The Weird Psychology Behind Why We Hate Follow People On Instagram

Why do we waste our precious internet data looking at pictures posted by people we don't like?Illustration by Hailey Hamilton

The Weird Psychology Behind Why We Hate Follow People On Instagram

by Sophie Wilkinson |
Published on

Dan Bilzerian, Justin Bieber, the Kardashians, the new girlfriend of a guy whose ex-girlfriend you vaguely know. A girl you went to uni with and didn’t like then and haven’t spoken to in years. What do they all have in common? They’re the sorts of people we hate-stalk on Instagram. We don’t necessarily ever tap ‘follow’, as we don’t want to add to their egos by giving them another follower, or in some cases even let on that we give a crap about them. But we still take time out of our day to scroll through their accounts, getting increasingly nervous the further down we scroll; as the popular meme goes, keeping a thumb from double-tapping on a picture 46 weeks deep is as nerve-wracking as a game of Operation. Do you really want that person, especially if they’re a non-famous, to know that you’re scouring through their pictures?

It’s stressful, it feels a bit dirty and we’re spending time and possibly precious internet data looking at these people we don’t like. But why do we do it?

Well, like another popular 1990s pseudo-board game, Guess Who?, it’s easier to define people by what they are not. And this goes for ourselves, too. According to Dr Lesley Prince, a psychologist who’s specialised in group dynamics, ‘It’s easier to define yourself negatively than it is to do so positively. You get it a lot in politics - “I don’t like this state of affairs so I oppose it” is much easier than proposing something new.’

As for the way we feel when we see that, say, their home furnishings are really tacky, or they look ‘a bit fat these days’ as one hate-stalker tells me, or they ‘Part of the function of putting people down is that the person doing it believes it elevates their own status; “I’m not a bad person, they are and I’m better than that”’

Dr Prince says that judging others when we’re in a group helps identify us as a group: ‘In socio-psychological regards, putting people down can be an intent to establish the norms of the group along certain lines. If we’re part of a group and a dominant personality says something is unacceptable, it becomes so.’

However, asides from the occasional screen grab of a lewd selfie sent to a mate, we’re not really in the habit of sharing who we hate-stalk. These are our guilty secrets, and with Instagram being undoubtedly the coolest platform out there, it’s not very cool to let on that we give a crap about many people we don’t follow, let alone the ones we actively seek out of disgust or hatred. So why on earth do we do still do it?

It’s a tough one to call. There’s a consensus amongst certain Luddites that social media is a place where people go to hate each other. But for us millennials, who spend hours on it per day, we know it can be a place of joy. And that goes for Instagram, especially when you compare it to other forms of social media. On Facebook, people increasingly see their social media selves held to account by people e.g. colleagues, family members, they never really envisaged having social media when they first joined and got used to the platform. And on Twitter, due to a nexus of reasons: short messages, sustained anonymity (and therefore unaccountability) of certain users and the fact favourites (now ‘likes’) are given to hot-takes and opinions rather than, say, the beautiful way light shines in through a window, hate seems to be part of its day-to-day.

One theory as to why we get suckered into scrolling endlessly looking at photos of people we don’t like, photos we might have already seen before, is that we’re all budding social detectives, voyeuristically trying to piece together when our exes really did meet their new partner or look at body language to work out if a much-photographed friendship is as close as it seems. But another theory is much more sinister.

A study from the Chicago Booth School of Business found that, no matter how superstitious a person is, if they knock on wood or throw a ball away from themselves, they feel more confident. The implication is that so long as we’re tapping on something or scrolling past something, we’re actively doing something to this information it and that makes us feel good. In the same way an old curmudgeon of yesteryear would fold up his newspaper in disgust at a story (now he’d certainly email a complaint in from his BT internet address) But sometimes there comes a point where hate-stalking so much, could it be that we simply enjoy the feeling of scrolling about on our phones, zoning out of what the images are and simply enjoying that images are coming up when we scroll about for them?

In 1996, a psychologist called Mihály Csíkszentmihályi told Wired magazine about his theory of ‘flow’. This is a highly focused mental state, where someone is ‘Completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies.’ That was then used by anthropologist Natasha Schüll when she interviewed slot-machine gamblers and addicts, who would use words like ‘trance’ and ‘autopilot’ to describe the rhythmic movement of putting money in a slot, pushing a button and seeing a different result come up on the screen, which in turn gave the player just satisfaction to keep playing. Schüll called this cycle ‘the machine zone’ and in 2012, in a piece for The Atlantic, writer Alexis C. Madrigal posited that this could be applied to our use of the internet and social media. Just like gamblers will no longer care how much money they’re losing, hate-stalkers can lose hours to the simple pleasure of scrolling down and seeing more images load up.

And lo and behold, this week, Californian University’s research found that Facebook can be as addictive as cocaine, with participants of a study responding faster to images on the site quicker than road signs.

Dr Prince says this reminds him of a popular study done on rats: ‘In The Skinner Box, you have a rat in the cage and there’s a button and if the rat presses a button a food pellet comes down.

‘Eventually the rat will cotton onto the food pellet and the button press are linked and they’ll keep pressing the button to get the food pellets. It’s a conditioning: press a button and you get a reward’

But then it gets to a point where the rat will press for pellets regardless of whether they’re even hungry: ‘It excites the pleasure centres of the brain. But it’s a very low level behaviour, it’s not sophisticated at all.’

And unlike hate-stalkers, at least the rat could be reasoning that it’s better to stock up on food in case it’s hungry later on. What are we meant to do with all the hate we store up? Sure, we might be able to glare at a hate-stalkee’s over-saturated photo of a sit-down meal from a restaurant we just know re-heats everything from frozen, and feel better about ourselves because we’re not them. But where does that negativity end up? Where does it go? Answers on a hashtagged photo of a beach sunset uploaded by everyone you’ve ever hate-stalked.

Like this? Then you might also be interested in:

Gemma Styles: Why Your Perfect Instagram Is A Big Fat Lie

The Politics Of Social Media Climbing

Here's What Your Life Would Be Like Without Social Media

Follow Sophie on Twitter @sophiewilkinson

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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