Fill in the blank: Facebook and Pinterest make me feel ___________.

Sometimes when I check Facebook, I laugh.  Sometimes I roll my eyes and sometimes I just feel depressed.  The range of emotions with Pinterest range from giddy excitement to agitation to a general sense of being overwhelmed.  As I reason I am not alone in responding to social media this way, I am determined to get to the bottom of this.

My reflection on social media began when I checked Facebook (which I do approximately one time per week, less frequently in the summer) and commented to my husband that Facebook made me feel bad.  When he asked why, I didn’t really have an answer except to say that everyone was doing fabulous things in fabulous places and looking fabulous while doing it.  He replied that it was me who was making myself feel bad, not Facebook.  Okay, he’s right.  But it piqued my interest.  Why the hell was I letting Facebook make me feel bad?  I never even post dammit!

A pair of social scientists named Jones and Harris took a stab at this concept well before social media.  In fact, before I was even born in the year 1967,  and the field of social psychology subsequently emerged from their work.  They ran experiments which determined that our brains, particularly our friend the amygdala, are responsible for whatever attributes we may ascribe to a given person based on their behavior.  This is called “attribution error” or more recently by Dan Gilbert at Harvard “correspondence bias.”   In plainspeak, this means that the driver who cut me off this morning and then gave me the finger on the way to soccer camp may not have actually been an angry asshole, as I pegged him at the time.  He may have been a perfectly lovely gentleman who was having a bad morning.  Our behaviors at any moment in time are just that, and rarely indicate the vastness of who we are.   Our brains, as we have talked about in previous posts, stereo-type the person based on the action.  Have you ever seen a mom yell at her kids in the grocery store and immediately assume she is a bad mom?  Have you ever done the same thing?  We tend to neurologically assume things about another person even if we ourselves have been guilty of the exact same behavior in the past.  (By the way, I still think that guy was an asshole).

So if we continue in this line of thinking to Facebook, when we see a photo of mother/daughter lunch date, we assume they have a great relationship.  If we see someone’s photo after they finish a race, we assume they are in great shape (and if you have low self-esteem, that they are fitter than you).  Maybe there’s a gorgeous photo on a guy’s page of his lovely wife and adorable kids and we assume they are a happy family.  Only to find that mother and daughter fight like cats and dogs, that race day photo was the last time they exercised, and Joe Schmoe is cheating on his wife and has declared bankruptcy.  They don’t post that shit.  Of course, it could be true what we attribute to what people post on Facebook.  But in suburbia,  your dirty laundry is not usually aired on the pages of Facebook.  We rely mostly on gossip for that!  It’s plausible that if you check Facebook in the wake of a divorce, job loss, binge or other perceived downfall, that a status update like, “Feeling great today!  The world is full of possibilities!” will make you feel pissed.  This is not a reflection that you are a bad person, a narcissist or anything else.  It’s just how you feel at the moment.  Just go to the next post about cute kittens.   No doubt there is something that will make you smile.

Pinterest brings the vision board concept to a whole new level.  Remember when we took out scissors and old magazines and cut out pictures and glued them to our vision cardboard?  Man, that is so 2010!  There’s a digital version now, and the photos and quotes are better than ever.  Pinterest is the quintissential time suck and it is both inspirational and overwhelming.   If you have glass jars, a glue gun, permanent markers and about 5 hours to kill, damn, you can do just about anything.  Your house can be straight from Crate and Barrel and your kids’ rooms directly imported from Land of Nod.  You can look as cool, rested, well-traveled and fit as the best of them.  Or maybe not.  But the idea is to be inspired, not burdened.  LA Weekly blogger Ali Trachta recently wrote how Pinterest made her feel like “a dejected loser” because Pinterest boards are the “visual equivalent of a pile of mail I keep meaning to get to.”  While I completely relate to her feelings of not being able to muster the female heft of being the ultra-crafter, dresser, decorator and bearer of witty quotes, I see Pinterest more like the lofty goal.  Rather than the expectation.  But man did this gal get slammed.  People wrote to her saying things like, “you’re doing it wrong,” or “you’re too insecure to get it,” and “you’re buying into stereo-types.”  Social cognition tells us otherwise.  So Pinterest makes her feel bad, so what!  Some days it makes me feel bad too.  Like when I purchased a store made birthday cake for my to-be 11 year old daughter that I could have easily made myself with step by step instructions on Pinterest.  But here’s the thing.  She just wants a cake with dolphin on it.  No matter who makes it.

So there it is, suburbia.  Feeling like a failure really is on you.  Stereo-typing is a natural function of the human brain.  Emotions can’t be changed in the moment, but thoughts can.   So go forward to Pinterest and Facebook!  I need a new salmon recipe and a good laugh from my sister across the country.  That’s why I use social media.  How ’bout you?

Stereotypes: Our dirty little secret

Have you ever met or talked to someone who says they don’t stereotype?  Do you believe them?  Of course, it’s impossible not to stereotype.  It is your ancient neurophysiology that dictates this behavior. Dr. Susan Fiske, a social psychologist (who knew there was such a thing?  Sign me up!) at Princeton University has been studying this phenomenon for years.  There are actual neural signatures for stereotyping.  Stereotyping does not automatically mean discrimination, but it often does lead to some pretty ugly actions.  Dr. Fiske has found that we initially label someone based on two qualities:  warmth and competence.    The range goes from pure antipathy (you really don’t care) to pure favoritism (you really, really do care).  So, poor people are generally seen as incompetent, with associated emotions of disgust and contempt.  Based on their situation (single mothers for instance) can be viewed more warmly.  Rich people are seen as competent but not so warm.  An emotion carried with stereotyping of rich people is envy.  Older people or people with disabilities are seen as warm but not so competent.   Emotionally, we view them with pity.  Any and all others we meet are ranked somewhere on this scale, regardless of where you live in the world.  Initial views of individuals may change, but we tend to still categorize groups in the same way.  In our medial prefrontal cortex, the area of social cognition, our emotions affect our decision making.   For better or worse.

Blah, blah, blah you say.  What does it all mean anyway?  It means the playground mentality comes with us as we age.  If you play what I want to play, I like you.  If not, I don’t.  If we are competing for the same toy, I don’t like you.  If the other kids like you, I like you.  If they don’t, I don’t.   We all have gut level preferences, even if we think we are immune.  So that means when I meet someone who has a beautiful home, I feel envious.  I think that because you have a beautiful home, you must be competent.  The spaciousness of your yard, the beauty of your decor and the vastness of your kitchen have a way of making me feel warmly about you.  You could have gotten it all by robbing a bank for all I know.  But I think you are just great.  You see, stereotypes are not rational.

Take then the example of politics.  I know, I get uncomfortable just thinking about it too.  Go back to the playground mentality.  Say you are a strong Democrat (you contribute campaign money, you put signs in your yard) and you meet someone who you find out later is a Republican (they are wearing a t-shirt advertising their candidate).  You make a subconscious decision that you can socialize, but will never be close  friends with this person based upon this perception.  You may actually be pretty similar on your ideas within each of your parties and you may actually be pretty like-minded about many of the same things.  Never mind, though.  You have officially closed your mind.  Stereotypes shape how we interact with the world.  The natural by-product of such thoughts and judgements is to treat others unfairly.  Your brain thinks it has gathered enough information.

These are simplistic examples of a very complex process that happens every day in suburbia.  The disparities are not as obvious as black and white or rich and poor.  It’s more like wealthy, not so wealthy.  Stay at home mom or working mom.  Very active in school mom and not so active in school mom.  Very educated and not so educated.   Someone who grew up here and someone who moved from somewhere else.  Granted, these are not as charged as other stereotypes, but they matter.  It’s important to know that you are not above stereotypes.  It’s okay, no one is.  But what can we do to keep the conversation relevant, to make a community and to move past it for the greater good?

It deserves mention to talk about what makes you more prone to compare yourself to others.  If you are a male, you are more likely to compare than women except when it comes to appearance, where men are pretty close with women.  This came as a shock to me, but it appears men compare based on how well they provide and how much money others have.  Women compare less than they actually judge themselves.  People who are happy and settled do not compare themselves to others as much, even if they are not as wealthy.   You have a good job, a satifying relationship and capable kids:  you’re good.   People who feel unhappy and out of control compare themselves to others at a much higher rate.  This is a little harder to pin down, you could have all those great things and been a victim of abuse earlier in life or struggle with a medical condition.  That is likely, initially at least, to put you on a path of comparison.   All this makes sense, but when is comparing ourselves to others unhelpful, even dangerous?

It turns out that as humans we frequently forget that we are all in this together.  It’s really important for me to remember that we really are all doing our best at that moment in time.  Sometimes the best you can do is lay on the couch after a long day at work with your coat still on as your kids ask a million questions and dinner needs to be made (okay that was me).  Just because someone is beautiful, rich, creative and witty does not mean that I am not any of those things or that I don’t have my own gifts to share.  It also doesn’t mean they are trying to take anything away from me.  It’s a struggle to be hard-wired to be close-minded and yearn to be open-minded.  This is a conversation worthy of each of us.  Try it on your spouse and try it on your kids.  What the hell, try it on your mother-in-law.   There are constantly new ideas, new people and new philosophies.  The universe is a fluid place, and I for one plan on riding the wave.