The psychology of social media: 6 counterintuitive ways to connect and influence




In 1737, Ben Franklin was up for the position of Clerk in the Philadelphia General Assembly.


He had held this post already, and was a shoe-in for re-nomination.

That was until a new member of the assembly showed up. This new guy (Franklin doesn’t name him in his autobiography) stood up before the assembly and proceeded to lay into Franklin, lambasting him for the way he had previously run the post, and arguing for a different candidate.

Luckily for Franklin, no-one listened and Franklin got to keep his post.

What would most people do in this position? Rub their opponent’s nose in it? Lord it over them every time they see them?

Well, not Franklin, being one of the greatest creative minds ever he chose completely the opposite:

he asked the guy for a favor.

It may seem like a crazy idea to ask an enemy for help, especially when you have just beat them, but Franklin was into crazy ideas. Franklin writes in his autobiography:

“Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days.

“He sent it immediately, and I return’d it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour.

“When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death.”

Franklin had turned this man, once an opponent, into a great friend, not by doing him a favor, but by asking for one.

And so was born what is now known as the Ben Franklin effect – when we do someone a favor, we end up liking them more – a psychological phenomenon that you can use to turn your mortal enemies into your bestest friends.

Social media: It’s an art and a science

Nikko Purnama Lukman

You might not think of yourself as some kind of psychological warrior, constantly battling with other people’s wits, but you are. Everywhere in life you are trying to influence others, make friends, and sometimes shake friends.

No more so than on social media. If you have ever tweeted, posted, pinned, or tumblr’d you have tried to get people’s attention, sometimes hundreds or thousands of peoples’ attention, all through words, pictures and videos.

Without knowing it, everyone is constantly using these psychological techniques on social media channels to get likes, retweets, shares and so on. We want people to click on us, so we try to influence their decisions, whether we are just individuals sharing thoughts with friends and family, or corporations using social media channels as ways to reach consumers.

Unfortunately, most of the time we do this badly. Instead of looking how we can get our own ideas out there and influence others, we are often passive and let others influence us. If you want to get your ideas heard a little bit better, then here are 6 ways you can up your social media game by using well known psychological techniques to make sure your posts, tweets, and videos get a lot of love.


The Ben Franklin Effect: Start asking for more favors

Raul Alejandro

After his little anecdote, Benjamin Franklin wrote, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged.”

What Franklin had noticed is that we only do favors for people we like, ergo, if we are doing a favor for someone it must be because we like them. By asking someone to do you a favor, you make them confront their true feelings about you. Only if they really hate your guts will the say no, otherwise they will help you out and end up feeling better about you as well.

Franklin also suggests that asking for the favor gets you further than offering to do the favor. This counterintuitive idea has been backed up by research. In 1969, two US researchers, Jon Jecker and David Landy tested how people felt after doing someone a favor. Students took part in a contest where they won some money. After the contest was done and they had bagged their winnings they were either approached by the researcher and asked if he could have the money back (he said he used his own money and was now short), approached by another member of the department and asked for the money back (they said it was the departments), or they got to keep their winnings.

They were then asked how much they liked the researcher. Common sense suggests that you would like them more if you either got to keep the money, or where not asked by them for the money back. But actually the students rated the researcher higher after they had performed a favor for him (when the favor was impersonal, from another member of the department, they did act as you would expect and rated him badly).

How does this relate to social media? Well, most of us shy away from asking people to help us out, by retweeting, sharing posts, etc. We think people will view us negatively because we are asking them for a favor.

Actually, the opposite is true, and by asking for the favor you are building the idea in their heads that you are worth that favor, and therefore liked. This might not have an effect on large social networks – people who have zero feelings towards you to start might not care enough to RT – but with smaller networks, and in particular if you have ended up in a twitter spat with someone, or fallen out with a friend on Facebook, this might, counterintuitively, be a good way to get back in their good books.

Bear in mind that the opposite is also true – the less you do for someone the more you end up disliking them.


Social Proof: Why it’s in your best interest to follow the crowd

Jordan Metcalf

Even if we want to be thought of as individuals, we are always worried about straying too far from the pack, and again looking to be stupid in comparison to everyone else. People want to be part of the group, even if they want to retain some individuality.

In social media, you can show them what the group is doing, so that they can a) learn, and b) comfort themselves when they are doing what is normal.

This is social proof, and is what a lot of social media is all about.

We are constantly looking around us for guidance, to make sure that we know what is right and what is wrong at any given time.

One of the most widespread instances of social proof on social media is the numbers that are next retweets, favorites, likes, or the ‘share’ buttons on most sites. If only 1 or 2 people have shared an item, liked a post, or retweeted it, then we are reluctant to stand out from the crowd, thinking that maybe we have missed something. But if a post has thousands of likes then we are happy to get involved. Everyone follows and likes the most popular people on social media simple because that is what everyone else is doing.

The most popular account on Instagram is Instagram itself, with 88 million followers.


The best way to get involved with social proof is to engage with your audience and community, making sure that you are part of the proof. Like what you like, retweet what you want, and you will soon find that people are more than willing to reciprocate.


Cognitive dissonance: The sharpest way to spark intrigue

Indie Ground

You’re smart, right? And funny, sophisticated, charming… all the good stuff. You’re a good guy. And then you do something bad, and your brain can’t cope.

It tries to justify it, rationalize it, or completely ignore it, locking what you did deep, deep down until it will surface with terror one day.

Welcome to cognitive dissonance.

We all have this view of the world and how we are, this little mental model that helps us understand everything what goes on around us and all our own actions. We think this model is consistent, but we often hold conflicting views on a number of topics. This is most obvious in our feelings towards ourselves – we think we are capable and knowledgeable, but we also fear that we are stupid, and when we do something stupid our brains go haywire trying to resolve this with our mental ideal of ourselves.

This discomfort can be a powerful motivator, forcing you to confront your faults, change your behaviors and learn new knowledge.

Or it leads to you justifying your behavior and forcing your cognitive model further away from reality.

Leon Festinger first developed the theory in the fifties when he was studying cults in America. The leader of one cult had prophesied, through her contact with an alien civilization that the world would end on 21st December, 1954. The cult members prepared for the Day of Judgment. As you might have guessed, the 21st came and went without a flutter.

So what did the cult members do? Call their leader a charlatan? Lead a mass exodus?

Nope – they doubled down. Festinger found that when the earth wasn’t destroyed it actually increased the member’s commitment to their cult and leader. The cognitive dissonance of the thought that they had just been remarkably stupid was so great that they instead had to justify it to themselves and revise their beliefs. In their heads, the aliens saved the world because they were worried about the people in the cult.

You can see how social media plays with our cognitive model and puts us into a state of dissonance all the time. Check out these two tweets, for instance:

Both suggest that you are doing something wrong (Sorry Canva is playing with your minds, but at least we are open about it!) and that you need to rectify that.

Up until you see those tweets you probably think that your routine is A-OK, and you are a model of perfect productivity. But then we launch those into your feed and suddenly dissonance comes into play. You can’t help but click on them to find out what you are doing wrong and how to reframe your mental model, ideally with the new information and not the double-down “I am always right” technique of alien cults.

Sometimes such headlines are called ‘clickbait’, but really that is doing them a massive disservice. They are designed so that you are innately interested in them because they tap into your brain directly.

Think about how you might reframe your headlines, tweets, and posts to tap into people’s cognitive dissonance. Take advantage of presenting your audience with a viewpoint that they might fear to hold, such as their lack of knowledge in a field they thought they knew. Your audience will be compelled to click, and you will be helping them to overcome both their cognitive dissonance and their lack of knowledge.


Social Contagion: Inject emotion into your social strategy


Emotions are amongst the easiest way to spread ideas. We are always going to respond to an emotional argument over a more rational argument. As emotions sweep out, they can catch a lot of people who might not have previously been interested in a topic – that is social contagion.

The madness of crowds is prevalent in social media and can be a serious problem. However, harnessed properly, some social media campaigns have used these emotional persuasive stories to go viral on social media and interact and persuade people who would not have been interested before.

A great example of recent social contagion would be the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. What started with a Boston College student that had recently been diagnosed with ALS swept throughout the globe, taking in millions of people and some of the world’s most famous people. Have you seen the most viewed Ice Bucket Challenge video on YouTube?

So far, the completely impromptu challenge has raised over $100 million for charity.

OK, so maybe you won’t make that much off your stories, but it is important to remember that the story matters, as do the emotions behind it.

We are simple suckers for emotion, and the more you add into your social media posts the more people will act on them and share them around the globe.


Scarcity Heuristic: Give your updates a sense of urgency

Jordan Metcalf

No one likes missing out. Even if it is for something that they originally had no interest in, just the thought of not being able to get a scarce item can have people clamoring for it. We always want what is in short supply.

This has been scientifically proven. In 1975, Stephen Worchel and two colleagues asked 200 students which cookies they would prefer – one from a jar that contained ten cookies, or one from a jar that contained just two cookies. The cookies were the same no matter what jar they were in.

The students almost always choose from the two-cookie jar. The perceived scarcity of the two-cookie cookies made them seem more desirable, even though they were the same as the abundant cookies.

The scarcity heuristic is very common on social media.

People will often use flash sales or ‘today only’ offers to get people to sign up for services or products they did not initially want, simply so they don’t miss out.

For instance, a quick search on twitter for the phrase “today only”, brings up this offer from the Guggenheim. (Sorry, you missed out.)

Recently, another variant of scarcity has come up – the exclusive. Online, almost nothing is scarce. Any news story can be had from any of 20 different sites, with 20 different hot takes. So sites try and set themselves apart from each other with exclusives – something you can only get from them.

The scarcity principle is an excellent way for you to set yourself out from the crowd on social media.

Think about what you can uniquely bring to the conversation, rather than trying to always comment on other people’s tweets, posts, or pins. Perhaps you have an exclusive viewpoint on an important matter in your sphere of influence, or can get in touch with someone who can. If not, then just off 20% off something, Today Only.


Amplification: Never, ever be shy. Project your confidence

Mich Buri

OK, so you’ve got your great idea and you want to convince the world you’re your awesomeness. Do you go all out and tell them how great it is, or do you vacillate and let them make up their own mind?

Which you choose should depend entirely on your audience according to the amplification hypothesis put forward in 2008 by three researchers, Joshua Clarkson, Zakary Tormala, and Derek Rucker. They found that when you are more certain about an issue the more you are able to strengthen attitudes to that issue. But if you show some uncertainty, you are more likely to be able to persuade someone over to your way of thinking.

If you are trying to get an idea across to an audience, then a strong attitude will work for those that already agree with you.

(and conversely, also push away those that are already against you). But it won’t persuade anyone else to the cause. However, if you are a bit softer in your viewpoint, more aligned with your audience, you can persuade those people sitting on the fence over to sit on your side.

When you are sure of something, show it, and try to align your thoughts with your audience. If they are looking for an emotional argument, then show emotion, but when they want something logical, be logical. By amplifying their feelings, you will be able to reinforce the right attitude.

Get heard on social media

These ideas should help you to hone your social media game and start to influence more and more people. Whether you are trying to get ideas across about design, or sell your own designs to clients, by using some of these techniques you can subtly move people around to your way of thinking.

This all might seem a little Machiavellian. It isn’t. What these studies in psychology allows you to do is to better understand your audience and to better understand yourself. You have probably already used these techniques, and dozens like them in your life – like I say, we are all psychological warriors sometimes – but never realized. By concentrating on them, you can use them properly and efficiently to get your ideas across and to start to have real influence in the design field.