The narrative of a westerner travelling to the East to find enlightenment – and a sense of spiritual calm and…
There are merits in living a contrarian life. Much like those contrarian investors you read about who buy shares when everyone else is piling out: they’re deliberately and systematically doing the opposite to what everyone else is doing. The crowds are buying, so they sell. And when everyone is running for the exits, they’re buying on the cheap. It’s a tough ride for contrarians, though. It’s much easier to push along with the crowd – buoyed by numbers, calmed by the certitude that you’re doing the right thing. You’ve got the numbers, right?
Social media is a numbers game too, a worldwide stampede into the game of ‘likes’. Today, there are 3.48 billion social media users, up 9 per cent from the previous year, with most people spending at least two hours a day on it. Psychologists call it ‘social proof’ when we do things because everyone else is doing it. If 3.48 billion people started eating ice cream for breakfast, and endlessly talked about it, then chances are you’d start eating ice cream as well. If you’ve watched a team of ducks in a pond, you’ll see a similar scenario – one moves north and the others swivel in unison.
Social proof can be a great thing when the herd has got it right. The habit of brushing teeth is a great one – it starts early in life, and doing it daily means your teeth don’t decay and eventually fall out. The fact that everyone in your family brushes their teeth helps to cement this habit – thank goodness for social proof and herd behaviour, you could say. But social proof can be less beneficial when it pushes you into actions that steal your time, or make you sad, angry, jealous of others, or even depressed.
You see it on buses. One person pulls out their phone and then everyone’s into it. The ducks are paddling north at full pelt. The bus is full of people checking their social media accounts, mindlessly scrolling, lulled into that ‘ludic loop’, as psychologists like to call it. But when everyone is using it, it feels right – it feels normal, it almost feels like the ‘proper’ thing to do. When behaviour has become ‘normalised’ then it no longer feels odd… it’s why drug addicts almost always use within a group.
The social media phenomenon has altered human discourse in profound ways. Whereas pre-internet it was vulgar to brag about one’s accomplishments, today 3.48 billion users are compelled to ‘shout out’ on social media, with the biggest braggers shouting the loudest. And as the race for ‘likes’ gets ever more extreme, companies and individuals are pulling out all stops – professional photographers, hair and makeup artists, the setting up and dismantling of pseudo-events for photo shoots, all in a hard day’s labour for social media campaigns. And then there’s the ‘influencer’ who has turned social media into a professional sport – the human-turned advertiser who on-sells their ‘likes’ for money. Here is Sally, the ‘influencer’ in Peru with her partner-in-crime husband, Josh. Sally is wearing a frock from this company and sandals from that one. Sally then pushes her unsuspecting followers into buying the frock and the sandals, which funds her trip to Hawaii for more photo shoots. Sally, too, is on the ludic loop.
For the ‘dealers’ of social media – the content producers and the ‘influencers’ like Sally – there’s money to be made. But for users of social media, the teenagers and pre-teens clicking endless ‘like’ buttons of dream-inducing imagery, there are psychological pulls that are making them jealous, miserable, and addicted to more of the same. Sitting on a suffocating school bus looking at “Sally, now in Hawaii – swimming with a golden tan and fluorescent teeth,” the teenager adds a little scribble, a digital footprint, wishing that they too could have a life like that. “Amazing Sally. So beautiful. I wish I were you.”
When 3.48 billion humans start doing something never before done in the history of human civilisation, neuroscientists and psychologists are especially interested in the effects. But results are far from pleasing: high social media usage activates the same brain mechanisms as cocaine; it produces psychological cravings; and users are locked into a cycle of addiction on par to slot machines at casinos. A 2017 study of over half a million students in 8th to 12th grade found that depressive symptoms spiked 33 per cent from 2010 to 2015, and the suicide rate for girls in that age group rose by 65 per cent. The study’s lead author, San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge noted that the rise in depressive symptoms correlates almost exactly with smartphone adoption during that period. There’s not much to ‘like’ in that.