sleep is good for our general health and well-being. But new research is highlighting a more surprising benefit of good sleep: more feelings of gratitude for relationships.
"A plethora of research highlights the importance of getting a good night's sleep for physical and psychological well-being, yet in our society, people still seem to take pride in needing, and getting, little sleep," says Amie Gordon of the University of California, Berkeley, according to the January 19, 2013 news release, Surprising connections between our well-being and giving, getting, and gratitude. "And in the past, research has shown that gratitude promotes good sleep, but our research looks at the link in the other direction and, to our knowledge, is the first to show that everyday experiences of poor sleep are negatively associated with gratitude toward others – an important emotion that helps form and maintain close social bonds."
Social psychologists are increasingly finding that "prosocial" behavior – including expressing gratitude and giving to others – is key to our psychological well-being. Even how we choose to spend our money on purchases affects our health and happiness. And children develop specific ways to help others from a very young age. Gordon and other researchers will be presenting some of these latest findings at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) annual meeting today in New Orleans.
Sleeping to feel grateful
A large body of research has documented that people who experience gratitude are happier and healthier. In three new studies, Gordon and Serena Chen, also of the the University of California, Berkeley, explored how poor sleep affects people's feelings of gratitude.
In the first study, people who experienced a poor night's sleep were less grateful after listing five things in life for which they were appreciative than were people who had slept well the night before. The researchers adapted the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index, which measures sleep quality and number of hours slept, among other variables, to evaluate the previous night's sleep.
In the second study, participants recorded their sleep from the previous night for two weeks and their feelings of gratitude. The researchers found a decline in gratitude associated with poor sleep, and those participants reported feeling more selfish those days.
The final study looked at heterosexual couples and found that people tend to feel less grateful toward their romantic partners if either they or their partners generally sleep poorly. "In line with this finding, people reported feeling less appreciated by their partners if they or their partner tends to sleep poorly, suggesting that the lack of gratitude is transmitted to the partner," Gordon says.
"Poor sleep is not just experienced in isolation," Gordon says. "Instead, it influences our interactions with others, such as our ability to be grateful, a vital social emotion."
Giving away money to feel wealthy
Just as expressing gratitude confers benefits, so too does giving to others. New research shows that people all around the world – from Canada to Uganda, from South Africa to India – derive more happiness from spending money on others than they do on themselves.
"For the first time, we show that giving away money or spending it on others confers the ironic psychological benefit of increasing the giver's sense of wealth," says Michael Norton of Harvard Business School and co-author with Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia of the upcoming book Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending | Welcome to the Social Cognition & Emotion Lab. In a suite of new, not-yet published, studies, Norton and colleagues showed that charitable giving makes people feel wealthier.
Poor sleep influences the ability to be grateful
This research follows on other recent work published in Psychological Science by Norton and colleagues that shows that giving time to others – from helping with homework to shoveling a neighbors' driveway – actually makes people feel that they have more time. "In fact, giving time away alleviates people's sense of time famine even more than receiving unexpected windfalls of free time."
That people feel wealthier from spending money on others may explain why poor individuals tend to give away a higher fraction of their income than members of the middle class do. In one study, researchers reported that Americans earning less than $20,000 a year give a higher percentage of their income to charity than others earning up to $300,000 a year.
"Our results suggest when the poor give money away, that very act might mitigate their feelings of poverty," Norton says. "More broadly than this specific benefit, our investigation contributes to the growing body of research documenting the benefits of prosocial behavior, which include greater happiness, reduced mortality, and better immune function."
Buying experiences to feel happy
In related research, psychologists are finding that spending money on experiential purchases, such as vacations, concerts, and meals out, tends to bring us more happiness than material purchases, such as clothing, jewelry, or electronic gadgets. Amit Kumar and Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University are investigating one potential explanation for this difference: that experiences prompt storytelling more than possessions do.
In new research, they asked participants to recall either a significant experiential purchase or a significant material purchase. They then asked them how much they had talked about the purchase they recalled, and questions related to the satisfaction they derived from their purchase. Participants rated a higher satisfaction for experiences than for possessions, which was because they were more likely to talk about the experiences with other people.
In another experiment, the researchers measured what happens when people cannot talk about their purchases. They asked participants if they would be willing to pay a price to be able to talk about a beach vacation (experiential purchase) or an electronic good (material purchase). "Participants were more likely to switch from a better purchase that they could not talk about to a lesser purchase that they could talk about in the experiential condition than in the material one," Kumar says.
"Well-being is likely to be enhanced by shifting the balance of spending in our consumer society away from material goods and towards experiential ones," Kumar says in the news release. "This research also suggests that there are benefits to be had not only by nudging people to choose experiences over possessions, but also by encouraging people to share stories about their experiences."
Knowing what is best to help others
The roots for how we give to others form at a very young age. Children, it turns out, are very sophisticated givers – not only coming to someone's aid when needed but also coming up with the best strategy for doing so, often independent of an adult's instruction.
In new research, Kristina Olson of Yale University and Alia Martin have found that children often will act, thinking they know better than others what is best for them or others. In a series of experiments, the researchers investigate whether 3-year-old children will help someone by ignoring the specific request and instead offering a better alternative.
In one study, for example, when an experimenter asks the child for a specific marker, but the child knows that marker does not work, the child will instead offer up a better marker. In another study, a pre-recorded child asks the child participant to give her a piece of chocolate via a tube that supposedly connects them. If the participant knows that chocolate makes the other child sick, the participant will decide to give her fruit snacks instead.
"Perhaps most provocatively, children will selectively decide not to help in this way if they don't like the person," Olson says in the news release. "For example, if an experimenter has previously been mean, children won't warn the adult of a potential harm – such as something sharp in the container they are reaching in – but will if the experimenter was not mean."
"These results suggest that children are able to help adults and peers already by the preschool years in rather complex ways, even when the beneficiary is misguided about what he or she wants," Olson explains. "Children don't just blindly do as they are requested, but rather consider a person's goal and consider alternative possible ways to achieve that goal." A press conference on this research "Giving, Getting, and Gratitude" took place Jan. 19, 2013, at the SPSP annual meeting.