Why Does Your Brain Think Influencers Are Your Friends?

How social media gives us a uniquely skewed image into what’s real

Credit: Maddi Bazzocco/Unsplash

As I was telling my mom that one of my friends swears by a certain face product in a bid to convince my mom to try it, I had the unusual realization that my “friend” was actually one of my favorite influencers, who had recently posted a video showcasing the product.

We all know influencer marketing is insidious, but it’s one thing to acknowledge that fact and another entirely to automatically categorize an influencer as a friend. This happens to all of us, and we don’t yet know how dangerous that can be.

Celebrities affect our body image — but not as much as our friends do

Humans are visual creatures, which is dangerous in the face of social media. We trust our eyes to tell us the truth, even when we know that people can’t really be that thin, or that pretty, or that happy. And yet we see it, so a part of us believes it.

Humans are prone to a phenomenon psychologists call “social comparison.” To improve our status in life, we look to the most successful folks we know and try to be more like them.

So what happens when you soak up pretty people all day long?

These days, those people tend to be celebrities and, increasingly, influencers. A celebrity is someone who is famous outside of social media — maybe a movie star, a TV host, a model. Influencers are those who have built a career marketing themselves solely through platforms like Instagram and YouTube. Though these two terms might seem interchangeable, they’re different both in nature and in how your brain processes your relationship to them.

As you scroll through miles of carefully curated content, you have to look pretty hard to find a celebrity or influencer who isn’t beautiful. Social media has made it easier than ever to compare ourselves to others.

So what happens when you soak up pretty people all day long? According to social comparison theory, you start thinking you should be more like them if you want to be successful. Being exposed to that kind of content fuels our drive to achieve their idealized looks.

Of course, most of us don’t have personal trainers, nutritionists, four hours a day to spend on working out, or access to real-life FaceTune. When we try and fail to attain a celebritylike body, we don’t blame Kim Kardashian. She only shows us the finished product, not the hours of work that goes into maintaining it.

Instead, we blame ourselves.

This is called upward social comparison. Looking to the top of the social pyramid to see how we can improve can cause a lot of unhappiness because it perpetuates a cycle of consuming unrealistic content, wanting to be like the successful people we see, failing to do so, and feeling like failures as we continue to be inundated by this kind of content.

Luckily, research shows upward social comparison doesn’t have that strong a hold on most of us. Instead, most people place more psychological weight on what our friends are doing instead. This helps shield us from some of the effects of consuming celebrity content, but it can make influencer culture problematic.

Social media feels more real to us than conventional media

Think about the last time you saw a glossy magazine cover featuring a model. It may feel easy to acknowledge the work that went into that picture: the stylists, the makeup artists, the Photoshop. Staged photos make it more obvious that it’s not the reality we’re seeing, so they have less effect on us. We know the images are coming to us through layers of editors, Photoshop, camera lenses.

Now think about the last time you saw a celebrity post a selfie. For me, that feels more real. When I see Lili Reinhart’s flawless skin as she smiles into the camera and I read the caption on her sponsored post saying she never uses Photoshop on social media, it feels believable.

In a 2016 study on social media and body dissatisfaction, the authors wrote: “the act of posting is akin to self-disclosure, which activates the suspension of disbelief.” This suggests that on a magazine cover, the pretty people you see are merely subjects of a photo, but in a selfie, the pretty person seems to be confiding in you about themselves — an honest image of who they are.

It’s a lot harder to remember that we are not viewing reality on social media because the celebrities we see on it feel more accessible.

But even so, a gap between me and the celebrity remains. Celebrities occupy a higher echelon of society. When I engage with them in upward comparison and I fall short, I still have a mental safety blanket: the knowledge that they are not my peers.

So what happens when your brain sees a celebrity as a friend?

Influencers occupy the space between celebrity and friend

Research shows that people, especially women, largely use social media to compare themselves socially — not only with celebrities, but with their peers, too. If I hop on Instagram right now, I’ll see the very best versions of my friends’ lives, and because I have a deeper, more personal connection with them, I’ll compare myself more to them than to Lili Reinhart.

This is called lateral comparison, the tendency to look alongside ourselves to get a more realistic idea of how to position ourselves socially. And it turns out this has a stronger influence on us than upward or downward comparison.

The problem is that the number of people we can laterally compare ourselves with is much greater than it used to be. Why? Influencers.

Influencers aren’t celebrities. But they aren’t friends, either. They occupy a strange middle ground between the two groups, which makes it hard for our brains to know how to categorize them. The relationships we form with influencers feel incredibly real and two-sided, even though they won’t ever know our names.

It’s much easier to blur the lines between friend and follower, which is something these influencers encourage.

This tendency can be explained through Mark Granovetter’s theory of Tie Strength, which states that intimacy and emotional reactions are crucial for building relationships with the people in our lives. Influencers share their intimate moments with us through media like Instagram Stories, long captions, and images of their everyday lives. This intimacy makes our brains think we’re actually close pals.

We form these “parasocial” relationships with celebrities, but the ties are even stronger with influencers, in part because they treat their followers like friends, often mentioning followers by handle and replying to comments. It’s much easier to blur the lines between friend and follower, which is something these influencers encourage. After all, they make their livelihood by selling us products, and the closer we feel to them, the more we’ll believe their recommendation.

In February, Danielle Wagstaff, a psychology professor at Federation University Australia, told the BBC: “The problem with influencer culture is that we’re being fed a false view of what is normal, in terms of appearance and success, and that our regular old lives just can’t compete.”

You can never compare your life to an influencer’s, even though you’ll try

Influencers affect our body image more than celebrities and friends because they spend their whole lives posting what looks, at first blush, to be honest, authentic content. Only it’s not.

We’ll see one gorgeous selfie, but we won’t see the hours of posing and smiling and editing that went into it. And because we laterally compare ourselves to them as peers, we feel that the fact that we can’t be as good as them means there must be something wrong with us.

Influencers are more attractive than your friends and more accessible than celebrities. The brain interprets influencers as your beautiful best pals who you can try endlessly to be like — but never succeed. It’s easy to fall into this trap without ever realizing it.

Or, you can be a conscientious consumer of social media. Make the active decision to only follow influencers who portray a realistic image of what it takes to achieve their lifestyle. Remember that most influencers depend on you seeing them as a beautiful friend in order to sell you products so you can try to be more like them.

And if all else fails? An unfollow is only a button away.

Biology MSc. Psychology nerd. She/her. Get my FREE 5-day Medium Starter Kit to make money writing about what you love: https://zuliewrites.ck.page/3e3d3a8187

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