Psychology students present Facebook research study at conference

Posted on: March 12, 2012

Tennessee Wesleyan College students Jennifer White, Mallory Cullin, Kallie Tinnel, Spencer Creekmore and Tanner Stencil presented their study "Facebook and Self-Esteem: What your profile picture says about you," at the Southeastern Psychological Association Conference in New Orleans Feb. 17.

“It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but what about a Facebook profile picture?”

A recent research study conducted by five Tennessee Wesleyan College students asks this hypothetical question and then answers it with dedicated research and scholarship. The study, “Facebook and Self-Esteem: What your profile picture says about you,” was presented in poster format on Feb. 17 at the  Southeastern Psychological Association Conference in New Orleans, La. by TWC psychology majors Jennifer White, Mallory Cullin, Kallie Tinnel, Spencer Creekmore and Tanner Stencil.

“These students were highly motivated,” said Kerry Towler, assistant professor of psychology at TWC. “There isn’t a finance pool set up for student research so they presented their research to the Student Government Association to get funding.”

Before conducting their research, the students hypothesized that “the results would show that individuals with higher self-esteem would display pictures of themselves featuring a genuine expression of happiness as opposed to those with lower self-esteem who would be less selective in their decision to display pictures that reflect their inner state of well-being.”

With the help of Towler, the five psychology majors examined Duchenne smiles in Facebook profile photos to see if there was a correlation with that person’s level of self-esteem.

“The Duchenne smile is a genuine smile,” said White, a 25-year-old senior. “The corners of your lips are curled up and your eyes are wrinkled. The hypothesis of our study was that the Duchenne smile seen in a Facebook profile photo was an indicator of a Facebook user’s higher level of self-esteem.”

White and her fellow student researchers tested 15 participants (6 male, 9 female) in their pilot study as well as a second group of 65 participants (15 male, 50 female).

“We used a Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory to test our study participants,” said Cullin, 25, senior.

The Coopersmith Inventory is a self-report questionnaire where individuals are instructed to note agreement or disagreement with 58 personal statements. The students found that their initial hypothesis was rejected based on the results from their experiment.

“Our final results were surprising because our initial data did show a relationship between Duchenne smiles in profile photos and user self-esteem,” Cullin said. “Although our hypothesis was not confirmed with statistical significance, there have been studies done that show that those who use Facebook more frequently have less of a connection to real life, that lack of connection possibly being related to a user’s self-esteem and ability to interact socially.”

Although their hypothesis was rejected, the students’ research was academically rewarding said Towler.

“We encourage scientific scholarship and research,” said Towler, whose academic focus is in experimental psychology. “From freshmen to seniors, I want my students to be critical thinkers who investigate topics and present their findings at academic conferences like SEPA. Through these studies they learn the theories and concepts of research and get a chance to engage in the material at a different level.”