False identity and the Facebook-self
Winnicott’s (1960) theory posits that one’s ego can split to “true self” and “false self.” These terms describe two types of experiences: one is more spontaneous, authentic and real and the other is more defensive and protective, trying to hide the “true self.” Similarly, Rogers’ (1959) theory defined the real self as the underlying organismic self. The ideal self often deviates from the real-self, and this can be a result of the lack of positive regard during childhood. It represents who one would like to be, as a result of the feedback he or she received during their developmental period. The gap between the real self and the ideal self is called incongruity. Both theories also suggest that large gaps or incongruence between the true and protective self can lead to various psychological problems. Behaving according to one’s “true self,” as well as having clear and explicit identity, tends to have positive consequences. This idea extends to online environments. People who present their “true selves” and are authentic on online media, tend to create honest, healthier and longer relationships with their online friends. These relationships, in many cases, are also translated into the oﬄine world (McKenna et al., 2002).
One should note that there are also short-terms advantages to false presentations; and hence presenting a false self can be rational and perceived as a self-advantageous behavior. In a process called “identity play” a person can explore and adopt different identities that are different from his or her own identity (Turkle, 1995). This behavior can be considered positive if it is done from time to time and if it is flexible, meaning the person can freely change his or her behavior in different states. In addition, one’s “false self” protects a person from showing others (including him- or her-self) who he or she really is or how he or she really feels, which in many cases can be a major benefit explaining the common use of “false self” and specifically false Facebook-self in our society. However, these advantages are realized primarily when the false-self is not persistent and is not too far from the true self. Hence, when these conditions are not met, a person may suffer from the negative consequences of his or her falseness.
How can a false-self be created on Facebook? Users on Facebook expose information about their identity in various ways, from their demographic profile information and education/professional experience to photographs, clips and written text. In contrast to anonymous social networks and sites (such as: blogs, forums, and others), it is uncommon for Facebook users to present false surface information (i.e., they mostly present true name, activities, and social demographic information). However, their deep identities are often presented in an implicit way using cues and signals embedded in their posts and images. For example, people may selectively post images of them being happy dining at a fancy restaurant with good looking friends, in an implicit attempt to enhance their image in the eyes of others in their social network; even though their true selves may be depressed and introvert, and the rest of their week was pretty dull. Consequently, users keep their identity much more implicit and create signals that present their identity in a positive way (Zhao et al., 2008). Hence, the Facebook-self in this research is a collection of signals given by a Facebook user to his or her Facebook community. These signals include all information, from the profile information (academic and professional background, hobbies, and others), followed by the uploaded content (photos, songs, and others) and ending with the published communications one posts on his or her “wall” or on other people’s “walls” (messages, referred links, and other pieces of information). In this sense, one-to-one messages sent via Facebook are usually not a part of the public “Facebook-self.” Please note that the “Facebook-self” following Winnicott’s theory, might in some cases represent a “true self.” However, in many cases it is likely to manifest a “false self” to a certain degree, which can diverge from one’s “true self.” This falseness is not necessarily intentional or even conscious, as it can represent one’s non-Facebook “False self.”
Personality characteristics that contribute to the presentation of a false-self, regardless of Facebook, are low self-esteem and unawareness of the true self (Harter et al., 1996), which may be manifested through low general authenticity. We therefore focus on these variables in this study, and apply them to the case of the Facebook-self.
Why should we care about false Facebook-self? There are several negative outcomes which may stem from a false Facebook-self. Specifically, it might negatively affect one’s well-being, especially if done consistently and inflexibly, since authenticity is correlated with both subjective well-being and psychological well-being (Wood et al., 2008). We also assumed that keeping a false “Facebook-self” increases the reward one gets out of Facebook, as it provides a non-realistic environment one can act in, which may serve as a fertile ground for the development of addiction to the use of Facebook (Turel et al., 2014). Hence, therapists may want to deal with extreme cases of Facebook-self in order to prevent such issues. The point at which falseness on Facebook requires treatment is a topic for a different study, and requires further research.
Psychological predictors of false Facebook-self
Facebook is the largest social networking site on the Internet, with more than 1.3 billion active users, 829 million daily active users and ∼15% annual growth (Facebook, 2014). People use Facebook for developing and maintaining social ties; and such uses can improve the well-being of individuals by reducing their feelings of loneliness and depression (Kraut et al., 1998). Other possible benefits of using such sites include increases in self-esteem and perceived social support (Ellison et al., 2007; Bessière et al., 2008; Gonzales and Hancock, 2011), as well as enjoyment, satisfaction (Turel and Serenko, 2012; Turel, 2015) and positive affect (Bareket-Bojmel and Shahar, 2011).
Given these social and self-enhancing benefits, the use of such websites may be especially appealing for people with low self-esteem, who can use such sites to self-disclose in a “protected” environment (Reis and Shaver, 1988). Unfortunately, even though such sites look like “safe” environments, recent research shows that interactions with and on such sites can lead to unwarranted consequences. For example, retaliation against people with different opinions may be common on such sites (Forest and Wood, 2012). This unsupportive interaction causes social networking site users with depressive symptoms to have negative interactions and negative affect (Feinstein et al., 2012). This concern regarding social-and affective-safety may be one predictor that promotes social compliance and the development of false Facebook-self.
Furthermore, lonely people that have low social skills tend to develop strong compulsive Internet use behaviors, and as a result have negative life outcomes instead of relieving their original problems (Kim et al., 2009). Similarly, individuals with materialistic values who believe that online purchases will enhance their emotions and identity, develop compulsive shopping tendencies (Dittmar et al., 2007); and others may feel guilty regarding the time they spend on Facebook and the way they manage relationships on Facebook (Turel, 2015). As such, Facebook usage has a range of effects on the self, much beyond the Facebook boundaries. It affects the feelings, attitudes and behaviors of its users in the oﬄine world, outside of Facebook.
As discussed above, Facebook can have positive impacts on certain users and negative effects on others, and it is also possible that it has positive and negative effects on the same users (Tarafdar et al., 2013; D’Arcy et al., 2014). One of the potential causes to this variation in the positive and the negative effects of social networking sites is the wide spectrum of Facebook users who differ in their characteristics, personalities, intensity and forms of Facebook usage, benefits they get from the social networking sites, and attitudes toward Facebook. Analysis of this wide range of personalities, behaviors, attitudes and emotions can shed some light on the various effects Facebook has on its users. Focusing on the characteristics that put certain users at risk might point to possible prevention strategies, and this is the avenue of research we pursue in this study.
The negative effects of Facebook usage were mainly found in parameters such as reduced oﬄine social life participation, withdrawal from academic studies challenges in relationships (Kuss and Griffiths, 2011), and sense of time wasting and guilt feelings (Turel, 2015). It was also found that some Facebook users prefer their social interaction to be online (versus oﬄine). These users usually engage in social networking site use as a means to regulate their mood changes. When they have deficient self-regulation abilities, they may engage in excessive and problematic Facebook use (Lee et al., 2012), which is sometimes classified as an addiction to the use of such sites (Turel and Serenko, 2012; Brand et al., 2014). From a brain activation standpoint, problematic use of Facebook is typically driven by hyper-sensitized and hyperactive amygdala-striatal system (Turel et al., 2014).
In addition to the abovementioned variables, it is possible that the social aspects of Facebook use are associated with its users’ attachment style (Bowlby, 1969), albeit these effects are likely to be indirect and mediated through traits which are developed post-childhood. Attachment theory predicts that early childhood relationships of the infant with his or her main caregiver influence his or her long-term relationships with others. Hence, its relevancy to Facebook use, which is largely about relationship development and maintenance. Attachment theory points to four attachment patterns: secure, avoidant, ambivalent/resistant and disorganized. These styles can influence Facebook use in various ways, and particularly non-secure attachment styles (anxious and avoidant) can be associated with the ways people manage relationships and interact on Facebook: (1) anxious attachment style is positively related to relationships within Facebook and (2) avoidant attachment style is negatively related to these relationships, with expression of jealousy and surveillance on Facebook (Marshall et al., 2012). The rationale behind these influences is that Facebook users who are high in anxious-attachment are likely to maintain a larger number of friends, and to have more intensive relationships, but experience no satisfaction with these relationships. In contrast, Facebook users who are high in avoidant-attachment are expected to have fewer friends, to be less active in maintaining these relationships and to be less emotionally involved with these friends.
Other major personality traits that have been studied in past research include self-esteem, narcissism, conscientiousness, loneliness and self-worth. Users with low levels of self-esteem and high levels of narcissism tend to spend more time on Facebook and post self-promotional Photoshop-enhanced images (Mehdizadeh, 2010). Self-esteem was also found to be negatively correlated with emotional connection with Facebook (Seto, 2012). On average, heavy Facebook users tend to be less conscientious and socially lonely (Ryan and Xenos, 2011). With regards to self-worth it was found that its sources (appearance, outdoing, and others) explain online sharing of photos (Stefanone et al., 2011). Hence, Facebook users low on self-esteem will be more likely than others to self-enhance their image on Facebook, and present higher degrees of false Facebook-self.
Lastly, authenticity is another personality trait which has received attention, because it is seen by many psychology perspectives as an important aspect of well-being (Horney, 1951; Rogers, 1961; Winnicott, 1965; Yalom, 1980; May, 1981) and departures from it are often seen as increasing the likelihood of psychopathologies. Authenticity is the degree to which one is true to his or her own personality, spirit, or character, despite external pressures. Psychodynamic theoreticians, such as Horney (1951) and Winnicott (1965) focused on the internalization of external aspects of life during childhood as something that can lead to self-alienation, while existential theoreticians, such as Yalom (1980) and May (1981) focused particularly on self-alienation as the core of authenticity. Both points of view agree that authenticity is a key influencer of well-being, and that major deviation from it can lead to problems. In the current research we hypothesized that one’s authenticity in the “real world” (outside of Facebook) will mirror into the Facebook arena, and will lead to lower degrees of falseness in one’s Facebook representation.
Ultimately, the growth in Facebook usage seems to result in part from the various benefits it provides to its users; and that these benefits can vary based on individual differences in terms of self-esteem and anxious attachment styles. However, as we argue here, this growth can also fuel the development of false Facebook self-identities. Based on the abovementioned logic, we argue that the development of false Facebook-self is driven, in part by low authenticity and low self-esteem, and that these individual differences can be influenced by one’s upbringing and the negative attachment styles – avoidant and anxious, he or she has developed. We expect that avoidant and anxious styles will reduce one’s self esteem and his or her authenticity because less-authentic behaviors and reduced self-esteem may result from less secured attachment styles as a means to protect one from engaging in relationships in which he or she is perceived to be inferior to others.
Given the possible prevalence and importance of the false Facebook-self and its possible adverse consequences, the aim of this study is to analyze key psychological processes leading to a false Facebook-self, with an emphasis on key predictors mentioned in the previous sections. Integrating the possible influences of these predictors on false Facebook-self, we propose the model depicted in Figure 1. The model starts with early childhood, where infant’s relationships with his or her main caregiver influence his or her attachment style. As predicted by Bowlby’s (1969) attachment theory, non-secure attachment styles (anxious and avoidant) influence long-term relationships with others, and more importantly, personality characters which relate to self-worth perception and image. In our model we predict that both avoidant and anxious attachment styles negatively influence one’s self-esteem (Arbona and Power, 2003) and authenticity (Gillath et al., 2010) in real life (outside of Facebook). These two personality characteristics, in turn, will negatively influence the creation of a false Facebook-self. That is, people high in non-secure attachment styles are predicted to develop lower general life authenticity and lower general self-esteem. When self-esteem and authenticity are low, we predict that individuals’ self-representation on Facebook will deviate from their true-self; i.e., they will present stronger false Facebook-selves.