Social Media and the Black Cat Fallacy

Source: Sanda Odiatiu / Flickr

There has been a lot of news and discussion about the psychology of social media (Instagram in particular) according to a former Facebook employee testifying before Congress, as well as the publication of their internal research papers. It is very important that we think critically about social psychology and mental health, so let’s dive into that right away.

The black cat’s fallacy

Here’s a question I ask students in my Psychology of Happiness class: “Imagine someone named Steve. All his life Steve was told by people around him that black cats are very unlucky and all sorts of terrible things happen. Then one day, Steve is walking on the street and sees a little black cat innocently walking past him. Steve is immediately frightened and in a panic he trips, falls and breaks a bone in his wrist to catch his fall. Here’s my question: did the cat cause Steve to injure his wrist, or did Steve’s belief in the cat cause him to injure his wrist? “

Usually my students give mixed answers, with some arguing that it is Steve’s own fault for having a false belief (while noting that black cats are adorable and harmless) and others arguing that Steve’s belief was safe as long as it never was didn’t meet cats – so the solution would be to avoid cats if you’re scared of them. But I am more interested in getting students to understand the logical fallacy that is inherent in this prompt.

In our world there is no evidence that any type of cat brings bad luck to humans. If anything, research shows cats promote positive mental health! But the attitudes that people have can often lead to negative behavioral, emotional, and social consequences. Psychologists refer to this as self-fulfilling prophecy, much like the placebo effect that results from the power of suggestion that can affect pain or happiness.

This phenomenon has been very well studied. Psychologists have argued that humans have essentialist thinking. In the words of Paul Bloom, “We don’t just react to things the way we see, feel or hear them. Rather, our reaction depends on our beliefs about what they really are, where they come from, what they are made of, what their hidden nature is. “

In social relationships, people who are very fearful of rejection are more likely to experience rejection than people who feel more secure. If you expect others to reject you, you can act in ways that others reject you.

This idea is particularly relevant to the exaggerated and exaggerated concerns about the psychological effects of social media, especially on children and teenagers. Recently leaked information from a “whistleblower” allegedly shows that apps like Instagram are causing great damage to the mental health of American teenage girls. Some have even gone so far as to make comparisons between social media and tobacco. But is that really the right conclusion?

How false beliefs affect people’s different attitudes towards social media

Fortunately, scientists are expressing a healthy skepticism about the leaked research. Candice Odgers (a developmental psychologist) stated that we cannot rely on these results because adolescent participants have been heavily prepared to believe that social media is bad for them. In other words, the study did not look at the mental health of these teenagers – it just assessed teenagers’ beliefs about their mental health. The fact that Facebook may have hidden this research from the public is incidental. For many mental health researchers, Facebook’s internal research has not been very good, so we cannot draw any firm conclusions from it. That should have been the headline on the news: “Facebook isn’t very good at researching its effects on teenage mental health.”

To put this aside for a moment, I seem to read every month from a different published scientific study that casts doubt on the notion that social media is psychologically harmful. Consider this study by a team led by Lucía Magis-Weinberg at UC Berkeley. Her goal was to understand if and how teenage mental health deteriorated during the 2020 pandemic lockdowns when internet-based communication was the only option for millions of people around the world. If social media apps are really harmful, wouldn’t we have seen a massive surge in depression, loneliness, and suicide among teenagers? Isn’t that what the tech scares have been saying all along?

Well, the study found exactly the opposite: “The results show that using social media to actively connect with friends and family and find support can have a positive impact on well-being,” said Maris-Weinberg in one Interview. “There was this negative discourse about screen time that causes loneliness and depression. But our results provide more nuances and show that online interactions are actually associated with less loneliness when used positively. “

Source: Meghan Schiereck / Unsplash

Source: Meghan Schiereck / Unsplash

What about teenagers? Same story. Here is a study of 9-10 year olds led by Katie Paulich of the University of Colorado. They examined nearly 12,000 children and found that screen time is not a strong predictor of wellbeing. Screen time explained less than 2 percent of the variance in children’s mental health and actually had a positive association with peer friendships. The authors concluded that the “adverse effects … at this age are unlikely to be clinically harmful”.

It is more than baffling and incredibly frustrating to me that studies like this are rarely reported or discussed in the mainstream press. Why not? As a parent, wouldn’t you be comforted by the news that your child doesn’t have “social media addiction” or that using social media could actually be good for their relationships? Isn’t that an interesting and relevant idea?

Some of you may have noticed the phrase “when used positively” in the Magis-Weinberg quote above. There is no doubt that some people experience negative consequences on social media, but I don’t think there is any evidence to support a healthy vs. unhealthy divide in terms of content or usage. One person can be bothered watching nature videos on Instagram that show animals brutally hunting each other while others find it fascinating and inspiring.

So I suggest that a crucial variable to consider in this context is the type of belief or mindset people have. Those who claim that social media apps cause mental harm don’t see the big picture. You are committing the black cat fallacy. “Positive” social media usage is in the eye of the beholder.

Source: Omkar Patyane / Pexels

Source: Omkar Patyane / Pexels

Similarly, some might suggest that Instagram research is flawed due to the fact that the researchers used surveys. I also think this is a misguided view. People can reflect on and report on their emotional experiences with a high degree of accuracy and consistency. We are generally aware of the things that make us happy or unhappy. Polls aren’t the problem. The problem is the power of suggestion as the main confusion in this line of research.


If we critically examine the question of whether the use of social media sites / applications is harmful to mental health, it depends on a variety of interrelated factors (e.g. age, gender, personality type, content type). But the most influential variable in this equation could be whether the person believes social media is bad for them. This belief, just like the belief that black cats are unlucky, can lead to the same negative results that we try to avoid.

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