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Mirror, Mirror on the (Facebook) Wall

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Even before I caved two years ago and joined Facebook -- I am, after all, a human being working on a university campus -- my students couldn't stop talking about it: the scandalous profile pictures, the 1,000-plus friend tallies and that guy who quotes himself in his profile.

Why were these undergrads chatting with their professor about a social networking site and not, say, the midterm exam? Because I'm a psychology researcher who studies the narcissistic personality. Facebook, with its 100 million users, seemed like a gold mine of information. So my students and I decided to look at the role of narcissism in creating a Facebook profile -- something that's by definition all about you.

For the purposes of our study, we defined narcissism as a normal personality trait, not a clinical disorder. The term "narcissist" simply refers to someone who scores highly on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. As you might expect, people with high scores generally have overly positive views of themselves -- that is, they think they're pretty great. In particular, they often believe that they are more intelligent and physically attractive than others and tend to have a pervasive sense of uniqueness and entitlement.

By analyzing the Facebook profiles of 129 participating undergraduates, my students and I tried to determine whether narcissists are prone to self-promotion on Facebook and whether that narcissism can be detected by other users. The short answer is yes: Narcissists do tend to be more active on Facebook, and they do post self-promoting text and pictures. This is not a formal diagnosis, of course; Facebook features cannot be treated as diagnostic tools. Nevertheless, we did notice a few pretty clear trends, shown below, that were judged to be narcissistic.

-- Laura E. Buffardi, University of Georgia Department of Psychology

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