Scroll through almost any social media feed and it won’t take long to come across a familiar post — a digestible, sentence-long affirmation meant to uplift, inspire and open your mind. Sometimes these posts are laid out with fancy fonts, bright colors and compelling illustrations. Other times they’re simple, with black type against a white page. The tone, however, is usually the same: authoritative and encouraging. Often, these motivational memes might come at exactly the right moment so that you feel like they’re speaking directly to you — an uplifting pat on the back, straight from the internet to your heart. That being said, if you’re not in the right headspace, these bite-sized pep talks can have unintended consequences.
The Industry of “Wisdom Buzz”
Social media makes it easy to consume motivational quotes and the short, inspirational phrases have become trendy to consume and share. Instagram accounts such as Motivation_Mondays, Motivation Mafia, and The Good Quote have millions of followers, illustrating the clear demand for this genre of content.
In an interview with Wired Magazine, Shawn B, the creator of the Twitter account @motivational, discussed how he started by sending motivational quotes to a mailing list, which soon parlayed into an online presence that spanned several platforms. He asserted that his posts have the potential to boost individuals, just like a piece of chocolate or a text message from a loved one. But, in order for that to happen, the alignment of mood and timing has to be just right.
“It’s like a dopamine hit where you’re searching through a whole lot of crap and then you find something that’s great and it hits you,” he told the outlet. “You get this euphoric feeling, almost like a drug. I like to call it the ‘wisdom buzz.’ You get a buzz of wisdom and it feels as if your mind has just expanded and you’re open to a whole new idea that you’ve never before conceived of.”
It’s no wonder the tagline on his account states: Sharing motivational inspirational quotes so you can feel feelings you’ve never felt.
The Effect of Motivational Quotes on Well-Being
Sometimes, these quotes won’t resonate in the right way. Talkspace therapist Meaghan Rice says quote posts on social media have more potential to bring someone down than lift them up, especially when they’re struggling.
“I think we would be shocked to discover that the outcome is typically blah or even rather negative,” she says. “Someone who is truly struggling and probably meets clinical criteria to receive professional help could absorb a motivational quote as being something for all ‘the happy people in the world,’ only making them feel more isolated and alone.”
And that isolation isn’t necessarily limited to someone who’s struggling. Someone who is otherwise fairly content with themselves could also absorb the quote in a way that signifies they aren’t doing enough or aren’t thinking about the world as they should. Rice says this only exacerbates disappointment as it gets mixed up with expectation. However, like throwing spaghetti on the wall, these affirmations will stick with some of the right social media users, who might be receptive. For those who are receptive, these quotes can serve as positive reinforcement, and reinforce some of these behaviors.
Detecting Pseudo-profound BS
How good are we at detecting profound wisdom, versus something that might sound good but is actually nonsense. A 2015 study titled On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit examined just that. The research focused on “pseudo-profound bullshit, which consists of seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous.”
Study participants were shown “bullshit” statements that consisted of buzzwords randomly arranged into statements that sounded meanfulful but had no discernible meaning (“Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena”). It found that the tendency to judge these statements as profound depended on variables like institute cognitive staples and the belief in the supernatural. In other words, some people are more receptive to a string of meaningless words. The findings also suggested that “a bias toward accepting statements as true may be an important component of pseudo-profound bullshit receptivity.”
Interestingly, an additional study from 2000 found that if a motivational quote rhymes, it gives the statement “enhancement in processing fluency that can be misattributed to heightened conviction about their truthfulness.” This should serve as an important reminder to read with scrutiny and pay attention to the information we’re consuming; it’s not all accurate, and though it might sound like it, it might not even make sense.
Consider What’s Measurable
Motivational quotes that are too vague take away the ability to measure ourselves against a reasonable standard — they’re promoting a fuzzy fantasy, rather than offering suggestions for how we can live or feel better. “We need measurement in order to assess for progression, stability, or regression,” Rice says. “Without it, there’s a much higher probability that these quotes fall into an increasing frustration category rather than a positive reinforcement category.”
Not only can the immeasurable qualities of some motivational quotes negatively impact us, but so can their unrealistic expectations. Rice stresses that we need to be mindful of the difference between the shiny aspirational image of the ideal that predominates social media vs. what is considered real, measurable, and attainable. This doesn’t only refer to the consumption of motivational quotes, but social media in general. How much of fantasy living — whether it’s vacation photos or flawless gym selfies — can we absorb before we see an impact? It’s important to know our limits and to be selective with our time on the feed.
“Motivational quotes and social outlets alike, received in the right frame of mind and used in moderation can be good,” says Rice. As noted above, these motivational messages often result in new feelings of inspiration, and affirmative uplift. However, Rice reminds us: “Take the scrolling and absorption too far and we might see side effects that don’t serve us.”
By remaining discerning and selective with the accounts you follow, and the time you spend on social media, your mind and well-being will be better served. If you’re feeling particularly down, and you feel that motivational quotes are negatively impacting you, or have trouble managing your time on social media, you might consider speaking with a licensed therapist who can help design a personalized strategy for smarter social media use.