How Our Choices Are Influenced By Social Media (& Vicarious Living)

  • Our Modern Issues
  • 7 min read  |  On 24th February 2021

  • Our Modern Issues
  •   by Richly Wills

  • 7 min read  |  Last Updated: 24th February 2021

  • We often think it is our own free will that decides what we buy, yet we underestimate the power social media and subliminal advertising has on us.

    Even as we’ve become more astute to the more obvious advertising techniques, with just so much more noise and social influence out there we aren’t as in control of our own choices as we might think.

    We know how Google ads work, and that organic rankings tend to appear after the first couple of ads. On social media, most of us know by now that these platforms are designed to keep us on board.

    While we might become more astute at seeing the visual tactics used, we still ‘like’ posts and comments, and we get that ‘kick’ of dopamine when someone likes one of our own. Yet, even if we can hold restraint to that, we vastly underestimate the emotional pulls advertisers use on us.

    Here’s why social media still influences us

    We have moved through the stages where we, the consumer, were sold products. We are now the product itself. In earlier times, social media sites would try and keep us fixated on engaging in conversations so we would see more adverts, now they read our like, comment and communication habits and history to gauge exactly what to advertise to us.

    Yet, it’s not the direct adverts that work on most people these days, it’s the suggested content itself that becomes the magnet.

    Why do the algorithms care so much about what content we are clicking on or linking?

    It builds up a picture of our personality, and it does so in order to read into our emotional triggers to then keep us hooked.

    We may be familiar with the little touches such as ‘typing’ that makes us want to stick around and see the reply, and feel wanted. They know that they are using these tools to keep us fixated and wanting more, and we might know it too, yet why do so many people find it so hard to leave social media sites?

    The answer is in ‘avocados’. Well, not specifically avocados but in any product, service, app or trend that can be used against people’s emotional moral compass.

    It’s the same reason why civil rights movements spread so quickly via social media. It plays on our heart strings and makes us feel obligated to say something. While in movements that dopamine rush is gained through joining the bandwagon, we might not see how it works in other ways.

    So, back to avocados. A fruit that was once considered unhealthy and too fattening.

    Social media is all about the popular vote (well it is ‘social’ after all), and as such we don’t seem to merit articles based on their intrinsic value or quality. As a ‘social’ platform, in its very nature it supports ‘sharing’ which leads to trends. What we see happening today is health trends become a focus of what people should follow today, so we see waves and waves of posts (and suggested posts) filter through towards trying to influence the user to engage and buy into the notion of being healthy-minded.

    Avocados become buzzwords, not just because they are now big money, but because it plays well on a health-led society. This isn’t just for ‘green’, healthy subjects though, it works on any topic.

    If the algorithms have sensed you are keen to make money or support a particular identity group then it will play on your emotions and need to make money or follow a particular movement.

    Why does this affect me so much?

    It might not seem like a big deal at first. It’s just business right?

    Well, it is, yet it’s also leading people into being influenced without realising they are, and leading what people think are free choices to just become ingrained responses towards a particular rhetoric. At first, it might have been a simple query, but with patterns being built and AI reading more about you as you ‘like’ or ‘share’ or simply browse, then it’s not long until you are effectively profiled and targeted.

    It’s bad enough knowing that generations today are addicted to their phones as users, but it’s worse when you know it is not even of their own free will, and that they think it is. You are there thinking you are doing something out of choice and then you are ‘recommended’ more content that is primed simply to suck you in more. The more you then read the more profiling the social media platforms can do, and the more advertisers know about your suggestibility.

    Humans have always been easily-influenced due to our hard-wired nature to survive easier in groups. We are social animals and this is why social media is so powerful today. Social media platforms knows they can give people a sense of belonging whilst using people’s data and emotions against them to keep them latched in.

    The long-term psychological effects of this aren’t even known yet, as people walk around addicted to their phone screens day-by-day, but we can already see a rise in depression, obesity and isolation levels since social media’s adoption.

    When we live in a world that goes to social media first to make buying (and even life) decisions then we need to be more aware of the underlying influence within our ‘choices’. It’s far too easy to end up buying into this trend, product, or even movement, and becoming ‘zombified’ to it without actually really thinking about whether you truly even want or need it.

    We would like to think that we are simply consciously recommending products or services to others to buy, by social proof, yet we usually don’t even remember how we became influenced to something in the first place. Or we saw something being touted as ‘must have’, ‘stylish’ or ‘healthy-minded’ by an influencer who is effectively paid to say so.

    Social media leads people to a vicarious living state. We either want what someone else has got or we try to sell simply what is popular and trending at the time whether or not it is actually good for us.

    How many times have you seen the same websites or adverts promising wealth, health and anything in between that sells well?! People end up buying programs to ‘make money online’ or ‘travel the world’ only to be disappointed that it didn’t actually sort out their life for them.

    That’s the issue. We seem to expect a program to be a fix-it-all, rather than just an insightful bit of content, a piece of our complex jigsaw that is life. We then think we need more, that something’s missing. Another issue is those who simply want to sell, not for adding value, but rather to pick on a trend that has no real substance underneath.

    There’s lots of perceived value on the internet, but it’s mixed in with a whole load of distracting noise, so it becomes harder and harder for people to decipher between the good and the not so good, the real news and the fake news.

    In the popularity era of today people end up trusting a high-followed individual despite not really knowing anything about them. Having likely have never met them, suddenly their opinion counts more than a good friend or our own intuition.

    Social media thus lends itself to subtle emotional advertising well – simply because it leads towards vicarious living where people tend not to really think about the value something could truly add to their lives.

    Instead, they read what’s popular to fit in, then get suggested the same, and they then recommend the same (in their quest to also become a trend-setting influencer) and the trending pyramid continues, until the next fad promoted by the influencer at the top.

    This doesn’t lead to open choice. A person’s own intuition, tastes and original creative ideas are somewhat buried within, as they think they are surfing around making informed choices, yet they end up falling right into what ‘sells’, with advertisers primed and ready to capitalise as ever on the users emotional frailties.

    There’s no coincidence about it.

    So, how do we change this?

    It would be easy to say, ‘just stop making choices based on social media posts and influencers’. Yet so many are already heavily ingrained and drawn in – just like how people can’t put their phone down away from social media (as they need the dopamine hit to validate themselves).

    Ironically, for all the choice in the world today, some have become less free to make their own choices.

    Yet, minimizing screen time really is the key to unlock your own mind and unique thoughts again. It’s then about getting into a position to make a choice without the social influence around you.

    A good, simple exercise is to look around your room for one object you could decide to get rid of. Social media or advertisers can’t get to you there. Think about it hard, about the value that object has given you, or whether it would be best served to be given to someone else to add value to them. Who would benefit from it more?

    This simple exercise will start making you appreciate what you have, and will lead towards a real connection with someone else you care about. It will take you away from the screen yet provoke your emotions without algorithms or influencers playing on or manipulating them (to make you think you need more to be happy or content).

    Being healthy-minded in choice isn’t about a vicarious living perception to fit into an identity group, but about considering the real value something actually brings us.

    That will always ensure the choice truly is in your won hands.

    Did this article inspire thoughts or action?


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