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Research confirms polarizing spiritual beliefs lead to Facebook 'unfriending'

To friend or unfriend
To friend or unfriend
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Two studies conducted at the University of Colorado Denver are shedding new light on the most common type of ‘friend’ to be unfriended on Facebook and their emotional responses to it. The studies show that the most likely person to be unfriended is a high school acquaintance who posts divisive comments surrounding religious beliefs or politics. Both studies were based on a survey of 1,077 people conducted on Twitter.

According to Christopher Sibona, a doctoral student in the Computer Science and Information Systems program at the CU Denver Business School, “The most common reason for unfriending someone from high school is that the person posted polarizing comments often about religion or politics,” with the other “big reason for unfriending was frequent, uninteresting posts.”

Sibona’s first study examined ‘context collapse and unfriending behaviors’ on Facebook and his second looked at ‘the emotional response to being unfriended.’

The first study found that the top five kinds of people respondents unfriended were:

1. High School friends
2. Other
3. Friend of a friend
4. Work friends
5. Common interest friend

“We found that people often unfriend co-workers for their actions in the real world rather than anything they post on Facebook,” Sibona said. It’s nice to have a friendly work environment. But in some cases, work friends shouldn’t be Facebook friends. The overlap of professional and personal life can be less beneficial than you might think.

One reason Sibona believes high school friends are top targets for unfriending is that their political and religious beliefs may not have been as strong when they were younger. And if those beliefs have grown more strident over time, it becomes easier to offend others. High school friends easily fall into the Facebook category of “someone I used to know”. Reconnection can initially be exciting and filled with curiosity of “where are they now” questions. However, when the newsfeed turns into a daily rundown of status updates that are spiritually, morally and sometimes politically offensive, the only option seems to be unfriend.

“Your high school friends may not know your current political or religious beliefs and you may be quite vocal about them,” Sibona said. “And one thing about social media is that online disagreements escalate much more quickly."
The second study looked at the emotional impact of being unfriended.

Sibona found a range of emotions connected to unfriending, from being bothered to being amused.

The most common responses to being unfriended were:

1. I was surprised
2. It bothered me
3. I was amused
4. I felt sad

The study found four factors that predicted someone’s emotional response to being unfriended. Two factors predicted that a user would be negatively affected -- if the unfriended person was once a close friend to the one who unfriended them and how closely the person monitored their own friend's list.

Two other factors predicted that a user would be less negatively affected -- if difficulties were discussed between the friends before the unfriending and if the person unfriended talked about it with others after the unfriending.
The research showed that unfriending happens more often to friends who were once close than to those who are acquaintances.

"Despite the preponderance of weak ties throughout online social networks, these findings help to place unfriending within the greater context of relationship dissolution," the study said.

Sibona said that the ‘one size fits all’ method of ending digital relationships is unique but with real world consequences that warrant additional research.

"If you have a lot of friends on Facebook, the cost of maintaining those friendships is pretty low," he said. "So if you make a conscious effort to push a button to get rid of someone, that can hurt."

The two studies were published in the 2014 47th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.

Sibona is currently investigating why people either stay on or leave Facebook. Those interested in helping him can take his anonymous survey.

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