July 20, 2013    Psychology

Why We Fear Confrontations on Facebook

As entertaining as Facebook is, it can also be very stressful. Some people even commit Facebook suicide and delete their accounts entirely because the dilemma of temptation and fear drives them insane. Facebook looks harmless on the facade but the danger is quite real. (The minimum age requirement for Facebook is 13, but perhaps it should be 21.) It’s not just on Facebook; social interaction in general is dangerous, messy, and stressful because we’ve been hard-coded to feel that way through evolution.

Since we humans are social creatures, we need one another to survive. Those who know how to work with others well have a better chance of survival, so evolution must have given selective advantage to those who fear isolation. We try very hard to keep our immediate network of friends and families stable. When something happens that destabilizes the network, we worry because our own survival depends on it.

So, it makes sense that most people treat their friends differently from those who are outside of their own networks. When we need to confront someone who is close to us, it’s a lot more stressful than when we confront an anonymous person far away. With the latter, we don’t have much to lose; we are effectively anonymous and it would have no impact on our own network.

On my site, I used to receive a lot of passionate comments, and I spent a considerable amount of time debating here, but around 2005, I noticed that the quality of comments was declining. I realized that this was because people were commenting anonymously, because they had no stakes in what they were saying. I then decided to shut down the comment section. Now, many sites require Facebook credential to comment. This is a good solution because people tend to behave better when they are acting under their real identities; the quality of engagement improves.

The more stakes people have in what they are saying, the better they behave. However, the flip side of this equation is that the higher the stakes, the more dishonest people become. They do not want their own networks of people to become unstable as their own well-being and survival depends on them. Honesty is compromised for the sake of stability.

You’ve probably come across a situation where two of your friends, who don’t know each other, start arguing on your Facebook Wall. The stakes are lower for the two who have never met. You cannot simply ignore the argument because they could possibly be disrespectful to one another and upset the dynamics of your network. You are not even part of the debate, so you don’t have much control over the situation.

There are also people who express strong opinions on Facebook or even in person, but they never directly confront anyone they know. Their opponents are always somewhere up in the air. They only criticize these abstract enemies because they do not want to jeopardize their own network. It’s like air boxing.

The closer people are to the person they are talking to, the more agreeable and friendly they generally become. Out of fear, their desire to conform becomes greater than their desire to express what they truly think or feel. This is part of our survival instincts.

Without this psychological mechanism, Nazism could not have happened. It is hard to believe that millions of people could just let their neighbors be sent to concentration camps just because they are Jewish. It seems inconceivable that so many people could conspire to do something so evil. It’s easy for us now to point our fingers at Germany and claim that we would never do such a thing, but whether we can safely stand up for our own beliefs is dependent on the general sentiment immediately around us. Because most people are scared of destabilizing their own networks of friends and families, once the tide of popular opinions turns, they would go along with it. They are more concerned about keeping their own networks stable than they are about standing up for their own beliefs.

If you truly wish to have an impact in the world, or if you wish to learn and grow (not just seek confirmations for your own beliefs), then it is your immediate network of friends that you need to confront, not some anonymous person far away on the Web. If you are not willing to risk this, neither you nor your opponent would ever learn anything real.

For me personally, if someone is not willing to be real with me, then he isn’t really a “friend”. I would just consider him an “acquaintance.” If you ever get into a situation where the whole world thinks you committed an evil crime but you didn’t, and your friend saw that you didn’t, you could count on him to defend you even if nobody else in the world, including everyone he knows, believes you. Such a friend would have to be willing to sacrifice his own network of friends, to jeopardize his own well-being and survival, to stand up for you and the truth.