Psychology Trumps Technology: How to Express Yourself and Truly Connect With Others Online
In this podcast episode, we unpack the psychology behind our communication via social media.
“Psychology trumps technology,” says Jeff Hancock, founding director of the Stanford Social Media Lab and professor in the Department of Communication at Stanford. “If you want to understand what’s going on in social media, the first place to start is with what’s going on psychologically.”
On the latest episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, lecturer and podcast host Matt Abrahams sits down with Professor Hancock, to talk about the communication tendencies, styles, and mistakes of social media users. “Whenever there’s a new kind of technology … our focus is on what it’s doing,” Professor Hancock says. “But I think over time what we end up realizing is that it’s still people using it to accomplish things. And I think when we start to when we step back … we can get a sense of what really is changing.”
Matt Abrahams: When it comes to social media, we all have to manage multiple identities, just like superheroes, crafting our communication in online personas can foster collaboration and connection with a multitude of others.
Yet it can also lead to increased stress, feelings of inadequacy and distraction. I’m Matt Abrahams and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast.
Today I look forward to my conversation with Jeff Hancock. Jeff is the founding director of the Stanford Social Media Lab and a professor in the Department of Communication. His research and teaching seek to understand psychological and interpersonal processes in social media like trust, deception, relationships and emotion. Welcome, Jeff.
Jeff Hancock: Hi, Matt. Looking forward to talking with you today.
Matt Abrahams: Great, I look forward to learning from you as well. Let’s get started.
Social media allows us to communicate so much about ourselves, our beliefs, our ideas, desires, hopes, fears and most importantly, our identities. What insights has your lab found regarding how we disclose information about ourselves?
Jeff Hancock: But I love the way you start that question out with all of the different things that we that we need to do and we talk about ourselves, we need to express ourselves and share our identity and identify with other people and all of those things that we’ve been studying in psychology and communication for decades, they still apply in social media. So the one big thing I would say I would take away after maybe 15 years of doing work on this is that psychology trumps technology. If you want to understand what’s going on in social media, the first place to start is with what’s going on psychologically. Most of what we see online is people, you know, accomplishing their goals, trying to carry out their motivations. Some of those things get changed and the scale is like nothing we’ve ever seen. But it still comes back to this idea of there’s no need to throw out the book of psychology or the book of communication when we go online.
Matt Abrahams: I see. So leveraging what we already know, it can help us just in this different medium to accomplish our goals.
Jeff Hancock: Right. I think whenever there’s a new kind of technology, especially one that takes over so dominantly and so quickly as something like social media, our focus is on the technology and what it’s doing. But I think over time where we end up realizing is that it’s people that matter and we’re using it to accomplish things. And I think when we start to step back from some of the moral panic about what’s happening with social media, we can get a sense of what really is changing. So I think we are communicating with far more people. More kinds of people can get access to us. That’s sort of one of the economic outcomes, is that somebody in Russia can pay a small amount of money to get their information in front of me in social media. So there are real changes. But we as humans, our goals or motivations, our needs and desires, they have not.
Matt Abrahams: I see. Yeah. So how does social media affect our well-being? And do you have any suggestions on how we can maximize the positive impact?
Jeff Hancock: This is such a huge question. And when we see movies like this social dilemma come out and become really popular, I think it reflects how much people care about this. And any time I’m at a dinner party back when we could do that before the pandemic. Right. Parents, you know, genuinely would pull me over and just say, hey, can you tell me, like, what do I do with my kids?
Matt Abrahams: You know, so I’m all ears. I’ve got two kids myself. Yes.
Jeff Hancock: Yeah, it is a huge question. So let me do a couple of things. One is my research group has looked at all the research over the last 12 years going back to 2006 and done what’s called a meta analysis, where we look at every study that’s been done and put them together and sort of statistically blend them up. And what we end up finding is really very small effects. So the more you use social media countermove by number of times or how many hours a day is at best only weakly correlated with things like depression or anxiety or even on the positive side, like life satisfaction or social connectedness. And so the first thing to say is that we’re not seeing overall any huge, massive effects. And this is the same with, say, TV, which was the last big thing. People were really worried about the many, many hundreds of studies showing like, oh, my gosh, we’re going to destroy our kids. Their brains are being melted. And, you know, nobody’s really worried about that now. So I think something similar is here. Yeah. Social Media matters, it is related to our well-being, but there’s not massive effects. And how is it related? I think when our data shows that if you use social media a lot, you might get a little bit more depressed, small effects, a little bit more anxious, but you also get a little bit of a larger increase in social wellbeing so connected you feel. So that’s the first step is just like, OK, we can sort of curb the fear a little bit that there may be some effects, but they’re not very big. The other is it’s not clear that it’s all, say, social media doing it to us. Some of the data we see is that when we’re feeling bad, for example, it might be more likely to go on social media and connect with people. And so it’s I love the way you ask the question because it’s neither good nor bad, in my view. I think much like you and I, you and I talking, if you said, well, Jeff, these ideas are just stupid, that wouldn’t be great for my well-being. I’d probably feel a little bit sad and I would never do that. Jeff, I know you’re such a nice guy, but when you say things like that that are positive and supportive, then I feel really good. And so social media, again, is not necessarily unique and it’s not going to affect us in one direction only. I think that it can increase how connected we feel and because we know more information on what’s going on our social world, it might increase our anxiety and we have to sort of balance those trade offs.
Matt Abrahams: So I have to say a big sigh of relief that my worry about my kids getting sucked into this never ending vortex of social media is perhaps misplaced. So thank you for that. And it sounds like we can leverage social media to help us, to help us connect, to help us manage when we feel down. And we just have to be mindful that it could potentially also exacerbate some things like depression and anxiety.
Jeff Hancock: I think that’s the right way to put it. It’s really a learning curve and we’re at the very beginning of it. But we see young people learning really fast. And, yes, they’re going to make mistakes. Are they going to have bad experiences? Yes, they will. It’s part of growing and it’s especially part of being adolescents. And adults are going to have this experience to where we make an error. We’ve all probably done that.
Matt Abrahams: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Jeff Hancock: But the core point there is that we are learning we do get better, we adapt. And I think that will be increasingly better and using this as a tool to accomplish our goals rather than letting it drive what we’re doing. I think I’d make one other point, and this is especially important for parents, is it’s really easy for us to focus on time because it’s something that we can see and we can measure. And and as hard as this is, I’d like us to move away from time, if possible, to start thinking about what we’re doing, what our kids are doing and who they’re doing it with. You could imagine saying, well, you’re only allowed to have an hour on social media and an hour could be spent doing something like connecting with old friends at an old school or doing something creative on tick talk, like making videos or a kid spent stalking someone or paying attention, being bullied. Yeah. And so the same our right can have very, very different wellbeing effects. And so I think we have to move away from just time and towards what you were saying, like what are we doing or are we doing it with and what are we engaging with? And that’s going to be much more important as we teach kids how to become better sort of social media users.
Matt Abrahams: Well, and I think it also can help us as adults to think about how we use our time too. One of the distinctions I’d like to make here is that, you know, we’ve talked a lot about what social media can be for us as users, but social media also opens us up to very large audiences, and that sometimes can bring with it immediate and vicious feedback. Do you have any insights on how we can avoid the potential venom and trolling that that social media has brought to us?
Jeff Hancock: It’s a great question because it’s still just flabbergasted by how much negativity can be out there and toxic discourse. Now, it’s not everywhere and most of social media is is very positive, but there is just still a shocking amount and weirdest places. I’ll go on and look at, say, a hockey game review and the comments will start getting into political things and people showing. So it’s really crazy. So how do you protect yourself? Well, one reason that it’s initially difficult is because we’re really attuned to what other people say about us. And this is important. It’s important about managing our reputations. We want to get a sense of how people are perceiving us and talking about us so that we can manage that. But it gets a little out of whack when these larger audiences can say things about us in ways that we can actually hear. So if Matt Abrahams says, well, Jeff Hancock is really mean and never, never writes me back. And so that’s something that I should care about because he’s a colleague of mine at Stanford and we have a working relationship and a reputation and, you know, and we like each other. OK, if Starboy Starboy three eight two seven, Jeff Hancock, you’re right. And I have no idea who that is. I never have any expectation of interacting with them in the future. It’s actually initially hard for me to react differently to Starboy three, four, two than it is to Matt Abrahams, even though, you know, theoretically, intellectually we know. OK, well, I should care about Matt different, but when we go online and especially places like Twitter, other public places where it’s not you know, it’s not sort of our social networks alone, but anybody, we have a hard time doing that. And so one of the things I work with, with clients is to think about who they want to know about. So if there’s specific relationships focusing on those, if you want to get overall sentiment, well, there are now computational tools that about. For aggregating across populations or segments, I see. So I think it’s really, yeah, much more about stepping back and turning off that automatic reaction you have to when people talk about this.
Matt Abrahams Interesting. Yes. In an earlier podcast episode, we had a conversation with Alison Kluger, who talks about reputation management. And it feeds nicely into what you’re talking about, it being very purposeful in how you want to portray your reputation, but also how you want to assess it. So getting feedback is really important in forming a reputation. But you want to make sure you’re that feedback is coming from a meaningful place and people that you you support. So the importance of language and wording has come up several times on this podcast across multiple episodes when we’ve discussed various topics like persuasion, power and reputation. Wording matters a lot. What have you learned about language and word choice in social media? Are there any best practices?
Jeff Hancock: This is just such a rich area right now because, you know, for most of human history, everything that we said disappeared and we had to work as scientists really hard to capture what people said to understand it. And now so much of what we say gets captured so we can study deception, we can study trust, emotion presentation. So, yeah, it turns out it does matter. I’ve been doing some work with my former Ph.D. student, Dave Markowitz, who’s now University of Oregon, and he’s led this huge project on authenticity. And I’ll just tell you a little bit about his study. To give you a sense, he measured authenticity. We can use this tool that measures it and includes things like self reference and emotion and concreteness and language. Basically, it’s the sort of way of computing, the authentic style. And in this amazing set of studies, I mean, this is what Dave is so amazing is finding kind of like naturally produced data. You looked at it in conversations, in TED talks and then on Shark Tank and found that, for example, the Shark Tank people that presented with authentic style of language production were more likely to get funded. We find that with TED talks, the more authentic the TED talk language, the more comments and the more views. And then even when we do a study where we get people to talk to one another, then rate each other. So as your podcast is found, many times language matters and especially in social media, because unlike here where it sort of disappears unless you hit rewind your language and social media sits as a testament to who you are. It stands in for you. And so, yeah, it really, really matters. And I think people being thoughtful about their style and and and communicating in a way that they feel really honest about. It’s hard to tell people to change the way they talk because we’re seeing natural. And I think it’s easy to pick up on that. But you can really tell the difference between someone who’s a natural and who’s not. For instance, I find communicating in social media kind of stressful. And I don’t think I’m very talented, whereas other people I know it comes very naturally. So it’s something we can work on. But ultimately, we have to be true to how we sound and how we think.
So the fact that authenticity reigns supreme in social media, just like it does in other types and other forms of communication, is to me really inspiring. And it brings great comfort that there isn’t some new, unique way of having to communicate. It’s really finding what works for you and authentically conveying it. And that means all of the practices that have been around for four years and years and years can come to bear to be helpful.
Matt Abrahams: So that’s good to know. Good to know. Yeah. It goes back to psychology trumps technology. Yes, yes. Yes.
Jeff Hancock: And people that are authentic or self aware, they behave in ways that match their needs. They communicate openly. And that doesn’t go away just because we’re in social media. Mm hmm.
Matt Abrahams: Right. And as you’ve said, it stays around a long time because it’s captured. Yeah. Any last best practices or advice to being better at communicating via social media?
Jeff Hancock: I’d say there’s three main things that I share when I’m working with clients. The first is the back to this authenticity thing. So you need to communicate in a way that is trustworthy for you, that when other people see that, they’re like, OK, this person is trustworthy, they’re reliable. They’re going to do, for instance, what they say they’re going to do in the way they say they’re going to do it. That’s one. The second is to come from a place of competence. Influencers are successful typically because they have some competency, so we’ve been looking a lot at the beauty influencers and these women, typically women, just know so much, it’s amazing and they often are kind of niche and they just have this, like, exquisite expertise in an area. And that’s why people are attracted to various channels and influencers. It’s that competence. The third is timing. This is especially true for traditional companies, brick and mortar places, banks and insurance companies, everybody that wants to become more digital as they often have a real focus on customer service. We’re going to get back to our customers quickly, like within the day. And that’s probably a day too late. And when we move into online and social media settings, time just operates at a different scale. And so I think for our clients, it’s that communicating in an authentic, trustworthy way. It’s about coming from a place of competence. And then time. Responsiveness is so much faster in social media. And if you don’t scale up to that, then you’re going to run into disappointment.
Matt Abrahams: All right. So I’ve got an acronym for you, ACT, Authenticity, Competence, and Timing. And those are the key ingredients to help you ACT more effectively in social media. So great tips. Thank you.
Jeff Hancock: Right on. Trademark that.
Matt Abrahams: It’s going up on my Twitter right now. Before we end, I’d like to ask you the same three questions I ask everyone. Sound OK?
Jeff Hancock: Sounds good.
Matt Abrahams: OK, if you were to capture the best communication advice you have ever received as a five to seven word presentation slide title, what would it be?
Jeff Hancock: Well, I … Is it OK if I do less than five?
Matt Abrahams: You can do that. Hey, that’s great. You’re talking — you’re talking good social media. Make sure it’s it’s concise and clear,
Jeff Hancock: Concise and well, yeah. This comes from elementary school, high school, my PhD advisor, everybody that I’ve seen that gives great talks and that’s tell a story, tell a story and think about this with my grad students when we’re writing science papers, too. It’s it doesn’t have to be like a narrative like, well, I woke up today and this is where I write. Or anything clever. But it has to be a story for people to be able to, you know, connect with it and grasp it. And so that skill of taking almost anything that you have and turning into a story is one that really works well in social media. It just it engages it allows you to stand out from the bluster that’s out there. But stories, stories are what work and they can be short. So I that would be my advice. Just tell a story.
Matt Abrahams: I love it. And I think it’s wonderful. Most of us or many of us have have fallen victim to capturing things as bullet points and lists. And it just doesn’t resonate the same way. And stories can be very powerful. I’ll be curious to hear how you answer the second question. Who is a communicator that you admire and why?
Jeff Hancock: Well, I was curious about that too, so I’ve been thinking about it for the last couple of days. I’ve got a number of people, so I’m going to cheat a little bit. OK, I’m going to start with something I think is a really great social media communicator, but also can communicate in general. And that’s my brother. My younger brother. Huh. Darcy Hancock. His Instagram thing is @darcy.j.hancock. And he calls himself retired guitar player. He’s, you know, rock star up in Canada, also a barber as well as people that just communicates in social media so easily, so authentically humorous, funny, but also can be serious. You know, when you see things that are wrong, he calls it out. But most of the time it’s just fun and supportive and and joyous. So he’s just a really amazing guy, you know, as a barber. He’s obviously a very skilled communicator as well, but just fantastic. But then I was thinking, well, I should probably also have an academic in there. So I was going to suggest another podcast of yours, Laurie Santos. She’s the happiness podcast person and a friend of mine. And I just love the way she talks. I could listen to her talk nonstop. I don’t have a good reason why other than she’s smart, straightforward, simple, tells lovely stories. And then the last is one thing in my lab we’ve been trying to work on is, is diversity of perspectives in my field and in social media research in general. There are very few black scientists, very few scholars of color. And so I want to highlight a colleague I just did a panel with. I think she’s amazing. It was Courtney Coughran. She’s a professor. At Columbia, and she’s done this amazing piece with my colleague here, Jeremy Bailenson in VR called A Thousand Cuts. You go inside and you you get to experience what racism is like when you’re a young male, black man from being a boy, growing up to being a teenager, sort of three episodes. And so she’s just an amazing communicator in the sense of both. The way she presents her work and how important race is is a simple thing. But if you if your audience has time, if they could find a version of a thousand cuts, which I think you can see online now, it’s really an amazing story and very impactful. So those would be the three that came to my mind. Sorry to cheat on you a little bit.
Matt Abrahams: I know you did a great job on on being very concise on question one. So we’ll give you a little bit on questions there. So so we’ll see how you do on this third question. So question three, what are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe from your perspective?
Jeff Hancock: Right, so first is structure. Mm hmm. I think that that’s really important. The second is story, which is sort of related, and the third is your audience. We too often forget, as we were talking about earlier, that the audience matters. We are we are not islands in the stream despite Kenny Rogers’ great song. But we we we communicate together. Everything we do is a collaboration and a joint action. And so we have to think about our audience as kind of collaborators, the structure of what it is we want to do. I think that’s where I spend most of my work and time when I’m doing talks. And then, like I said before, telling the story, that’s great.
Matt Abrahams: And I think all of those are actually building blocks. If you start with your audience, that can lead you to the structure you have, which can ultimately lead you to the story that you need to tell for that audience. So thank you for that. And thank you, Jeff, for sharing your work, your passion for social media. And it’s been fascinating to to better understand how social media is impacting us and our communication. And thank you also for the best practices and guidance that you provided. Thank you, Matt. Really enjoyed it.
Matt Abrahams: Thank you for listening to Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. To learn more, go to gsb.stanford.edu. Please download other episodes wherever you find your podcasts.
Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.
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