Look at me! (Or don’t): Of society and showing off on Facebook

Shameless self-promotion on Facebook. Love it or hate it, there’s always someone doing it. And many of us are guilty of it. But why do we do it? Comparing Facebook users in the US and Japan, I suggest it’s the power of the social context that may determine who struts their stuff, and why.

The question of what makes some Internet users more prone to overt self-promotion online than others is probably as old as the Internet itself. Not surprisingly then, it’s a question that has already found some answers in research, especially in regards to personality: Narcissists and extroverts are more prone to self-promotion on Facebook than other personality types (Carpenter, 2012).

But like any good social psychologist will tell you, it’s not just personality that makes people behave the way they do. People also behave in response to social stimuli (Lewin, 1936). So in this blog post, using some recent data from the US and Japan, I’ll introduce the idea that different social environments might actually drive people on Facebook to strategically self-promote themselves (or not) in order to adapt to those environments.

Self-promotion in context

It’s important to emphasize that for a long time, social psychologists have argued that self-expression in general is something people do strategically (Goffman, 1959). Say the right things to the right people, and you’ll increase your likelihood of increasing connections with other desirable individuals. Self-promotion is part of this: make sure people hear how awesome you are, and you’ll increase your chances of being chosen by desirable people, and keep those desirable relationships you’ve already got.

There’s a catch, however. Imagine if you lived in a society where there were relatively few opportunities for meeting new people and cutting off current relationships. Where relationships were long lasting and difficult to replace. Believe it or not, despite its high population density, Japanese society has been shown to be just that sort of society: It’s a society where the mobility of relationships (i.e., relational mobility) is low, when compared with North American societies like the US (Yuki & Schug, 2012).

I argue that in a low relational mobility society like Japan, trying to tell everyone how great you are is likely to have limited value as a relational strategy; you may just incite status-jealousy and competition, causing disharmony among one’s long-lasting and difficult to replace relationships. Better instead to keep direct references to greatness to a minimum. Accordingly, it’s fair to expect people in Japan to display relatively lower levels of self-promotion on Facebook.

On the other hand, active self-promotion makes more sense in societies with high relational mobility, like the US, where there is a relative abundance of opportunity and freedom to make new acquaintances. In a relationally competitive society like this, what should your adaptive strategy be in order to attract and keep desirable partners? One strategy would be to advertise what you’ve got, in order to increase your chances of both keeping and finding desirable relationships. So, following the logic, we should expect Facebook users in the US to be relatively more prone to self-promoting behavior.

Self-promotion: the power of the social environment

Here at our research lab in Japan, we wanted to find out if our expectations about Japanese and American Facebook users could be confirmed, so we did a web survey recently of almost 100 Facebook users from each country. Results from the survey confirmed our hunch: Facebook users in the US tended to self-promote more on Facebook than Japanese users did. But more importantly, the difference in self-promoting behavior was partially due to differences in relational mobility.

That is, it’s possible that in the US (a high relational mobility society), where there are plenty of opportunities to meet and make new friends, people may promote themselves more on Facebook, in part, to keep current and attract new desirable relationships. In low relational mobility Japan, however, Facebook users may hold back on the overt self-promotion, because 1) opportunities to attract new desirable partners are less common in the first place, and 2) overt self-promotion within long lasting relationships might just be asking for disharmony.

In conclusion, what kind of people self-promote on Facebook? Our data suggests that people living in a more relationally mobile society (like the US) may tend to self-promote more on Facebook. Why? Not because they’re more prone by nature to be loud and proud. Self-promotion might just be a good strategy for making the most of opportunities for relational success.


Carpenter, C. J. (2012). Narcissism on Facebook: Self-promotional and anti-social behavior. Personality and Individual Differences, 52(4), 482–486.

Goffman, E. (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Anchor.

Lewin, K. (1936). Principles of Topological Behavior. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Yuki, M., & Schug, J. (2012). Relational mobility: A socio-ecological approach to personal relationships. In O. Gillath, G. Adams, & A. D. Kunkel (Eds.), Relationship science: integrating evolutionary, neuroscience, and sociocultural approaches (pp. 137–152). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.