Is Facebook geared to dullards?

Are you ashamed that you find Facebook boring? Are you angst-ridden by your weak social-networking skills? Do you look with envy on those whose friend-count dwarfs your own? Buck up, my friend. The traits you consider signs of failure may actually be marks of intellectual vigor, according to a new study appearing in the May issue of Computers in Human Behavior.

The study, by Bu Zhong and Marie Hardin at Penn State and Tao Sun at the University of Vermont, is one of the first to examine the personalities of social networkers. The researchers looked in particular at connections between social-network use and the personality trait that psychologists refer to as “need for cognition,” or NFC. NFC, as Professor Zhong explained in an email to me, “is a recognized indicator for deep or shallow thinking.” People who like to challenge their minds have high NFC, while those who avoid deep thinking have low NFC. Whereas, according to the authors, “high NFC individuals possess an intrinsic motivation to think, having a natural motivation to seek knowledge,” those with low NFC don’t like to grapple with complexity and tend to content themselves with superficial assessments, particularly when faced with difficult intellectual challenges.

The researchers surveyed 436 college students during 2010. Each participant completed a standard psychological assessment measuring NFC as well as a questionnaire measuring social network use. (Given what we know about college students’ social networking in 2010, it can be assumed that the bulk of the activity consisted of Facebook use.) The study revealed a significant negative correlation between social network site (SNS) activity and NFC scores. “The key finding,” the authors write, “is that NFC played an important role in SNS use. Specifically, high NFC individuals tended to use SNS less often than low NFC people, suggesting that effortful thinking may be associated with less social networking among young people.” Moreover, “high NFC participants were significantly less likely to add new friends to their SNS accounts than low or medium NFC individuals.”

To put it in layman’s terms, the study suggests that if you want to be a big success on Facebook, it helps to be a dullard.

15 thoughts on “Is Facebook geared to dullards?

  1. mcrowl

    Just looking at this simply, it seems to me that if you only take college students as your survey participants you’ll only get college student responses. The bulk of my Facebook ‘friends’ aren’t students, so there’s a quite different level of NFC in our conversations (which vary from the trivial to the absurd to the theological/socially serious. I think this survey would need to cover a much wider range of Facebook (and Twitter) users to prove anything satisfactorily, particularly in the light of stats that show the increasing use of Facebook by older participants.

  2. CTrappe

    I agree with the first comment. It’d be great to see a wider study, but even if done what does it mean? Don’t use Facebook if you don’t want to be associated with a low NFC?


    Thanks for bringing in the NFC measure, seems interesting. Nevertheless, it’s important to consider the causality, especially in the context of “The Shallows”. I would rather insist that Facebook gathers dullards rather than producing them.

  4. Joe Essid

    Excellent post, though I’d argue a culture of constant distraction lies at the heart of too many students’ lack of critical-thinking skills.

    But yes, Facebook is a real bore. At best, I can see my sister’s family pictures or find an old friend from college. But the “hourly update” my students feel compelled to make? Their 100 texts per day sent or received?

    To use that blogger locution, “Not so much.”

    Sven Birkerts was correct in The Gutenberg Elegies. We have seen a flattening of historical perspectives, an erosion of language, and, perhaps worst of all, a waning of the private self.

    How can we use the incredible power of these Internet technologies for their educative potential? I part company with Birkerts’ “refuse it” as the solution.

  5. Nick Carr

    I would rather insist that Facebook gathers dullards rather than producing them.

    I think that’s what the study indicates. The question of whether long-term Facebook use would lower a person’s NFC score is an interesting one, but beyond the scope of this study.

    I’d like to think it’s the other way around: dullards are geared to Facebook.

    That may be so, though the study’s authors point out that Facebook offers a lot of the superficial, or “peripheral,” cues that low NFC people rely on in place of deep thinking. If you desire to avoid taxing thought, a Like button is pure gold.

  6. Purly

    This article reads like “Scientists go to great lengths to show that their lack of friends is not the result of being boring”

  7. Kelly Roberts

    I have to agree with some of the other comments. I don’t know what’s less imaginative, Facebook or these academic sociological studies that tell us next to nothing.

    A different one at Flagler College concluded that “students who frequently used social media as a tool for self-promotion and a vehicle to increase their popularity were more likely to be narcissistic and exhibit less nuanced moral reasoning than those who didn’t.” That’s right. Narcissists engage in narcissistic behavior!

    Of course Facebook is geared to dullards. That doesn’t mean smart people can’t use it smartly (and hilariously).

  8. CogSciGirl

    “The key finding,” the authors write, “is that NFC played an important role in SNS use.”

    I think this is overstating the case. Perhaps there is a correlation, but given the disparity of the two variables being measured, I’d be willing to bet that there are one or two confounding factors that haven’t been accounted for. Essentially, I believe it is scientifically legitimate to state that there is a correlation between NFC and SNS use, but not that it necessarily plays in important role. If you really want to make a case for that, you’d need to run a few experiments or at least do a few more studies to get at some of the other variables.

    For example, did the study look at just the number of hours spent on Facebook, or did it also look at the enjoyment of SNS (as you wrote in your introduction, addressed at those who might find Facebook dull) and/or the uses of SNS? I personally have a huge number of Facebook friends, which I tend to find incredibly useful when I need information (you have no idea how many programming questions I’ve had answered thanks to my many tech-savvy friends in various locations around the world). In addition, some studies have shown that compulsive/obsessive behavior (which would lead to a higher overall Facebook use) also leads to a DECREASED satisfaction with technology (e.g. Przybylski, Winstein, et al. 2009), although obviously the overall engagement with the technology is still higher. I believe it would be reasonable to expect, or at least predict, that there would also be a correlation between NFC scores and compulsive or obsessive behaviors (similar to those who play video games for hours on end), which could go a long way towards explaining the causation behind the correlation.

    Any thoughts?

  9. James Biederbeck

    Yeah, this just wreaks of sample bias.

    Not to mention it seems to be a correlation study that wishes it was an experimental study judging by the claims made.

  10. frances

    Interesting. I think there are a lot of social media ignorami out there who, possibly out of fear that they won’t be able to figure out how to effectively use (let alone leverage) a now-commonplace communications tool, would adopt such a condescending attitude. I’m not saying the study’s inaccurate; but it’s entirely unfair for you to extrapolate from the findings a value judgment (i.e. “dullard”) about people who use social media. You should be reminded that platforms like twitter and facebook comprise a widely democratic medium that has completely shifted the paradigm of communication and shattered its boundaries. By the study’s reasoning, then, perhaps that paradigm is too simple for neo-Luddites with “high NFC scores” to operate within–but whose loss is that?

    Malcolm Gladwell wrote that “the revolution will not be tweeted.” But that was before Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Do you think he still believes that?

  11. Nick Carr

    “Dullard” seems to me an entirely accurate description of those with low NFC. And it’s a really good word, to boot.

    Now, “ignorami” – that’s just nasty.

  12. Azeem

    Great piece of research – but don’t they miss at least three things:

    1. What other factors could explain SNS use? Could for example NFC be connected to deeper factor like sociability – Rainman probably wasn’t a great Facebooker.

    2. How have social networks evolved? When social networks were based on Usenet would you have seen a different result to today’s world when Facebook is about Zynga? How would this study have looked if it was taken in 2005 when Facebook was only available in Harvard and Stanford; and most non-Facebook users were not in Ivy League colleges?

Comments are closed.