The Psychology Behind Pinterest

by Molly Folse

Surely you’ve heard of Pinterest, the virtual pinboard that allows users to post – or “pin” – anything and everything they encounter online. Pinterest hit the scene in 2010 and really made a splash this year when it accumulated more than 3 million accounts. But there seems to be a different attitude among account holders of this free service compared to those of other social networks. Unlike Facebook, users don’t threaten to leave Pinterest each time the site malfunctions – which is pretty often.  Instead, they wait patiently, refreshing the site until it works, grateful they haven’t lost their collection of dream bedroom decor, wedding dresses and holiday crafts.

Ben Silbermann and Evan Sharp, two of Pinterest’s founders, have said the point of Pinterest is to give users a place to compile things that they like and that inspire them. But Pinterest isn’t just a tool to organize these things – it’s about sharing with others, which makes it just as much about what pins say about you than what you think of the things you’re pinning.

Many posit that Pinterest eventually will be as popular as Facebook and Twitter, and may even replace the two as the preferred site of many users. But our obsession with Pinterest may have nothing to do with the its simple aesthetic and the fact that it’s less restrictive than other sites. Pinterest speaks to very basic human needs in a way other social networking sites have all but abandoned. For instance, today’s Facebook is more about receiving pieces of up-to-date information and commentary about daily life than about representing yourself and sharing your interests.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow may have some insight as to how and why Pinterest is able to fill the void left after Facebook generalized and buried user information that was once the focus of its profile. Maslow theorizes that humans have five basic needs: survival, safety, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualization. Pinterest potentially satisfies these needs.

In interviews with 12 of the most active Pinterest users, communications blogger Arik Hanson recently discovered that most of them liked the fact that Pinterest involves very little, if any, conversation. Users communicate strictly through visual cues. They also like that Pinterest allows them to interact (in a seemingly superficial way) with people who share their own interests. The line of communication works like this:

I like this -> You like this -> We like this

Pinterest creates little sectors within the online community, joining friends, family and complete strangers with common interests in a way other sites don’t.

While Pinterest doesn’t technically provide the elements necessary for survival in Maslow’s terms, I’m sure some users couldn’t make it through a work day or stressful time in their life without the ability to escape to the site. Users feel safe knowing the virtual boards holding their hopes, dreams and objects of affection are safe, stocked and stored in one place. And Pinterest most certainly provides a sense of belonging and boosts esteem. (“You mean, people like what I like? And they like it enough to share it?”)

But, most of all, Pinterest encourages self-actualization. And this is what sets it apart from other outlets. Pinterest users’ activities on the site are directly connected to their lives outside the Internet. What they see on the site can inspire them to action. If a user sees a craft or recipe they like on Pinterest they may go buy the supplies and try it themselves. Another user may see an infographic on how to do better crunches, which leads them to get out of bed early to exercise.

So, how can businesses use Pinterest to their advantage? Maslow proposed his hierarchy of needs theory nearly 70 years ago, and ever since, the theory has been utilized in an attempt to understand what motivates consumer behavior. That said, Pinterest could be a treasure trove of information for businesses looking for new ways to reach consumers and gain insight into not only what they like, but what they need. Some businesses have already joined the fun – Michael’s crafts, Gap and Time magazine all have active Pinterest boards. For more about how Pinterest can work for businesses, check out my colleague Kammie Avant’s post over at TheSocialPath.com.

Molly Folse is Digital Content Coordinator at Luckie & Company. You can contact her by email or follow her on Twitter.

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