Catalina Toma

After moving from Europe and finding herself isolated for the first time, Catalina Toma began to rely on technology to ease the transition to college.

Toma, a University of Wisconsin professor of communication arts, recently completed studies on the effects of Facebook self-presentation on self-esteem, cognitive task performance and self-affirmation. She found people thought of themselves more positively after looking at their own Facebook profiles.

“I came from Europe to the United States for my college education, and I found myself for the first time in my life completely isolated from friends and family,” Toma said.

Toma spent much of her time studying the psychological effects that Facebook profiles have on users. 

One of the main topics of the research is self-presentation, the images that people construct of themselves in front of an audience, Toma said.

“I study how technology affects personal relationships, and how it affects people’s abilities to relate to one another, to understand one another,” she said.

Facebook, with its massive network, is a venue unlike any that people have had before, Toma said. She wanted to investigate how a person’s carefully constructed profile affected their self-esteem and cognitive performance.

To conduct her research, Toma said she needed a way to measure self-esteem and decided to veer away from the traditional questionnaire and use an implicit association test.

The test is based on the idea that researchers can measure how closely associated concepts are in people’s brains by how quickly they associate those concepts when they are presented to them, Toma said. People were asked to match certain attributes to themselves in the time taken to match indicated the strength of the association, she said.

The study also tested cognitive ability, asking participants to perform a cognitive task, Toma said. The results determined that because a person’s own Facebook profile enhances their self-esteem, they show a lower number of attempts at the cognitive task and do not feel as motivated to perform the task, she said.

Psychological studies have shown that large audiences actually increase people’s motivation to put a lot of effort into their self-presentation, Toma said.

“Self-presentation on Facebook is like no other; it’s very carefully crafted,” Toma said.

Technology users are able to make use of its features and present themselves in a much more careful way than they would face to face, Toma said. With the control over self-presentation and the motivation to make a good impression, people theoretically construct flattering profiles, she said.

In her fourth year teaching at UW, Toma said she finds including her own research in the four classes she teaches brings students closer to the subject matter.

Toma plans to continue to find new ways to analyze social media and has studies in the process of publication.

[Photo via Flickr user birgerking]