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Were you Part of Facebook’s Psychology Experiment?

Posted by JenThorpe at 8:17 PM on June 28, 2014

FacebookMuch has been said about how Facebook utilizes the information that its users choose to post. There have been many blogs regarding privacy issues (especially when Facebook makes changes to it). People are aware that their photos or posts could be included in Facebook advertising. Were you aware that Facebook can also use your data for psychology experiments?

Scientists at Facebook published a paper that appears in the current issue of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. The paper is titled “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks”.

The psychological experiment on Facebook took place for 1 week (January 11 – 18, 2012). Participants were randomly selected based on their User ID. There were about 155,000 participants who posted at least one status update during the experimental period.

The experiment manipulated the extent to which people were exposed to emotional content in their News Feed. The scientists were looking for something they refer to as “emotional contagion”. By this, they meant that they were watching for signs that emotional states can be transferred from one person to another without direct interaction between people (and in absence of nonverbal cues). What they discovered is that “emotional contagion” really can happen. From the abstract:

When positive expressions were reduced, people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts. When negative expressions were reduced, the opposite pattern occurred. These results indicate that emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions, constituting experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks.

It is a very interesting finding. Unfortunately, it was discovered as a result of scientists secretly manipulating some Facebook user’s emotions by tweaking whether they were shown positive or negative posts during the experimental period. It feels like a really horrible thing to do to random people who have no idea they were being used as a “guinea pig” in a psychological experiment.

If you are on Facebook, then you have agreed to be part of experiments like this one when you clicked that you agree to the Facebook Data Use Policy. Part of it says that potential uses of your data include “internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research, and service improvement”.

The scientists stayed within those boundaries to do the experiment. They used machine analysis to select positive and negative posts. This enabled the experiment to be done without having human researchers read user data that contained personal information. I cannot help but wonder how many other psychological experiments have happened on Facebook (or if more will happen in the future).