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The Comforting Presence of the Facebook Icon

The social network's logo can serve as a symbol of emotional connection when it is most needed.
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Facebook. (Photo: dolphfyn/Shutterstock)

Facebook. (Photo: dolphfyn/Shutterstock)

There’s something particularly painful about feeling ostracized. Being excluded from a group can trigger primal emotions that presumably date back to prehistoric times, when banishment from one’s tribe literally meant death.

Social exclusion can therefore lead to all sorts of unfortunate behavior, including decreased helpfulness and increased aggressiveness as wounded people attempt to assert their importance. To cite an extreme (and tragic) example, many school shootings have been triggered, at least in part, by feelings of ostracization.

So it’d be great if, after feeling excluded, one’s sense of connection could be restored quickly and easily. New research finds that, for many people, this can be achieved in a surprisingly subtle way.

It seems there’s something remarkably reassuring about the Facebook logo.

"Even subtle or inconspicuous exposure to Facebook icons could serve as a permanent shield against effects of exclusion that occasionally occur in our everyday lives."

In a new German study, people who use Facebook to stay in touch with friends and family could be treated as outsiders without getting triggered, if they were exposed to the social network’s familiar image on the margin of a computer screen.

What’s more, this effect was found even for people who didn’t consciously notice the icon. Its presence, however dimly it registered in one’s mind, apparently created feelings of connectedness.

In the European Journal of Social Psychology, a trio of researchers led by University of Muenster psychologist Judith Knausenberger describes an experiment featuring 81 people, all of whom had Facebook accounts. Told they were participating in a “mental visualization” task, they were instructed to play an online ball-tossing game with two other participants.

Those in the “inclusion” condition received the ball in 10 out of the 30 trials. Those in the “exclusion” condition received it just twice, both early in the game. For the remainder of the session, the other two "players" (the action was actually controlled by a computer program) simply passed the ball between each other.

Just after the game was completed, all participants filled out a questionnaire designed to measure their sensitivity to rejection. As they did so, one of two icons—Facebook or Flash Player—was displayed in the lower left corner of the screen.

Finally, after completing a filler task, participants were presented with a several options designed to measure their interest in re-establishing social contact. They were asked how interested they were in a guided city tour they would take alone, or, conversely, one they could share with two friends. They also expressed their level of interest in joining a new social network at their university.

As expected, feeling excluded during the online game “led to increased interest in alternative social contacts” among those who saw the Flash Player icon. However, the researchers report, this response “was absent after the subtle exposure to the Facebook icon.”

“Even subtle or inconspicuous exposure to Facebook icons could serve as a permanent shield against effects of exclusion that occasionally occur in our everyday lives,” they conclude.

Knausenberger and her colleagues caution that this effect was not found among people “who use Facebook to a lower extent for relationship purposes.” Those participants (a minority of the sample) did not particularly associate the social network with human connection, and its symbol did not soothe their sense of isolation.

So this technique will not help those who have trouble establishing even virtual relationships. For everyone else, however, it could provide welcome peace of mind. And either way, it’s a reminder that icons needn’t be ancient to have an effect on our psyches.