Psychology interplay in the social media age

Thursday November 21 2019

Let us bring civility to our social media usage. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Ever believe that our society grows more impersonal? Have you observed that the interpersonal communication you receive gets ruder and more discourteous?

Do you constantly feel that our politicians become nastier in a Trumpian manner? What happened to polite discourse? Why do we leave our homes each day with a mentality ready to fight for our reputations?

The bottom-line? We did not evolve to function in large urban or electronic societies. Prolific Oxford University evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar shows that the human brain is perfectly developed for small village populations that emphasise long-term bonds with similar people. The overwhelming majority of human history found people in very small population groups. So, our communication abilities and patterns developed to accentuate the survival of the small clan, kin and village population groups.

Chris Knight, Michael Studdert-Kennedy, and James Hurford detail the basis of human language and communication as advantageous to survive in the wild ancient world.

When people could communicate with each other, they were able to team up to overcome much stronger species such as elephants, lions and buffalo. Humans did not conquer the world because of strength, stamina, or fertility rates. We dominate the globe due to our intelligence and communication.

Benjamin Crosier, Gregory Webster, and Haley Dillon investigate why and how people build social networks throughout human history.


Social networks prove crucial for our survival. Anyone ‘tarmacking’, searching high and low for employment in the modern day, knows that it proves more useful to contact someone in one’s social circle in order to receive a position rather than apply to dozens of random jobs by answering public announcements.

Also, even individually, the best farmer in a village cannot single-handedly survive a locust invasion on his or her crops without the assistance of neighbours far and wide.

Humans thrive as hard-wired for constant socialisation.

Solitary species such as leopards, tigers, and bears do not seek out social validation. But socially dependent humans, even most introverts, still seek out, crave, and exploit social networks.

Therefore, modern electronic human interaction stands as highly mismatched with how our brains are wired. Ned Kock’s research shows that the more social media platforms can mimic face-to-face interactions, which are preferred by people due to our evolutionary past, through media richness, then the more successful the platform can become.

So, as social media and electronic communication continues to grow exponentially, psychologist Glenn Geher ponders in his writing whether modern communication will bring about our downfall as a species. He postulates that two major differences between ancient and modern-day communication revolves around the shocking prevalence of current anonymity and the vast broadcast reach of our messages far beyond our kin and clan in today’s world.

As humans, we hold a myriad of opinions. Unlike other species who may focus more on following others in their herd and looking for grass to eat, people retain hundreds of opinions about thousands of topics important for maintaining harmony in ancient extended family groups. If someone in ancient times was rude to us face-to-face, then we were less likely to assist them during their periods of need.

So, the human brain carefully calculates what to say to each person in our lives so as to maximise long-term reciprocal benefit.

But on social media with full anonymity, we may say what we really think even though human society did not evolve to handle the true constant torrential flood of everyone’s spot on and complete opinions about every situation.

So even five negative comments on a Facebook post out of a hundred positive comments will still cause the user disproportionate sadness because in ancient times negative feedback could mean a reduction in the likelihood of future positive altruistic reciprocity during times of difficulty and crisis. Similarly, if we do not gain retweets, do we feel unnetworked and without a social safety net that, in ancient times, could spell disaster but in modern times is only a fleeting nuisance. Colleagues disagreeing in a WhatsApp group to our brains means go to battle and defend yourself because of the rarity of such dissent in ancient times.

Will human stress levels continue to escalate? Will we persist to bring distrust and discord through our mountains of dissenting harsh comments? Let us bring civility to our social media usage and know that the readers of our posts may have deeper long-lasting psychological damage from our comments that we may not notice on the surface.