Social media makes breakups worse, study says
Is there a way for more human-centered algorithms to prevent potentially triggering interactions on social media?
- According to a 2017 study, 71% of people reported feeling better (rediscovery of self and positive emotions) about 11 weeks after a breakup. But social media complicates this healing process.
- Even if you "unfriend", block, or unfollow, social media algorithms can create upsetting encounters with your ex-partner or reminders of the relationship that once was.
- Researchers at University of Colorado Boulder suggest that a "human-centered approach" to creating algorithms can help the system better understand the complex social interactions we have with people online and prevent potentially upsetting encounters.
Social media complicates the natural healing process of breakups
Social media complicates the difficult process of healing with a break up.
Photo by Antonio Guillem on Shutterstock
According to a 2017 study (which you can find in the Journal of Positive Psychology), most people are able to heal from a breakup within a span of three months after the relationship has ended.
This study examined 155 participants who had gone through breakups in the past six months - these were people who had been in relationships of various durations and consisted of people who had been broken up with as well as people who had been the one to end the relationship.
71% of people in this study described feeling better (reporting rediscovery of self and more positive emotions) around 11 weeks after the relationship had ended.
"Offline, breakups can range from awkward to awful, inspiring a gamut of emotions for former partners and people in their networks. Typically these feelings fade with time and distance as ex-partners grow apart emotionally and physically..."
Social media complicates this process, according to a 2019 study conducted by a team in the Department of Information Science division at the University of Colorado Boulder.
While it's obvious that social media can make grieving the end of a relationship even more difficult, many people unfriend, unfollow and even block their ex-partners to gain some sense of control and erase any reminder of their lost love.
However, according the study mentioned above, even if you unfollow, unfriend and block your ex-partner, social media platforms are very likely to serve you reminders of your relationship due to their algorithms.
Even if you “unfollow” and block, social media algorithms can make breaking up even more painful
Even when you "unfriend" or block your ex-partner, social media algorithms make it possible to see reminders of them.
Figure 1 from 2019 study on Facebook algorithms
This study investigated the unexpected encounters people face with social media content (relating to an ex romantic partner or relationship that has ended) as a direct result of that platform's curation algorithm.
Through 3 sets of interviews conducted with 19 adult Facebook account holders (within the United States), the team characterized the kinds of social media encounters participants in the study had experienced and how that experience affected their ability to heal from the breakup.
The participants of this study varied in age and sexual orientation, and the length of their romantic relationships also varied (this data can be found in Table 1 of this document):
- Participants ranged in age from 18-46 (with a median age of 30.56)
- Participants included 12 females and 7 males
- Relationship duration varied from 2 months to 15 years
- Relationship statuses (while together) varied from dating to cohabitating to married
- Sexual orientations of the participants varied from straight to bisexual to lesbian
The "time since encounter" (of the unexpected social media encounters) ranged from ongoing to over 2 years ago. Each participant of this study self-identified as having experienced an unexpected and upsetting experience with content about an ex-partner on Facebook.
According to this study, there are three places on Facebook where "upsetting algorithmic encounters" frequently happen:
- News Feed - which, according to Facebook, shows you "stories that matter most to you" through metrics based on the type of content you post and interactions you have with posts you come into contact with.
- "On this Day" or "Memories" - a place where pictures or interactions with posts are shown to you as happening "a year ago today" or "five years ago today."
- Shared Spaces and Friend Suggestions - where upsetting encounters can happen by seeing mutual friend posts where you can see a blocked person's response to a post by a friend of yours.
Who is at fault for these upsetting encounters?
In one instance, person 15 (as they are labeled in the study) indicated she had blocked her ex-husband and mutual friends they shared, as well as his family. Even so, she still encountered an upsetting "friend suggestion" on the sidebar of her Facebook screen.
"Around the time of the divorce, I was getting 'people you may know' suggestions of his [new] girlfriend's relatives, which was bizarre…"
Not only was person 15 upset with these friend recommendations, but she was also very confused: she assumed unfriending her ex-partner, as well as any mutual friends they had, would create enough "virtual distance" between her and her ex-partner that the system would no longer recommend overlapping connections between the two of them.
Across the range of these interviews, some of the participants did blame themselves for not changing their privacy settings or maintaining their social media to help avoid these encounters.
A minority of people in the study held others accountable: giving examples of "not deleting photos with the two of us in it" as blame being on their ex-partner.
However, most of the participants held the social media platform accountable.
"I clicked the Facebook app and at the top, the very top item of my News Feed is "so and so is in a relationship with someone else" and I'm like, "why are you putting that at the top of my feed?" - a quote from person 9 in the study.
The problem is clear...is the solution also clear?
Is there a solution that can allow social media algorithms to better understand complex social interactions online?
Image by Sergey Nivens on Shutterstock
The real problem with the algorithms on social media platforms, according to the study, is that these systems do not understand the (at times, quite complex) social context of the data they are processing.
The unpredictable outcomes of these algorithms can cause extremely upsetting experiences for social media users.
Going beyond the scope of breakups for a moment, we can imagine how traumatic the experience of seeing your deceased daughter in Facebook's "Year in Review" video was for Eric Meyer, who explains his experience in this article about inadvertent algorithmic cruelty: "I didn't go looking for grief this afternoon, but it found me anyway, and I have designers and programmers to thank for that."
"Yes, my year looked like that" explained Meyer in his emotional article, "true enough. My year looked like the now-absent face of my little girl. It was still unkind to remind me so forcefully."
This is just one instance of potentially devastating effects of social media algorithms that don't take more into account than how many "likes" a photo received or how you are connected to this person through a friend of a friend.
The solution: human-centered algorithms
The algorithm is made to simply show you "a friend of a friend" in the "mutual friends" section - not knowing that this "friend of a friend" just happens to be your ex-boyfriend or girlfriend's new partner. Or in the case of Eric Meyer, the algorithm showed his most "liked" photo, which happened to be of his daughter before her passing earlier that year.
This can create a very triggering response, as you can imagine. But is there a solution to this? The research team suggests that "human-centered approaches" to algorithms could help.
While approaching this problem in a simplistic way might prevent people from having online interactions they do value, the study suggests there are things social media algorithms can take into account that could potentially detect upsetting triggers and redesign how these encounters occur.
An example given in the study is a Facebook event where both you and your partner are attending, the algorithm could choose how (and when) to make your ex-partner's interactions with that event visible to you.
"As the work of content curation on social media continues to shift from people to algorithms, understanding how people experience what those algorithms make visible is critical to the design of human-centered systems, especially when the results are upsetting or harmful."
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Whether or not women think beards are sexy has to do with "moral disgust"
- A new study found that women perceive men with facial hair to be more attractive as well as physically and socially dominant.
- Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength, social assertiveness, and formidability.
- Women who display higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, are more likely to prefer hairy faces.
Beards and perceptions of masculinity<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5OTg0MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NzkxMjM3N30.cH-GqNwP5GVqvstgJWAhBPn1B_lYpVEAI0I7iax7EQw/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C1900%2C0%2C849&height=700" id="caae6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="cb0a355a4e8e1899789bc45f3f7aef56" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Photo Credit: Wikimedia<p>The study used 919 American (mostly white) women ages 18-70 who rated 30 pictures of men they were shown with various stages of facial hair growth. The photographs depicted men with faces that had been digitally altered to look more feminine or more masculine, with a beard and without a beard. The women rated the men according to perceived attractiveness for long-term and short-term relationships. The study found that the more facial hair the men had, the higher the men were rated on their attractiveness, particularly for their suitability for a long-term relationship.</p><p>Part of this might be attributed to facial masculinity — i.e. protruding brow ridge, wide cheekbones, thick jawline, and deeply set narrow eyes — which conveys information to a woman about a man's underlying health and formidability. Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength and social assertiveness. It can also indicate a man with a superior immune response. The researchers suggested that their findings favoring bearded men could be due to the fact that facial hair enhances the masculine facial features on a man's face, like creating the illusion of a thicker jaw line. This could communicate direct benefits to women like resources and protection that would enhance survival among mothers and their infants. In other words, while a beard doesn't mean superior genetics in and of itself, it might be a primitive, ornamental way of saying, "Hey girl, I'm a testosterone-fueled lean, mean, pathogen fighting machine." <br></p><p>It could also be that a beard becomes its own destiny. The researchers in this study cite prior research that found that by growing a beard, men felt more masculine and had higher levels of serum testosterone, which was linked to a higher level of social dominance. They also tended to subscribe to more old-school beliefs about gender roles in their relationships with women as compared to men with clean-shaven faces.<span></span><br></p>
What does disgust have to do with beard preference?<p>Obviously, not all women dig beards. The researchers were particularly interested in what traits make a women prefer bearded men over clean-shaven faces. They looked into several factors including a woman's disgust levels on various concepts, her desire to become pregnant, and her exposure to facial hair in her personal life. </p><p>According to the study, women who were not into facial hair were turned-off by potential parasites or other critters they imagined could be in the hair or skin. Women ranking high on this "ectoparasite disgust" scale might have viewed beards as a sign of poor grooming habits. However, women who ranked higher in levels of "pathogen" did find the bearded men to be desirable, possibly because they perceived beards as a signal of good health and immune function. An intriguing discovery in the study was links to morality. Women who displayed higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, were more likely to prefer hairy faces. The authors opined that this could reflect a link between beardedness, politically conservative outlooks, and traditional views regarding performances of masculinity in heterosexual relationships.</p>
Additional findings<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5OTg1My9vcmlnaW4uZ2lmIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNDI1NjUyOX0.P9B8WbmJR0q4nfzYZKbuNSA-2SAigVWJgrQE-_Gxlds/img.gif?width=980" id="49143" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2ed3b1d6f20fc170bf2974646e565e8d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />Giphy<p>The correlations that existed between married and single women's rating on the attractiveness of beards were not particularly clear, although the researchers noted that single and married women who wanted children tended to find beards more attractive than the women who didn't want children. They also found that women with bearded husbands found beards to be more attractive, which might indicate that social exposure to beards influences how desirable they are perceived of as being. Or it could be that men with wives who like beards grow beards.</p><p>It's important to note that culture plays a huge role in how attractive women perceive certain male characteristics as being. This study looked at a small, culturally specific group of American women, so no big, universal claims should be made about masculinity, facial hair, and male desirability to women. However, research like this is important in highlighting how human grooming decisions are driven by much more than fashion trends. Sociobiological, economic, and ecological factors all play a part in the way we choose to present ourselves.</p>
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