The psychology behind Instagram’s popularity

Eight years ago, photography giant Instagram was released upon the world. The app, which allows its users to share photos and videos with friends, family and admiring strangers across the globe, quickly accumulated over one billion users, becoming one of the top social networking apps on the planet. But why is Instagram so popular? A lot of it has to do with human psychology.

The desire for self(ie)-actualisation

The desire to attain self-actualisation; that is, to fulfil the drive for self-development and creative expression, was suggested as being a basic human need by Abraham Maslow in 1943. The process of creating and maintaining an Instagram account is an inherently creative act – it allows people to curate a persona; they can decide which photos to post (and which not to post), which accounts to follow and which photos to like.

By choosing a particular persona (such as fitness-freak, animal lover, world traveller or artist) users are able to network with other likeminded people and bolster feelings of belonging, positive self-esteem (fulfilling other basic needs according to Maslow’s theories) and creative expression. Instagram also offers young people the opportunity to experiment with and choose an identity during a time when many may be trying to figure theirs out.

It is, however, important to be wary of any potential need for external validation and likes, as this may be a sign of insecurity. Instagram should not replace having a healthy, balanced real (and social) life!

Humans are visual creatures

Much of the success of Instagram is due to the fact that humans are visual creatures, and in a world dominated by images, Instagram offers us an easy way to consume a lot of them in a very short amount of time. We’re simply wired to process visual information faster than other forms of data (up to 60,000 times faster than text, in fact!).

The significance of a good visual image cannot be understated; the attractiveness of an image has a huge effect on how well that image is received, how many likes it garners and whether or not it goes viral. Studies have found that photos which are dominated by cool colours such as blues, are less saturated rather than oversaturated, include a background and contain fewer dominant colours are more likely to attract likes.

It’s a gender thing

With 58% of Instagram users reporting as female, there is some evidence to suggest gender differences in the use of Instagram. Whilst there are a range of diverse subcultures on Instagram, from the gothic to the architectural, Instagram is perhaps most famous for the smoothie bowl, the boho girl and New York fashion models – typically feminine content.

With the majority of accounts portraying conventional beauty and lifestyle trends, and the app’s inbuilt emphasis on ‘filtering’, the focus on appearance, which tends to be more important to women than to men, may be the reason for this divide.

Influencer marketing

Instagram’s heavy emphasis on beauty, makeup and fashion has, over time, naturally engaged the interest of brands and businesses, which benefit hugely from the marketing potential of the app. Instagram offers brands a massive reach and the highest engagement rate of all the social media platforms. The power of a visual image is hugely valuable in marketing, with few things being more effective in driving brand engagement than having thousands of people see your product being used or worn by an influencer they admire.

There are several factors at work behind the power of influencer marketing. Robert B Cialdini’s book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion offers six: consistency, liking, social proof, reciprocity, scarcity and authority. The concept of social proof refers to the idea that influencers who are sharing your product are giving social proof as to that product being valuable and desirable, thereby increasing the likelihood that their Instagram followers will value and desire the product also.


By better understanding the psychology behind why we use Instagram, we are not only better able to employ effective marketing campaigns, but we are able to gain insight into our positive and negative behaviours and make any necessary changes to improve our happiness and wellbeing.

Checking Instagram too often or spending too much time scrolling through cat photos (ahh, dopamine!) may be a sign of addiction, which is probably worth addressing.

Mike Smith
Mike Smith
Executive Editor at Best in Australia. Mike has spent over a decade covering news related to business leaders and entrepreneurs around Australia and across the world. You can contact Mike here.
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