The Psychology of Being Online

This week, thousands of consumer researchers convened in Chicago for the annual Association for Consumer Research conference. Many presented research relevant to this question of "What is the Internet doing to people?"
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We all know the Internet is powerfully changing people, but how exactly does "being online" affect people's psychology?

This week, thousands of consumer researchers convened in Chicago for the annual Association for Consumer Research conference. Many presented research relevant to this question of "What is the Internet doing to people?" Some of the findings are truly inspiring, other findings are sad, and other findings are downright scary.

Importantly, the researchers point out, if we realize what the Internet is doing to consumers, to our friends, and even to ourselves, we can help ourselves and society get the best out of the Internet and avoid the worst.

Here are the implications of the top findings from this cutting edge conference.

Finding #4: Facebook can makes us self-focused rather than other-focused.


Have you ever noticed that some people can be very helpful and nice in one-on-one settings, but on Facebook they are self-focused devas? Why does this happen?

Researchers find there are two types of communication: narrowcasting (communication to one person) and broadcasting (communication lots of people at once).
When narrowcasting people tend to attune to others' needs. However, when people "step on the stage" and start broadcasting, they start caring more about their own needs and self-presentational concerns.

Unfortunately, in the modern world, we tend to broadcast all the time. Conversations that were once private are now broadcast publicly on Facebook walls. This certainly will change how people communicate and how self versus other focused they will be.

Based on research from Alixandra Barasch and Jonah Berger of the University of Pennsylvania.

#3: Mobile phones cause forgetting


People know that technology can help them -- e.g. how a product comparison app can improve shopping. However, researchers find people do not realize how much technology can hurt them.

Consumers do not realize that mobile phone leads to more forgotten items, longer shopping times, additional trips, and unplanned purchases in daily life. For instance if someone relies on their phone they may not use their brain or even overload their brain, leading to memory and judgment errors.

We all like to think we are experts with technology, and some of us truly are, but for so many of us technology can often get in the way. Sadly, we don't realize this and it is costing us.

Based on research from Michael Sciandra and Jeff Inman from the University of Pittsburgh.

#2 People give advice online to feel smart not to be helpful


The Internet is full of people giving free advice. Is this always because people just want to help others? Probably not.

New research reveals people share advice to feel a sense of personal control. This motive to feel control is so powerful it can come at the expense of responsible advice giving. Researchers found that people motivated by a need to feel in control gave "potentially detrimental" advice just to feel a sense a control. Those motivated by empathy did not give bad advice.

Based on research from Alessandro Peluso from the University of Salento and colleagues.

#1 Observation Effects (for better or worse)


What if your neighbors could see how environmental you were behaving? Would this change your green behavior? Almost certainly.

Researchers found that when people knew their neighbors would know if they had or had not enrolled in an energy efficiency program, people enrolled in impressive numbers. In fact the neighbor "observation effect" was four times as effective as paying people $25 to enter into the program. Indeed, reputation is often more important than immediate cash.

This study is highly inspiring because it shows a way people can be motivated to do-the-right-thing. It follows other research on social influence on green behavior and demonstrates a true path to energy efficiency and a cleaner world.

However, it also shows how powerful others' knowing what we are doing can be. The openness of the Internet and the new public world may pressure people to act in certain ways they would rather not. Sometimes this may be good and sometimes this may come about as quite awful "peer pressure."

Based on research from Erez Yoeli from the Federal Trade Commission and colleagues.

Conclusion--The Amoral Internet

This last study is a wonderful example of the amoral nature of the Internet and the new "public world" we live in. The Internet is neither inherently "good" nor "bad." Instead it is best described as inherently "powerful." If we can tip the power in the right directions wonderful things will occur.

However, if we let the Internet randomly tip us in the wrong direction, things will not be so good. In the end, we must understand how the Internet affects the way we consume and live, if we are able to get the best out this technological future that awaits us.

Troy Campbell is a researcher at Duke University and Indecision Blog's lead reporter for the ACR 2013 conference.

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