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When and Why We iSnoop on Others

Even in the best relationships, individuals may find themselves lacking information about specific relationship partners (romantic or otherwise). For example, as we’ve discussed previously, anxiously attached partners are more likely to Facebook stalk their partners in an attempt to alleviate anxiety and (hopefully) confirm their partners’ undying devotion. Such findings suggest that individuals use the internet as a means to cope with their own desires to learn more about another.  

But until recently, the assumption that internet spying was rooted in information discrepancies had not been tested.  Specifically, researchers from the University of Hawai’i at Mãnoa applied what’s referred to as the theory of motivated information management (TMIM) to study internet users’ likelihood to seek information about someone close to them.1 In a nutshell, TMIM suggests that internet use to snoop on others occurs when individuals feel they don’t have as much information as they’d like about someone. The perceived lack of information makes them anxious and motivates them to find a way to decrease that anxiety-provoking information discrepancy.

The researchers asked over 600 individuals (2/3 were undergraduate students; the other 1/3 were non-student friends or family of some of those students) to complete a number of questions “about a specific interpersonal relationship in which they are currently involved.” Although most participants reported on a romantic partner (38%, including serious dating partners and spouses), many referred to close friends (25%), best friends (18%), and casual dating partners (15%); a small subset (4%) reported on a family member (4%).

To test the model, all participants completed a number of measures that tap into different components of TMIM:

Uncertainty discrepancy about a partner: e.g., How much information do you want to know about your partner’s life? versus How much information do you know about your partner’s life?

Anxiety about that discrepancy: e.g., My relationship with my partner makes me feel anxious.

Outcome expectations: e.g., An online search for information on my partner would produce [extremely negative/extremely positive] information.

Coping efficacy: e.g., I feel I can manage discovering information about my partner I find online.

Internet efficacy: e.g., I feel confident using Internet software to search for information about my partner.

Online information-seeking: e.g., I look at comments, pictures, and/or messages written about my partner.

What did they find?

As with other forms of information seeking (such as, oh I don’t know, simply speaking to someone directly), everything stems from uncertainty discrepancy, or perceiving that you don’t know enough about a specific partner’s life. Those that felt they need to know more experienced more anxiety. And anxiety in and of itself motivates people to seek information about important people in their lives. But here’s the rub: anxiety also made people less confident that snooping would reveal good information and undermined their confidence that they would be able to cope effectively with what they uncover. Put another way, anxiety motivates us to dig up information on others but undermines how we think we’ll feel about that information.  Ouch.

The model ‘worked’ a little differently for different types of relationships, with perhaps the most interesting difference being that individuals were less likely to try to get information on best friends via online digging. In reality, we probably just ask our best friends when we want to know something (being a BFF comes with perks, apparently).

From a scientific standpoint, these findings are important because they provide some basic information on the extent to which online information seeking functions similarly to other forms of information seeking about partners (summary: it’s by and large the same). From a personal standpoint, the utility of this work may be in highlighting the role of information discrepancies – or perceiving that we don’t know as much as we’d like – in encouraging people to dig around about relationship partners. But keep in mind: iSnooping often lacks context and other important details that help people know what to make of any information they do uncover. That lack of context may very well fuel any anxiety already being experienced. So never underestimate the power of simply talking with someone when you feel you’re in the dark about something that really matters to you and your relationship.  

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1Tokunaga, R. S., & Gustafson, A. (2014). Seeking interpersonal information over the Internet: An application of the theory of motivated information management to Internet use. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 31, 1019-1039.

Dr. Tim Loving - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV

Dr. Loving's research addresses the mental and physical health impact of relationship transitions (e.g., falling in love, breaking up) and the role friends and family serve as we adapt to these transitions. He's a former Associate Editor of Personal Relationships and his research has been funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

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