People showcase much of their public (and private!) lives via social media outlets - especially Facebook. It should come as no surprise then that couples’ Facebook behavior has attracted the attention of relationships researchers in recent years. Here at ScienceOfRelationships.com we’ve covered many aspects of how partners behave on Facebook, including things such as how couples present themselves publicly on Facebook (including the increasingly common “relfie”), partners’ Facebook “stalking” and jealousy, and what happens when partners have to manage their breakups on Facebook. Another very common topic of conversation among Facebook users involves the match (or lack thereof) between people’s real life experiences and what we see on those very same people’s Facebook profiles - a topic that a short film that went viral in 2014 echoed.
This – the match between ‘real’ and Facebook lives -- might lead one to wonder - just how much do partners’ Facebook profiles reflect their real experiences as a couple? When partners have lots of things in common between their profiles, does this mean they’re really as close as they appear to be? Recently, a team of researchers took on this question in a survey of 46 couples.1 Specifically, the researchers wondered whether partners’ reports of how close they felt (measured by asking how much partners felt they overlapped or thought they were “one and the same” with each other) would be consistent with the extent to which their Facebook profiles overlapped. They also examined whether real relationship experiences of relationship investment, commitment, quality of alternatives (e.g., other potential partners), and overall satisfaction in the relationship – all of which are known to predict partners’ feelings of overlap with each other – would also predict partners’ Facebook profile overlap in the same way.
The researchers measured partners’ feelings of overlap using the inclusion of other in the self (IOS) scale.2 This scale features pairs of circles that overlap to various degrees, each of which represents both members of a couple (some barely overlap at all, while others overlap almost entirely). Individuals are simply asked to select which pair of circles best describes their relationship. Researchers also measured profile overlap via what they called “Facebook inclusion of other in the self.” This new measure consisted of three ratios of Facebook content: 1) the number of a couple’s mutual friends (i.e., friends in common) relative to an individual’s total number of friends, 2) the number of pictures including both members of the couple relative to an individual partner’s total number of pictures, and 3) the number of mutual Facebook “likes” (i.e., shared interests) relative to an individual’s total number of “likes.”
It turns out that similarity between two partners’ profiles is a useful piece of information; profile overlap tells us something about couple’s relationships. Partners who felt like they overlapped or were one and the same with their partners tended to also have Facebook profiles with more overlap with their partner’s Facebook profiles. Additionally, partners who said they were more committed and those who had made more investments in their relationships tended to have profiles that included more mutual friends, mutual photos, and mutual likes (this wasn’t true of partners who felt more satisfied). Interestingly, when people reported that alternatives to their relationships were of low value, they tended to have more Facebook profile overlap with their partners, but did not necessarily report feeling like they overlapped with their partners. The authors argue that people’s views of alternatives might be more closely related to Facebook profile similarity because Facebook profiles include newsfeeds, which provide individual users with up-to-the-minute information about and from potential alternatives. For partners with highly overlapping profiles, more of these potential alternatives are mutual friends, which might reduce the appeal of these other people (though this assertion has yet to be tested).
This research speaks to the power of social media experiences to inform us about the real-life dynamics of relationships. Perhaps when it comes to Facebook, couples who appear to be close may indeed feel more committed and invested in their relationships. As for whether the overlap between partners’ profiles can be used to help relationships improve - that remains to be seen. Still, if you want to get a fresh sense of how close you and your partner really might be, Facebook could be a useful place to begin.
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1Castañeda, A. M., Wendel, M. L., & Crockett, E. E. (2015). Overlap in Facebook profiles reflects relationship closeness. The Journal of Social Psychology, 155(4), 1-7.
2Aron, A., Aron, E. N., & Smollan, D. (1992). Inclusion of other in the self-scale and the structure of interpersonal closeness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(4), 596–612.
Fred Clavél, M.A. - Science of Relationships articles
Fred is interested in social support dynamics in romantic couples, the effects of context on relationships, relationships and health & well-being, and issues of the self in relationships. He draws primarily on theories of social exchange, attachment, motivation, and social cognition in his research.