Columbia Business School professor Keith Wilcox and University of Pittsburgh business professor Andrew Stephen recently did a study of people who use Facebook to stay in touch with their closest friends. Titled “Are Close Friends the Enemy? Online Social Networks, Self-Esteem, and Self-Control,” it examines how immediate encouragement is not always a positive for self-control.
“Online social networks are used by hundreds of millions of people every day, but little is known about their effect on behavior,” notes the study description. “In five experiments, we demonstrate that social network use enhances self-esteem in users who are focused on close friends (i.e., strong ties) while browsing their social network. This momentary increase in self-esteem reduces self-control, leading those focused on strong ties to display less self-control after browsing a social network.”
One experiment had 84 study participants either browse Facebook or read CNN.com for five minutes and were given the choice between eating a granola bar or chocolate chip cookie. The Facebook group showed a preference go for the cookie, while the CNN group picked the granola bar more often.
“Additionally, we present evidence suggesting that greater social network use is associated with a higher body-mass index and higher levels of credit card debt for individuals with strong ties to their social network,” it continues. “This research extends previous findings by demonstrating that social networks primarily enhance self-esteem for those focused on strong ties during social network use. Additionally, this research also has implications for policy makers because self-control is an important mechanism for maintaining social order and well-being.”
“People with high self-esteem typically have more self control, not less,” Wilcox says. “It seems the momentary increase in self control that the participants got from browsing Facebook for a few minutes creates a sense of entitlement to do what they want and, therefore, lower self control.”
Is this study going to lead to a sudden surge in cookie ads on the social network? Both professors caution that correlation does not mean causation, but it could still give pause to the comfort food makers of the world.