Sitting at their laptops and flicking through Facebook news feeds, nearly 689,000 unsuspecting members of the public were part of a psychological experiment in 2012. It recently emerged that Facebook used their site to alter which emotional expressions users were exposed to via their news feed. The results give us an insight into the importance of social media in correlation to our state of mood and how to improve it.
The research was performed in collaboration with Cornell University and the University of California, San Francisco, to find out if ‘exposure to emotions led people to change their own posting behaviours.’ Researchers analysed 3 million posts over one week in January 2012 and played with the flow of content from comments, videos, pictures and web links posted by other people.
Usually, the content on a Facebook news feed is determined by the content a user will find most relevant and engaging. In this instance, the posts were categorised to be positive from a word counting software called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count and were then listed in news feeds accordingly.
The study concluded that users who had more uplifting stories in their news feed were more likely to write productive posts and vice versa. This research supports the theory that emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions and this was the first study conducted on a big social media scale. It supports the idea that having motivational, inspiring and forward-thinking influences around you, even on something as simple as Facebook, will help you have a better perspective on a lot of life issues.
It also suggests that the observation of other people’s experiences leads to us having the same reaction. Previous assumptions were that this would have the opposite effect. Using Facebook to surround yourself with friends, inspirations and role models can help add support. This is particularly useful for health and fitness goals.
Commenting on the study, Adam Kramer of Facebook, who co-authored the report on the research, said: “We felt that it was important to investigate the common issue that seeing friends post content leads to alterations in others emotional state.”
Although there has been some debate to the privacy and rights of users who unknowingly took part in the study; Facebook said that the only data collected was the relevant information and that none of the data used was associated with a specific person’s Facebook account.
The researchers also state that the use of the monitoring software was consistent with Facebook’s data use policy, which all users agree to prior to creating an account on the site and constitutes informed consent for the purposes of this research.
Data scientists and user experience researchers at companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google routinely run thousands of experiments a day, all of which involve random assignment of users to different conditions. How else would you get the pop-ups offering you ‘items you may like’?
How can social media platforms improve our health and outlook on life?