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Q&A: A look at social media behavior during the pandemic

May 28, 2020 By Veronica Rueckert

The pandemic has been scary and confounding, but for some researchers, it’s also a unique opportunity to study people as they’re largely isolated from others as they shelter-in-place.

Evan Polman, an associate professor in the School of Business, studies consumer psychology and the way we view ourselves and others in decision-making, creativity and moral psychology. Polman has been observing how people are behaving on social media during the pandemic and what they believe about who benefits the most from social distancing.

Evan Polman

Q: As a researcher, this has been an interesting chance for you to study how we compare ourselves to other people. Even in quarantine, it turns out there is still social angst. What did you notice about social angst and social media during quarantine?

A: Seeing what was posted on social media at the beginning of the quarantine, it probably appeared that your friends would emerge from the quarantine as superhuman, with bodies sculpted and toned by push-up challenges, ready to serve up the perfect latte, in conversational Japanese. But has that worked out? Besides essential workers, the rest of us have been working from home. Our calendar’s meetings have been replaced with Zoom meetings. We have more time. Theoretically. But that doesn’t mean we’re experiencing the crisis in the same way. While some people are being creative and baking up a trend in “bread porn,” others are struggling. However, social media tells a different story: people are using their downtime to make their own yeast, recreate famous paintings, and orchestrate elaborate pranks, yet let me assure you that this does not describe most people.

Q: What does research tell us about the ways we view ourselves against other people on social media?

A: Because of social media, people think that others have richer social lives than they actually do. This is partly because people bias their assessments of others’ social lives upon their most jetsetting- and influencer-friends, and in comparison their social lives look a lot better. But they are exceptions to the rule. Unfortunately, we treat them like they are the rule—we use them as benchmarks to evaluate our own social lives.

Q: How does this play out then, when we’re social distancing?

A: With distancing, social media can be a great tool to encourage more distancing. For instance, wearing masks in public is something new. For most people, this is the first time they are wearing masks in public. At first, people were likely hesitant; however, seeing online how often people are posting pics with their masks on demonstrates the prevalence of wearing masks. Upon finding out that it’s normal to wear a mask outside, the hesitation disappears.

Q: There’s plenty of fodder to make us feel bad. Shakespeare wrote King Lear when he was quarantined, Sir Isaac Newton developed calculus. That’s a lot of pressure! Can you make us feel better if we haven’t lived up to that?

A: Most of us will be satisfied to just survive this crisis, much less use it to our advantage. Unfortunately, research shows that we often compare ourselves with others who are punching above their weight. This shouldn’t be depressing. None of us is Shakespeare. Let’s be okay with that.

Q: You’ve done some of your own research in this area recently. What have you learned about what we believe about social distancing for ourselves and for other people?

A: I do research in consumer psychology, and something I’ve found recently is that people believe that products work better for others. From cosmetics, to cooking lessons, to coloring books, people think products will have more positive-altering effects on others than on themselves. I’ve found this effect for all kinds of products—and I was curious if the pattern would hold for the positive effects of social distancing. Would people think that others benefit more from social distancing, compared to the benefit people receive themselves? I found that they do. On the bright side, this finding shows people appear to at least understand the benefits to social distancing. They display some level of insight when considering how social distancing benefits others; though ironically, they fail to realize this knowledge could be applied to themselves as well.