What’s in a like?

Breaking Blue

If you post on Instagram and there’s no ‘likes’ visible on it, then does it even count?

Earlier this year, Instagram began experimenting with hiding the ‘like’ count on posts. This means that a user can see how many likes their posts get, but this won’t be shown publically. Historically, when a user creates a post the number of likes received are displayed as a running total – the more likes a post receives the more popular it appears.

Likes serve an important social function on social media platforms – they are an enormously public broadcast of what is popular and acceptable. Likes can even encourage feelings of acceptance, connectedness and social approval. A high number of likes lends a user credibility – if a large number of people like a post, this can lead to a perception that they have something important to say. Importantly, likes can be big business. For example, Kylie Jenner reportedly earns around $1.2m per Instagram post.

If likes are so good, then why get rid of them? When the feature was first trialled in Canada earlier this year, Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri explained the motive behind the change:

“We want people to worry a little bit less about how many likes they’re getting on Instagram and spend a bit more time connecting with the people that they care about”

The move comes after several studies have linked social media pressure with mental health issues. For example, higher Instagram usage has been associated with eating disorders (Turner and Lefevre, 2017) and general social media use has been associated with higher levels of perceived social isolation (Primack et al, 2017). This could partially be explained by the increase in negative social comparisons that comes with following a large number of strangers on Instagram (Lup, Trub and Rosenthal, 2015).

What can behavioural economics, and more widely behavioural science, tell us about our liking behaviour? We think two powerful psychological forces at play are social proof and herd behaviour.

Firstly, social proof is the psychological phenomena where we look to others for clues to how we should behave and feel about something or someone in an ambiguous situation. Retweets and likes indicate a point of view that is endorsed by others – if we are unsure how we feel about something, these measures offer an example of what is a well-accepted or endorsed opinion. From the other side, when users receive many likes, they receive social reinforcement, which gives the message that their posts are important. In turn, others liking your post encourages more likes – the more there are, the greater potential to reach the target audience, meaning greater earning potential, and impact. Ultimately, likes are an indicator of someone’s ability to influence and so some fear that hiding the number of likes compromises the potential reach and impact of posts and Influencers.

“This post has a lot of likes? Must be good! I’ll like it too, even though the counter is in the thousands and my like won’t make any difference at all. But I see other people liking it and I want to be a part of that..”

Secondly, we are herd animals and we do what others do. This makes evolutionary sense – looking back to our origins we know that belonging to a social group was crucial for our survival. Mothers and their helpless infants would be very unlikely to survive without support, and for fathers that would mean genes not being passed along. We see this now even with Instagram Behaving in the same way as others encourages a sense of unity and from that comes the safety that we were once utterly dependent on for survival. After hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, those hardwired survival instincts that were exceptional at keeping us alive haven’t quite caught up to the 21st century. Generally speaking, we look to people we like, respect and/or admire to guide us on what we should think and feel about certain things, evaluating, mirroring and modelling their behaviour. From our parents very early on, to peers and even those we may not have a personal relationship with but still identify with – singers, chefs, athletes, perhaps even (some) politicians.

What does all of this mean for the Instagram influencer? PsychologyToday suggests that an alternate behavioural measurement will replace the like count, for example commenting with an emoji, or number of shares. Regardless, it seems brands may need to rethink their marketing strategies as removing likes is likely to have an impact on and potentially change the landscape of interaction.

In fact, the way we ‘do’ social media could be changing with recent innovation. The Following Activity tab has disappeared from Instagram, Facebook is experimenting with removing likes, and Twitter is also considering hiding its engagement metrics too. If this trend towards removing measures of popularity leads to less negative social comparisons with other people, then that’s something for everyone to like!


By Hannah James and Adele James, with contribution from Rhiannon Philips