Should you quit Facebook?

Take advantage of Loss Aversion and develop your own decision-making superpower using the 2X Rule.

Most consumer decision-making models fail to satisfy us because they don’t account for how our brains work – especially on decisions where we are giving up something rather than getting something. Moving to a new neighborhood, changing jobs, and quitting smoking all fall into the giving up category. I’m going to let you in on the secret persuaders (like me) use to keep you stuck, and how to take back control.

Let’s practice using the decision de jure: Quitting Facebook.

First, let’s get one thing straight. You are indeed buying Facebook, even though it claims to be “free and always will be.” Your time and energy, along with your data, are assets whether you think of them that way or not. You are giving Facebook those assets in exchange for using their service. The exchange of actual currency is not required for value to change hands. Put a different way, Facebook could not exist without your input. With that in mind, we can apply consumer decision making tools.

But applying those tools is difficult in today’s hyper-charged, hyper-partisan environment, isn’t it? Consider this: Ten years ago, you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a journalist or financial analyst gushing about Facebook – its meteoric growth, its culture, Zuckerberg’s hoodie, Sandberg’s book. Today, those stories are all gone, replaced with stories about Russian hacking, voter manipulation, data privacy breaches, Zuckerberg’s ineptitude, and Sandberg’s spinning moral compass.

So, what is it? Is Facebook your salvation or is Facebook your damnation?

The reason the answer is so difficult is that we’re asking the wrong question. What’s good for the society (is it time to “praise” or “punish” Facebook?) is a different question than your personal value exchange with Facebook (“should I stay or should I go?”). In other words, big picture factors can play a role in your decision, but to make an effective and sustainable consumer decision, the choice must be on your terms, and your terms alone. You can’t outsource your decision to an editor at the New York Times.

Let’s get to work.

The 2X Rule

The 2X Rule is as simple as it looks: In order to change course, the benefits of your decision must outweigh the drawbacks by a factor of two to one. If you decide to leave Facebook, the benefits of your decision to leave, in your estimation, must overcome the drawbacks by at least double. It’s really that easy.

But it doesn’t seem that way, does it? The first time I mention the 2X Rule, it strikes most people as too much. The logical part of our brain kicks in, and we assume if the scales are balanced in a decision, only the weight of a feather on one side or the other will tip the scales. 1.0001 to 1 should be all it takes.

Your brain doesn’t work that way.

To feel good about your decision, the positives need to outweigh more than their fair share of negatives. We’re wired to avoid loss more than we are to seek pleasure. It’s a survival instinct that makes decisions to leave a situation (a job, a relationship, or a brand) much more difficult. That’s why persuaders, politicians, and marketers work so hard to get you to start something. Once you do, it’s harder to leave than you’ll give it credit for at the outset.

I’m not going to try to train you to set aside the emotional part of your brain and make a “logical” decision to leave Facebook. Ultimately, nagging regret means you won’t feel satisfied with your decision. Instead, I’m going to teach you a way to harness your brain’s natural ability and tendencies. It will only take three steps.

Step 1: Accept that all complex consumer decisions will have multiple upsides and downsides

If making the decision to leave Facebook was as easy a choosing a place to have dinner, you would have done it already. This clearly isn’t a simple decision. With 2.27 billion users, Facebook doesn’t simply provide one clear benefit or one clear drawback. It’s complicated. The first step in using the 2X Rule is accepting this complexity as a fact of life and resolving to use it to your advantage.

(As a quick aside, all important decisions should be made on paper – virtual or physical. Most people are visually-oriented; handling any more than a few factors at a time will overwhelm our short-term memory. In other words, don’t try this in your head.)

Let’s start with a list of factors that should come easy in today’s anti-Facebook zeitgeist: The downsides. Remember, these might not be your downsides. Only you can decide what they mean to you. We’ll do that next. But first, let’s write them all down.

Here’s my quick list of Facebook downsides:

  • Too much Facebook makes you both angry and depressed without a corresponding increase in positive emotions.
  • Facebook is a business, not a public service. In other words, Facebook is out to make money using you and your assets as the product.
  • Facebook’s management has been less than transparent about its practices, specifically, how it mines your data to keep you engaged (addicted) to its service.
  • Despite a small army of smart people, Facebook is subject to outside manipulation, not only by advertisers, but also by foreign governments. The company is trying to reign that in (sort of), but the effort is a lot like a game of whack-a-mole. It is unlikely to ever stop completely.
  • Specifically, outside parties used Facebook to tamper with the outcome of the 2016 US Presidential election. The impact of that tampering is debatable, but the act itself is well established.
  • Facebook is a haven for fake news, hoaxes, and scams.
  • All social networks make it much easier to harass vulnerable people online. Instead of doing it to their face, or physically following someone, you don’t have to leave your chair.
  • More recently, black employees at Facebook claimed the company creates a hostile work environment.
  • Facebook gives voice to (and helps connect) dangerous, racist, and hateful ideologies, reducing their perceived social isolation and shame by providing an echo-chamber of like minds.
  • Facebook use is a distraction to productivity at work and family relationships at home.

Ugh.

After reading that list, you might be even more ready to leave Facebook. And I know I didn’t catch everything. You may have your own (much longer) list of negatives. That’s okay. Add them, but don’t make your decision just yet. Let’s look at the upsides.

Here’s my quick list of Facebook upsides:

  • All social networks, but Facebook in particular, connect communities across time and space, allowing disparate people to find each other, forging a sense of connection fundamental to the healthy human condition.
  • Facebook encourages social organization and political activism, increasing the number of people involved in these causes by reducing the barriers to participation.
  • Facebook provides advertisers the ability to hyper-target messaging, meaning that the advertising you see is much more relevant to your actual needs and wants.
  • Facebook allows you to find and stay connected to geographically separated family and friends – especially long-lost friends and family.
  • In many countries, Facebook is the only way to politically organize.
  • Social networks allow for a level of self-expression largely unfiltered and unmediated. That includes publishing, photography, hobbies, and art.
  • Facebook allows you to meet new people virtually, reducing the perceived risks and countering shyness.
  • Facebook is a source (and sometimes the source) of connection for older people or those people with disabilities.
  • Social networks allow small businesses to reach potential consumers without the barriers and costs that traditional media put in their way.
  • Social networks encourage an open society, wider-ranging dating options, and a broader spectrum of often-marginalized viewpoints.
  • Social networks help hold governments, corporations, and other media (and itself!) accountable.

Huh.

Doesn’t that seem better? You might have forgotten about some of those benefits…or at least, perhaps you hadn’t thought about them in a while.

If you stop here in the decision-making process, you’ll fall victim to outside persuasion. Actually, people like me hope you stop here. For most people, a confusing list of upsides and downsides is enough for us to throw up our hands and give up. But take just two more steps and you’ll develop your own superpower.

Stay with me.

Step 2: In a state of complexity with difficult to evaluate criteria, it is safest to assume all criteria are all weighted equally

If you looked at both lists and struggled to weigh one upside against another downside, you’re not alone. If this were an engineering exercise, and you could objectively measure the value of “connecting people” versus the risk of “providing a platform for racist views” using some mathematical formula, your decision would be easy. But there is no good way to do that. Decision making theorists (Daniel Kahneman, and others) encourage us to step away from the morass of trying to assign weights to these factors and simply assume they all have equal weight. It sounds a bit counterintuitive at first, but our impressions and emotions about the weight of “connection” versus “racism” is driven by so many factors, few of which are objective and all of which vary with context, that it’s safest to realize that our minds are not well-equipped to handle this type of decision.

But we can fix that.

Here’s all you need to do: Of the lists above, but a check-mark next to each factor that you perceive is an upside for you. Do the same with the downside list. Don’t try to put “two check marks” next to an “important factor.” Simply mark the factors that matter. Remember, this is your decision and evaluation, not what you believe others should do.

Here’s an example of a hypothetical person’s downsides:

  • Too much Facebook makes you both angry and depressed LINK without an increase in positive emotions to balance the negatives.
  • Facebook gives voice to (and helps connect) dangerous, racist, and hateful ideologies, reducing their perceived social isolation and shame by providing an echo-chamber of like minds.
  • Facebook use is a distraction to productivity at work and family relationships at home.

And now that person’s upsides:

  • Facebook allows you to find and stay connected to geographically separated family and friends – especially long-lost friends and family.
  • Social networks allow small businesses to reach potential consumers without the barriers and costs that traditional media put in their way.
  • Social networks encourage an open society, wider-ranging dating options, and a broader spectrum of often-marginalized viewpoints.

Have you finished your own lists? Good. Let’s take the final step.

Step 3: Decide by taking advantage of the concept of Loss Aversion, aka Prospect Theory

Loss Aversion is something you already know intuitively, and a concept we teach persuaders on their first day of class: People value the risk of loss more than the prospect of gain. In other words, most people will value the opportunity to win $100 less than the risk of losing that same amount of money. The fancy name is Prospect Theory, but I think Loss Aversion is easier to remember.

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky worked out the basic rule in 1979, and it’s been replicated (with plenty of variations and critiques) ever since. Loss Aversion explains why people overbuy life insurance, pay for warrantees, sell stocks at their low point, and do all sorts of seemingly mathematically irrational things.

I’m not going to ask you to make a “rational” decision regarding Facebook. If I did, you would regret it. In other words, let’s say you selected six negative factors and five positive factors in your personal evaluation of Facebook. A rational decision-making model might advise you to “quit”, but your emotional mind would fear the loss of those five benefits more than the corresponding gain of removing the downsides.

The question becomes, How many positives do I need to outweigh the negatives? In Kahneman and Tversky’s experiments, the actual ration varies on a number of factors. Sometimes six upsides will counter five downsides. Sometimes it’s seven. Sometimes more. Sometimes there is no amount of upside that will address the fear of loss (Nassim Nicholas Taleb reminds us this extreme loss aversion is a completely rational response in many circumstances where the “loss” is terminal or severe enough).

We’re going to make the decision process easier with the 2X Rule: In order to leave Facebook, you need to have twice the number of upsides (removal of negatives) to your number of downsides (removal of positives). In other words, if you have five reasons to stay on Facebook, you need ten reasons to leave. If you can cross that threshold, your emotional brain will be able to tell your rational brain to accept your final decision.

How should our hypothetical decide?

Three upsides to three downsides is a one-to-one ratio and does not meet the 2X Rule. Therefore, this person likely will stay on Facebook … and mitigate the downsides.

Just because you decided to stay on Facebook (and accept the downsides you identified as important to you) does not mean you need to ignore them. The process of explicitly identifying your concerns (aka writing them down) makes them more actionable than they were before.

In this hypothetical example, how might you mitigate your downsides?

Possible mitigations:

  • Too much Facebook makes you both angry and depressed without an increase in positive emotions to balance the negatives. Limit your time on Facebook, perhaps using a third-party app or browser extension. Experiment with what works best for you, but consider starting with a 15-minute-per-day limit and adjusting from there.
  • Facebook gives voice to (and helps connect) dangerous, racist, and hateful ideologies, reducing their perceived social isolation and shame by providing an echo-chamber of like minds. Don’t simply ignore posts you consider hateful or racist – use Facebook’s tools to flag them. Your actions will teach the algorithms to better recognize that content in the future.
  • Facebook use is a distraction to productivity at work and family relationships at home. Institute a “No Facebook Rule” at work (unless your role explicitly requires it), during meals, and during time with friends.

So, should you quit Facebook?

In the end, no one can decide that for you. That decision is ultimately yours and yours alone. As an empowered consumer, you have the right to decide if your upsides outweigh your downsides by a two-to-one margin. Only then will you be able to take advantage of your brain’s natural loss aversion, feel good about your decision, and be able to sustain it in the face of outside criticism.

And, by the way, you’ve learned a new superpower you can use anywhere…not only with Facebook.

Go ahead. Decide.

 

Source notes for this article:

Thinking Fast and Slow

I recommend anything by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. In our field, it is some of the foundational work. As a professional persuader, I can attest to the effectiveness of their findings in my own practice. You may want to start with Thinking Fast and Slow. It’s an accessible book for the average consumer, and even better as an audiobook.

Fooled by Randomness

If you can get over Taleb’s style, there is plenty to learn. I like Fooled by Randomness perhaps the best of all his books. Of his many contributions on this topic, perhaps the best is the concept that extreme loss aversion is completely rational and understandable.

Thirty Years of Prospect Theory in Economics: A Review and Assessment

Nicholas C. Barberis

Yale School of Management

Barberis addresses some of the critiques of Prospect Theory and Loss Aversion. This is an academic paper, but readable, and covers plenty of practical applications to consumer situations.

Jason T Voiovich

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