What Happens When Instagram Hides Your “Likes?”

It seeks to cultivate empathy by eliminating your ability to compare.

Posted Jul 28, 2019

 Creative Commons, Kim Taylor
Does your self worth really depends on how many likes you get?
Source: Creative Commons, Kim Taylor

We are approaching a reality in which an Instagram account is plopped into an infant’s lap the day it is born. While a mother swaddles her newborn, an Instagram representative arrives at the scene to take the baby’s first selfie, possibly with a dog-ear filter intended to generate more clicks. There is a danger that the accumulation of likes, retweets, and comments will become the currency in a 22nd century in which we can’t buy milk unless our recent vacation photos at Niagara Falls earn a minimum of 15 “likes.”

Like Counters in Social Media Popularity

In its attempt to avert this future, Instagram recently jettisoned “like” counters in select countries as part of an experiment. Instagram users in Australia, Japan, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, Italy, and New Zealand are currently not able to see the likes from other users. Should users want to know how many people “liked” their co-worker’s wedding photos, they have to manually tally the number of likes themselves. Instagram’s rationale was that they wanted users to focus more on the content of photo and video messages rather than their mere popularity.

Social media likes are the digital equivalent of what psychologist Eric Berne called strokes,” meaning units of physical and emotional recognition. The term arose from an infant’s need to be touched, and the adult's need to be acknowledged. A stroke can be positive or negative, as simple as being told “hello” at the office, or as grueling as going through a divorce.

Self-Esteem: Happy or Merely Content?

For ages, the key to self-esteem has been a feeling of accomplishment. It helps, too, to understand the difference between happiness and contentment.

Social media's likes, comments, and retweets are designed as new avenues for strokes, yet the ease of getting them can be addicting. We feel compelled to compare our numbers with those of others. If we aren’t getting as much we become anxious, depressed, and feel we are missing out on a coveted if ephemeral popularity to the rational mind. Perhaps negating the ability to compare our Instagram numbers will benefit our attention span and ability to empathize beyond sending emojis and thumbs-ups.

Emojis as Emotional Shorthand

Writing a few words about why we resonate with someone’s status or photos requires only slightly more mental exertion than clicking a generic “you’re alright” button. Doing so may even kindle substantive relationships beyond the digital realm, since articulating our thoughts via comments can lead to back–and–forth conversations. Everyone understands that in “liking” we want to seem amiable without having to put in the effort to show real empathy. Taking time to appreciate and actually comment on other people’s posts is a good first step towards humanizing social media more. If Instagram’s move is an honest effort to lessen the negative mental health effects of social media, then bravo for its efforts.

Comment to Dr. Cytowic at neuroman@gwu.edu or to ask for his low–frequency newsletter and a copy of “Digital Distractions: Your Brain on Screens."


Orlando, Joanne. “Here’s Why Instagram Getting Rid of Likes Could Be a Big Deal For Our Mental Health” Science Alert. July 20, 201

Psychology Muffins. “’Strokes’ in Transactional Analysis (I).” Wordpress. March 20, 2014