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The psychology behind using Twitter

As of the fourth Quarter of 2015, Twitter had about 350 million active users every month.

As of second Quarter of 2015, 39 per cent of Internet users were found to be Twitter visitors.

Every second, about 6,000 tweets are tweeted, which translates to about 500 million a day!

More than 20% of the world population is on Twitter.

As you can see Twitter is clearly a winner in terms of the number of people embracing the social media platform. So what makes the platform tick and addictive? Two key psychological components are reinforcements and cognitive dissonance. Like other social media networks, Twitter is aimed at tapping the social insecurities of a person.

What are reinforcements?

Reinforcements can either be positive or negative. A reinforcement is said to be a positive one if the feedback strengthens your beliefs,  which is to say, the chances of you doing the same thing increases. Users send tweets seeking some kind of reinforcement for their beliefs. When a positive reinforcement arrives, it strengthens their value system. One of the main reasons for the kind of volume of tweets being shared and tweeted is this: the need to create instances for achieving such reinforcements. The number of tweets, therefore, plays an important role in deciding the probability of one receiving positive reinforcements.

But what is the need to get positive reinforcements?

We all have our set of ideas and points of views through which we see the world. Our upbringing, tradition, education (environment) help us shape our worldview and it is through this prism that we see everything around us. But what happens when you encounter a foreign idea that doesn’t quite go well with yours? At this point we have to make a choice: either embrace the new idea or protect our old one. This state of imbalance in the mind is called cognitive dissonance. It is at this juncture we start seeking reinforcements. It gives rise to a cycle of tweeting and sharing, and slowly feeds on itself, seeking reinforcements at every stage.

Twitter and instant gratification

Behavioural psychologists are of the opinion that reinforcements that occur immediately after the behaviour are the most powerful ones. And Twitter provides that — the ability to connect to anyone irrespective of their standing in the ‘real-world’, share thoughts and ideas instantly, quick reinforcements in the form or ‘likes’ or retweets’. In fact, one of the key factors in the uptake of emerging technologies is their ability to provide instant gratification.

Earlier this year, Twitter had announced its plan of not to increase the character limit of 140 of tweets. He was quoted as saying, “It’s a good constraint for us, and… it allows for of-the-moment brevity.” The character limit is a powerful tool to engage users. It is primarily aimed at providing a sense of accomplishment. This exercise, besides testing the creativity of an individual, tests the ability of the reader to streamline his thought process and share the idea using the least number of characters, without diluting the content.

Twitter retweets and likes

Tweeting is only a part of the engagement on Twitter. The other forms of engagement include ‘retweet’ and ‘like’. The retweet feature was included in 2009 while the ‘like’ replaced ‘favourite’ in 2015.

A study conducted by Cornell students aimed at studying the effects of wording on information propagation, said,  “…helpful wording heuristics include adding more information, making one’s language align with both community norms and with one’s prior messages, and mimicking news headlines.” This gives us an important insight into why people share (retweet) and like tweets.

So why do we retweet or like? It’s because of these three factors or a combination of them: the need to belong, create or establish an identity, and provide reinforcements to what we believe in.

Sometimes we retweet a tweet if the content of the tweet echoes our views (positive reinforcement), or in pursuit of image-building or just to feel a sense of belonging. So next time you retweet or like a tweet, ask yourself why you did it and which of the three best describes your action.  

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