In the first study on the effects of purpose in the online world, researchers have found that having a sense of purpose limits how reactive people are to positive feedback on social media.
“We found that having a sense of purpose allowed people to navigate virtual feedback with more rigidity and persistence. With a sense of purpose, they’re not so malleable to the number of likes they receive,” said Anthony Burrow, assistant professor at Cornell University in the US.
“Purposeful people noticed the positive feedback, but did not rely on it to feel good about themselves,” Burrow said. Researchers define a sense of purpose as ongoing motivation that is self-directed, oriented toward the future and beneficial to others.
People with a strong sense of purpose tend to agree with such statements as “To me, all the things I do are worthwhile” and “I have lots of reasons for living.” While it is nice to receive compliments, online or otherwise, it may not be a good thing to base one’s self-esteem on them, Burrow said.
“Otherwise, on days when you receive few likes, you’ll feel worse. Your self-esteem would be contingent on what other people say and think,” he said. Researchers hypothesise that because purposeful people have the ability to see themselves in the future and act in says that help them achieve their goals, they can inhibit impulsive responses to perceived rewards, such that they prefer larger downstream incentives to smaller immediate ones.
For the study researchers recruited nearly 250 active Facebook users. They measured the participants’ self-esteem and sense of purpose, and asked how many likes they typically got on photos they posted. The Facebook users who reported getting more likes on average also reported greater self-esteem. However, those with a high level of purpose showed no change in self-esteem, no matter how many likes they got.
“That is, receiving more likes only corresponded with greater self-esteem for those who had lower levels of purpose,” Burrow said. In the another experiment, researchers asked about 100 students to take a selfie and post it to a mock social media site, “Faces of the Ivies.” The students were told that their photo had received a high, low or average number of likes. Getting a high number of likes boosted self-esteem – but, again, only for students who had less purpose. “In fact, those higher in purpose showed no elevation in self-esteem, even when they were told they received a high number of likes,” Burrow said.
This is the first study to show purpose lowers reactivity to positive events. Most research to date on purpose has looked at it as buffer against negative events such as stress. The research was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.