The Feel-Bad Effect from Not-So-Close Facebook Friends

My good friend Stan James writes about how social networks amplify the feel-bad-in-comparison effect when you see people raving about how glorious their lives are:

In my trips back to Colorado, I have been struck each time by the discord between people’s Facebook lives and what they say in private. On Facebook they have been on an amazing vacation to exotic beaches. In person they confess that the vacation was a desperate attempt to save a marriage. On Facebook they have been to gliteratee tech conferences. In person they confess they haven’t been able to sleep for months, and are on anti-anxiety medication from the stress of financial pressures on their company

What’s interesting is that this feel-bad Facebook effect seems to come from a distinct source: not-so-close Facebook friends.

In the case of true close friends, you know about all the crap that is going on in their lives. From deep interaction, you know the specific pains and doubt that lies behind the smiling profile picture…

Since TV was invented, critics have pointed out the dangers of watching the perfect people who seem to inhabit the screen. They are almost universally beautiful, live in interesting places, do intereseting work (if they work at all), are unfailingly witty, and never have to do any cleaning. They never even need to use the toilet. It cannot be pschologically healthy to compare yourself to these phantasms.

So it’s interesting that social networks have inadvertently created the same effect, but using an even more powerful source. Instead of actors in Hollywood, the characters are people that you know to be real and have actually met. The editing is done not by film school graduates, but by the people themselves.

In the end, my friend’s strategy seems to be the right one: don’t spend too much time purusing the lives of people who aren’t in your life. And spend more time learning about the uncut, unedited, off-line lives that your friends are actually living.

Very true when reading other people's public content. People tend not to share their warts in public forums. Keep that in mind if you feel shitty in comparison when reading about the apparent charmed life of a blogger you don't know well in real life.

Four years ago I wrote a somewhat similar post but from the perspective of a person who writes generally upbeat tweets and blog posts. When you know you are going to blog about an experience before you have the experience, you want it to be good so that you can write a positive post that's fun to write and read. It changes the actual experience to be more positive. After writing about the (positive) experience, it's in the historical record. When you read old posts to remember your past, you feel happy about all the positive experiences you accumulated and recorded. It's not just about whitewashing the past or selective memory (though this is part of it); there's an anticipatory effect of sharing the experience in a public forum that changes the actual experience for the better.


I just told a friend I was writing this post. She said, "This is a litmus test I use for how close I am with a friend. If s/he doesn't tell me anything bad about their life, I assume we're not very good friends."


Note to readers: Blogging will be light for the next month due to extensive travel, and probably more sporadic than usual for the rest of 2010. If you don't already use an RSS reader I encourage you to do so, and subscribe to this feed. You can also get my posts via email.

Do Love and Sex Naturally Go Together?

A couple months ago, at a group dinner, one non-American gentleman at the table said, "I have had sex with other women, but I have never cheated on my wife of 20 years." This was surprising coming from a man. Usually men consider infidelity the sole physical act; women tend to emphasize emotional betrayal. When I probed the guy on his answer, he just said that Americans are too obsessed with sexual monogamy. "What matters," he said, "is that you still love your partner."

Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, the authors of the new book "Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality," would agree. In their fascinating interview on Salon, they explain their ideas, the central one being that monogamy is against our nature. Excerpts, emphases mine:

Marriage in the West isn’t doing very well because it’s in direct confrontation with the evolved reality of our species. What we argue in the book is that the best way to increase marital stability, which in the modern world is an important part of social stability, is to develop a more tolerant and realistic understanding of human sexuality and how human sexuality is being distorted by our modern conception of marriage.

Does this mean that humans didn't form couples before the advent of agriculture?

Because human groups at the time knew each other so well and spent their lives together and were all interrelated and depended upon each other for everything, they really knew each other much better than most of us know our sexual partners today. We don’t argue that people didn’t form very special relationships — you can see this even in chimps and bonobos and other primates, but that bond doesn’t necessarily extend to sexual exclusivity. People have said that we’re arguing against love — but we're just saying that this insistence that love and sex always go together is erroneous.

I think from a cultural standpoint the idea of strict monogamy has far less currency within the gay male world than it does within the straight world. I’m a gay man, and I think probably about half the gay male couples I know are in open relationships. Why do you think that is?

First of all, they’re both men, so they both know what it’s like to be a man. They both know from experience that love and sex are two very different things, and it seems that for women the experience of sexuality is much more embedded in narrative, in emotion, in emotional intimacy…..

I’ve been living off and on for almost 20 years here in Barcelona, and from outside, the United States looks very adolescent, in a positive and negative sense. There's its adolescent energy — its idealism — but there’s also an immaturity and intolerance toward the ambiguity of life and the complexity of relationships. The American sense of relationships and sexuality tends to be very informed by Hollywood: It’s all about the love story. But the love story ends at the wedding and doesn't go into the 40 years that comes after that….the American insistence on mixing love and sex and expecting passion to last forever is leading to great suffering that we think is tragic and unnecessary.

Here's my old post on whether you would still trust someone in the boardroom if you knew s/he was cheating on her/his partner. Here's a dense essay about how lesbians have the least sex of anyone. If all this is too depressing, here's an uplifting video of soldiers returning home and surprising their families.


“How Are Your Relationships?”

…With your friends, your family, and your spouse / romantic interest?

I don’t think a friend catch-up session is complete without this question.

I support probing directly and following up specifically. The conversation is always enlightening and sometimes brings us closer. As one friend of mine likes to say, “People should pry more.”

Relationships are the lifeblood of happiness. They deserve to be discussed and analyzed!


Ariel Levy’s review of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new memoir on marriage is decent. I liked this paragraph:

Ultimately, Gilbert is clear about what she, like most people, wants: everything. We want intimacy and autonomy, security and stimulation, reassurance and novelty, coziness and thrills. But we can’t have it. Gilbert understands this, yet she tries to convince herself and her readers that she has found a loophole. She tells herself a familiar story, that her marriage will be different. And she is, of course, right—everyone’s marriage is different. But everyone’s marriage is a compromise.

Approaching Love with Utter Openness and Reasonable Caution

"In every human being there is only so large a supply of love. It's like the limbs of a starfish, to some extent: if you chew off a chunk, it will grow back. But if you chew off too much, the starfish dies. Valerie B. chewed off a chunk of love from my dwindling reserve … a reserve already nibbled by Charlotte and Lory and Sherri and Cindy and others down through the years. There's still enough there to make the saleable appearance of a whole creature, but nobody gets gnawed on that way without becoming a little dead. So, if Cupid (that perverted little motherfucker) decides his lightning ought to strike this gnarly tree trunk again, whoever or whatever gets me is going to get a handy second, damaged goods, something a little dead and a little crippled.

Having learned that, all I can advise is an impossible stance for all of you: utter openness and reasonable caution. Don't close yourself off, but jeezus, be careful of monsters with teeth. And just so you know what they look like when they come clanking after you, here is a photo of one. The package is so pretty, one can only urge you to remember Pandora. Be careful which boxes you open, troops."

From Harlan Ellison's Valerie: A True Memoir (1972).

(thanks to Maria Pacana for the pointer)

Retiring Old Friends to Make Room for Better-Fit New Ones

About a year ago I wrote a post How Friendships Evolve and the Quest for Platonic Intimacy. Among other things, it addressed the challenge of 18-30 year olds who seek to add an intellectual dimension to long-standing emotional relationships.

I continue to encounter people in their 20’s and 30’s who over time discover that they are thinking about life differently than their good buddies from high school and college. Thanks largely to blogs and other mediums they are meeting new people from different geographies and age brackets and backgrounds. Despite surface level differences they bond over a burning itch to know (curiosity), shared interests, and a general commitment to improving one’s mind and life situation and ping-pong prowess. They relish the history they have with long-standing friends and the corresponding emotional closeness, but they are not being intellectually stimulated in the way they now desire and can be by their newer connections. What to do?

I receive emails from readers on this. Here’s an excerpt from one:

…it kinda sucks to see this mentality in close friends — a substantial chunk of my mental and emotional energy is devoted to making a life I’m proud of, that fits with who I am, and all the while they’re still operating on auto-pilot….

The correct move is just to briefly grieve but then move on and distance myself from [my friend who’s devolving]. Which I’ve already started doing. I just want to note for the record that at this stage in my life I’m really on the hunt for allies in this growth process — not necessarily people who share my interests and goals, but who do care about evolving and making concerted moves to control their lives and become self-governing, autonomous human beings.

He is confronting this difficult reality: it’s impossible to form new friendships unless you retire old ones. We do not have infinite emotional bandwidth, let alone infinite time.

Inertia causes us to maintain relationships that should be let go. Or it allows relationships that really ought to be revved up to just sit in and flat line as a weak tie. Active, critical thinking about the current situation is step one anytime one wants to overcome the status quo bias.

If you undertake this process, remember timing is everything: you don’t want to turn off all your current friendships and start from a clean slate. Rather, you want to seek out new people who stimulate the current entrepreneurial you. As you increase intimacy with those people, through inaction slowly transition the old friendships into more casual, less demanding weak ties.

Obvious and Non-Obvious Reasons For and Against Casual Sex

1. Obvious reason to have casual sex: Feels good, instant gratification, etc.

2. Non-obvious reason to: The boost in self-confidence that comes from knowing that another person was attracted to you physically. Casual sex is about physicality. People need validation that they are beautiful. People who think they are beautiful are more self-confident in life. Self-confidence is good.

3. Obvious reason not to have casual sex: STDs.

4. Non-obvious reason not to: You usually feel lonelier afterwards.

I believe #2 is the most original of the four.

Men Are From Mars…

From Jeffrey Goldberg's Q&A advice column in the Atlantic:

Sometimes when we’re driving somewhere and silent for a while, my husband will turn to me and ask, “What are you thinking about?” What should I say?
P. D., Madison, Wis.

Dear P. D.,

Good question. Here are a few possible responses:

“I was just thinking about how great you look in sweatpants.”

“I was just wondering whether it would be possible to have sex in the car right now.”

“I was just wondering whether it would be possible to have sex while watching a football game on television.”

“I was just thinking that I’d love to see your baseball-card collection from when you were 10.”

“I was just thinking that it is totally unfair of me to expect you to be interested in my emotions.”

“I was just thinking that we should probably hire a Swedish au pair.”

Psychology Paragraphs of the Day

"When you find yourself hating someone (who did not directly hurt you) with blinding rage, know for certain that it is not the person you hate at all, but rather something about them that threatens your identity.  Find that thing.  This single piece of advice can turn your life around, I guarantee it."

— The Last Psychiatrist, on a post called The Rape Tunnel


"According to a widely accepted model, intimacy begins when one person expresses revealing feelings, builds when the listener responds with support and empathy and is achieved when the discloser hears these things and feels understood, validated and cared for."

— Elizabeth Weil, in her 8,000 NYT magazine piece on her quest to improve her marriage.

Women’s Pornography

Nora Roberts has sold 400 million copies of her 189 romance novels in print. “She regularly outsells Clancy, Grisham, and King combined,” according to the San Francisco Panorama, “Romance boasts $1.5 billion in sales; 55 percent of all paperbacks; one out of four books sold; 60 million readers in the U.S. alone.” Incredible statistics.

Think of the women reading these steamy novels. What kinds of notions about romance are they absorbing? Are they developing wildly unrealistic ideas about relationships? Should men be worried about how romance novels can hurt relationships just as women worry about how pornography hurts relationships (or doesn’t)?

Robin Hanson asks why there is “so much more effort to regulate porn than romance novels.”

Should men have the option to select “Does not read romance novels” as an option when searching for women on Would women want the same for pornography consumption when searching for men?

Finding a Person’s Idiosyncrasies Charming

A friend, in an email about idiosyncrasies, writes to me:

You get stressed out about not sleeping enough and give me secondhand anxiety. You always try to fit in just one more email before leaving for a meeting. You get hungry at the oddest times and must eat immediately. But I also weirdly like these things about you.

Amy Batchelor once told me something very wise about relationships: the key to liking someone over the long run is loving and appreciating their quirks. What someone else may find annoying, you must find endearing.

A good litmus test for when a relationship is coming un-done is when you start to be annoyed by the other person’s long-running idiosyncrasies.