Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Why people post ‘couple photos’ as their social media profile pictures
They can be signs of how people feel in their relationship – and may send an important message to potential rivals.
As you scroll through your Facebook news feed, you see it: Your friend has posted a new profile picture. But instead of a picture of just your friend, it's a couple photo – a picture of your friend and their romantic partner.
“Why would someone choose that as their profile picture?" you wonder.
We are social psychology researchers interested in understanding people's behavior in close relationships and on social media. Our research and that of other scholars provides insight into why people use these types of “I'm part of a couple!" displays on social media. Choosing profile photos that include their romantic partner, posting their relationship status and mentioning their partner in their updates can all be signs of how people feel in their relationship – and may send an important message to potential rivals.
Who does this?
What we social psychologists call “dyadic displays" are relatively common.
In a recent study that we conducted, 29% of romantically involved Facebook users had a “couple" photo as their current profile picture. Seventy percent had a dyadic relationship status posted – such as “In a relationship" or “Married." And participants mentioned their romantic partner in 15% of their recent Facebook updates.
Certain people are more likely to use these dyadic displays than others. People who are very satisfied with or committed to their romantic relationship are more likely to post couple profile photos or represent their relationships on social media in other ways. The more in love a coupled-up person is, and the more jealousy they report, the more likely they are to post their relationship status publicly on Facebook.
People who have an anxious attachment style – who worry about their partner rejecting or abandoning them – are also more likely to use a dyadic profile photo and post a dyadic relationship status on Facebook. In contrast, people who have an avoidant attachment style – who are uncomfortable depending on others and who prioritize maintaining their independence – are unlikely to showcase their couplehood in these ways.
Whether someone underscores their romantic status online can also change according to how a person is feeling at a given time. People are more likely to post relationship-relevant information on Facebook on days when they feel more insecure about their partner's feelings for them than they typically do and on days when they feel more satisfied with their relationship.
Why display couplehood this way?
One possible reason, proposed by other scholars, is that these displays accurately represent how many romantically involved people see themselves.
People in close relationships often include their partner in their self-concept – they see their partner as part of themselves. People may display their couplehood on social media, then, because doing so accurately represents how they see themselves: as intertwined with their partner.
Our recent survey of 236 romantically involved adult Facebook users supported this idea. We found that people – especially those who are very satisfied with their relationships – use dyadic displays partly because they see their partner as part of who they are.
We also found another, more strategic reason that people perform these displays: They're motivated to protect their relationships from threats that exist on social media. Using Facebook, Twitter and all the rest exposes people to a variety of things that could potentially harm their relationship, including ex-partners, alternative partners they could start a relationship with and romantic rivals who could attempt to steal their current sweethearts.
Outside of social media, research has shown that committed people engage in a host of behaviors to defend their relationships against threats posed by alternative partners and romantic rivals. Mentioning their partner or relationship is one way people may try to ward off these potential troublemakers.
We found that people who were more motivated to protect their relationships from these kinds of threats were more likely to use dyadic displays. Wanting to keep the good thing they had going was one reason why highly satisfied and committed people were particularly likely to feature their partner on their social media profiles.
Other researchers have found that some people feature their partner and relationship in their social media profiles because having other people know that they are in a relationship gives them a self-esteem boost. This motive to feel good about themselves is one reason why anxiously attached people want their Facebook friends to be able to tell that they are in a relationship – and why avoidantly attached people don't.
How do others interpret these displays?
Interestingly, viewers tend to form fairly accurate impressions of others based on their social media profiles and posts.
In experiments, researchers have manipulated social media profiles to investigate the consequences of advertising your coupledom in these ways.
Posting couple photos and using other dyadic displays leads other people to perceive the profile owner as more likable and as more likely to be in a satisfying and committed relationship.
These dyadic displays not only communicate commitment, but also suggest that the profile owner is unlikely to be receptive to romantic advances from other people. This may discourage others from trying to get closer to the profile owner, perhaps protecting the relationship.
If you've never done it, it may seem surprising that people would choose a “couple photo" as their profile picture. But doing so has the potential to produce positive outcomes for that person and their relationship.
- How much it's going to cost you to find love online - Big Think ›
- Facebook couples that post more updates may be happier - Big Think ›
Scientists use new methods to discover what's inside drug containers used by ancient Mayan people.
- Archaeologists used new methods to identify contents of Mayan drug containers.
- They were able to discover a non-tobacco plant that was mixed in by the smoking Mayans.
- The approach promises to open up new frontiers in the knowledge of substances ancient people consumed.
PARME staff archaeologists excavating a burial site at the Tamanache site, Mérida, Yucatan.
While not the first such minister, the loneliness epidemic in Japan will make this one the hardest working.
- The Japanese government has appointed a Minister of Loneliness to implement policies designed to fight isolation and lower suicide rates.
- They are the second country, after the U.K., to dedicate a cabinet member to the task.
- While Japan is famous for how its loneliness epidemic manifests, it isn't alone in having one.
The Ministry of Loneliness<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/I5FIohjZT8o" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p><a href="https://www.jimin.jp/english/profile/members/114749.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tetsushi Sakamoto</a>, already in the government as the minister in charge of raising Japan's low birthrate and revitalizing regional economies, was appointed this <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">month</a> to the additional role. He has already announced plans for an emergency national forum to discuss the issue and share the testimony of lonely <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/12/national/loneliness-isolation-minister/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">individuals</a>.</p><p>Given the complexity of the problem, the minister will primarily oversee the coordination of efforts between different <a href="https://www.insider.com/japan-minister-of-loneliness-suicides-rise-pandemic-2021-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ministries</a> that hope to address the issue alongside a task <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">force</a>. He steps into his role not a moment too soon. The loneliness epidemic in Japan is uniquely well known around the world.</p><p><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hikikomori" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Hikikomori</em></a><em>,</em> often translated as "acute social withdrawal," is the phenomenon of people completely withdrawing from society for months or years at a time and living as modern-day hermits. While cases exist in many <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00247/full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countries</a>, the problem is better known and more prevalent in Japan. Estimates vary, but some suggest that one million Japanese live like this and that 1.5 million more are at <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/article/japan-hikikomori-isolation-society" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">risk</a> of developing the condition. Individuals practicing this hermitage often express contentment with their isolation at first before encountering severe symptoms of loneliness and <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/01/200110155241.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">distress</a>.</p><p><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kodokushi" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Kodokushi</em></a>, the phenomenon of the elderly dying alone and remaining undiscovered for some time due to their isolation, is also a widespread issue in Japan that has attracted national attention for decades.</p><p>These are just the most shocking elements of the loneliness crisis. As we've discussed before, loneliness can cause health issues akin to <a href="https://www.inc.com/amy-morin/americas-loneliness-epidemic-is-more-lethal-than-smoking-heres-what-you-can-do-to-combat-isolation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">smoking</a>. A lack of interaction within a community can cause social <a href="https://bigthink.com/in-their-own-words/how-religious-neighbors-are-better-neighbors" target="_self">problems</a>. It is even associated with changes in the <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/loneliness-brain" target="_self">brain</a>. While there is nothing wrong with wanting a little time to yourself, the inability to get the socialization that many people need is a real problem with real <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/brain-loneliness-hunger" target="_self">consequences</a>.</p>
The virus that broke the camel's back<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/Hp-L844-5k8" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> A global loneliness pandemic existed before COVID-19, and the two working in tandem has been catastrophic. </p><p>Japanese society has always placed a value on solitude, often associating it with self-reliance, which makes dealing with the problem of excessive solitude more difficult. Before the pandemic, 16.1 percent of Japanese seniors reported having nobody to turn to in a time of need, the highest rate of any nation <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">considered</a>. Seventeen percent of Japanese men surveyed in 2005 said that they "rarely or never spend time with friends, colleagues, or others in social groups." This was three times the average rate of other <a href="http://www.oecd.org/sdd/37964677.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countries</a>. </p><p>American individualism also creates a fertile environment for isolation to grow. About a month before the pandemic started, nearly<a href="https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/01/23/798676465/most-americans-are-lonely-and-our-workplace-culture-may-not-be-helping" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> 3 in 5</a> Americans reported being lonely in a <a href="https://www.cigna.com/about-us/newsroom/studies-and-reports/combatting-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">report</a> issued by Cigna. This is a slight increase over previous studies, which had been pointing in the same direction for years. </p><p>In the United Kingdom, the problem prompted the creation of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. The commission's <a href="https://www.ageuk.org.uk/globalassets/age-uk/documents/reports-and-publications/reports-and-briefings/active-communities/rb_dec17_jocox_commission_finalreport.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">final report </a>paints a stark picture of the U.K.'s situation in 2017, with millions of people from all parts of British society reporting feeling regular loneliness at a tremendous cost to personal health, society, and the economy.</p><p>The report called for a lead minister to address the problem at the national level, incorporating government action with the insights provided by volunteer organizations, businesses, the NHS, and other organizations on the crisis's front lines. Her Majesty's Government acted on the report and appointed the first Minister for Loneliness in <a href="https://time.com/5248016/tracey-crouch-uk-loneliness-minister/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2018</a>, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tracey_Crouch" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tracey Crouch</a>, and dedicated millions of pounds to battling the problem. </p><p>The distancing procedures necessitated by the COVID-19 epidemic saved many lives but exacerbated an existing problem of loneliness in many parts of the world. While the issue had received attention before, Japan's steps to address the situation suggest that people are now willing to treat it with the seriousness it deserves.</p><p>--</p><p><em>If you or a loved one are having suicidal thoughts, help is available. The suicide prevention hotline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.</em></p>
MIT professor Azra Akšamija creates works of cultural resilience in the face of social conflict.