Do talk to strangers

Kristen Lindquist

If you’re  a New Englander, a city-dweller, an introvert, or just put a lot of stock in your mother’s admonitions to avoid talking to strangers, then you’re going to think what I’m about to say is crazy. You should talk to strangers more, and there’s scientific evidence to support it. Now I know what you’re thinking. Small talk is tedious! If you talk to that person on the street, you’ll be stuck there forever. Plus, he’s most likely crazy, going to mug you, or both. Be that as it may, scientific research suggests that it will make you happier to make a connection with other members of humankind.

commute (1)In a newly published paper, Nick Epley and Juliana Schroeder at the University of Chicago asked participants in a Chicago-area train station to do one of three things on their commute: one group was asked to strike up a conversation with the person next to them, one group was asked to do their normal commute routine (which let’s be honest, probably involves ruminating about the coming toils of the day, or what you’re going to make for dinner that night) and one group was asked to sit in solitude. At the end of the train ride, the authors measured how happy the commuters felt. They found that small talk is apparently not so tiresome after all. Participants who chatted with a train-mate reported feeling more positive compared to participants who sat in solitude and participants who did their normal commute thing. Now perhaps what’s most interesting about these findings is precisely what I suggested at the beginning of this post—the idea of chatting with someone sounds, well, at best a little tedious and at worst just downright terrible. As a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander, I can assure you that this is my expectation when the person next to me in the supermarket checkout line starts expounding on the recent weather or extolling the virtues of my choice in yogurt. Epley and Schroeder’s participants also predicted that they’d feel pretty unimpressed at sharing trivial tidbits with another human being on the train. Funnily enough, they also predicted that solitude would be rather blissful. Not so.

These findings are interesting not just because they offer a new tactic for improving your commute, but because they strike at the heart of what social scientists and emotion researchers have known for some time. People need other people. Indeed, social connection is probably one of the most important keys to health and well-being. A famous study by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman found that having intimate relations (with another person) and being with friends makes people happier than almost all other things, including relaxing, eating, exercising, napping, even taking care of their kids (you’ll note that spending time with kids doesn’t quite count as the type of “spending time with people” we’re referring to here—this effect is probably moderated by the dirty diapers, constant feedings, rides to soccer practice and fights amongst siblings that makes interactions with these small people less than blissful). John Cacioppo, also from the University of Chicago, has found that perceived loneliness is related to depression, poor health and even mortality. And what’s lonelier than being surrounded by a sea of people and not making connection with a single one? So find a good joke, start caring about the vagaries of the weather, and reach out and chat with someone.



Is Facebook getting you down?

Kristen Lindquist

What better for a first blog post about emotions than a discussion of how the internet (may be) shaping our emotions? By now, you’ve probably heard about the Facebook study that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science that purportedly shifted people’s emotions by altering the content of their news feeds. If you haven’t seen it yet, this paper produced a lot of uproar (mostly on Facebook). People have variably decried it as unethical, not novel, or not evidence that people’s emotions were actually shifted. If you haven’t read it, here’s a précis: The authors selected a group of Facebook users and selectively reduced the amount of positive posts that were displayed in their newsfeed (e.g., removed posts like “I’m so happy I got the new job!” “We’re so glad to welcome our new baby!”) or selectively reduced the amount of negative posts that were displayed in their newsfeed (e.g., removed posts like “I really hate when some as*hole takes your parking spot at work!” “People disgust me!”). The authors then measured how much Facebook users in each condition posted positive or negative information themselves using an automated dictionary that codes words as positive or negative. What they found was that people who saw less positive stuff posted less positive stuff and more negative stuff, and people who saw less negative stuff posted less negative stuff and more positive stuff. Now if the authors really shifted people’s emotions then this is cool, but maybe not so surprising. It’s like saying that the people around you affect your mood. Think of that whiny co-worker who you want to avoid because life just seems a little more terrible when he’s around. It’s the same effect. Of course it’s made more interesting by the fact that it occurred on a massive scale and through—gasp—the internet!

But other questions remain about the study and its findings. I’ve been asked, so did they really change people’s emotions? Unfortunately, this question is quite the quagmire in the science of emotion. It turns out that there is no single measure in science that can tell you exactly what someone is feeling. You could hook them up to a heart rate monitor, measure the sweat on their skin, measure their respiration, put them in a brain scanner and you still couldn’t know exactly what they were feeling, beyond the fact that they were feeling something and maybe whether they were feeling generally activated v. sleepy or pleasant v. unpleasant. Thus, despite all our technology, the best way to know what someone is feeling is to ask them. Obviously hooking up Facebook users around the world to physiological recording devices was not an option for the authors, and they didn’t ask their unknowing participants how they felt either. So all we know from the experiment is that seeing fewer positive or negative posts changed the way that people used emotion words themselves. This could be the result of a change in participants’ perceptions of norms (i.e., “it’s not cool to humble brag on my Facebook page if my friends don’t do it”). Or it could be “emotional contagion” as the authors suggest—in the absence of positive information on Facebook feeds around the world, people’s days were just a bit grayer.

So in sum, why did this study get so much attention if it showed that—guess what—the people around us affect our emotions (or at least the nature of the emotion words we use in our Facebook posts)? It’s because people felt played. They felt taken advantage of. That Big Brother was toying with their emotions. Yet what people fail to realize is that their emotions are always being played. Every advertiser, politician, journalist, author, and salesperson in the world is constantly trying to play our emotions, for good or bad. Emotions are involved in every single moment of your waking life and are shifted by myriad unseen influences, not least of which is the Facebook newsfeed we (choose to) be glued to. At least Facebook technically told you it reserves the right to manipulate you (although see Eliza’s post for the broader ethical considerations at stake here when this happens in an experimental context). Not so much can be said for the used car salesman who relies on emotion-based tactics to get you to walk off the lot with a lemon. So if Facebook is getting you down, wait a minute and someone else will shift your mood.

Informed Consent and Debriefing Matters

(especially for emotion science)

Eliza Bliss-Moreau

I always thought that our first set of posts on Emotion News would be focused on the history of emotion science or a discussion about why the science of emotion matters for Regular Joe or Jane’s daily life. While attending a recent meeting, Kristen and I discussed the “Facebook-“Emotion-Manipulation” Debacle” that was still surging on the internet after more than a week in the news, though, and realized that we had different views about its importance for Emotion Science. So, we figured that we’d make our inaugural blog posts about it, hopefully setting the tone for our blog: emotion science matters for everyone; we don’t always agree on the how or why; and it’s important to have a forum to discuss these issues.

Many of the issues with the study on “emotion contagion” done by Facebook have been reviewed in detail elsewhere. In brief, they range from concerns that the conclusions about emotion spreading via social media are over blown to concerns that the manipulation of emotional information on people’s Facebook feeds was unethical. It would take pages to detail them all, so I’ve decided to focus on one aspect of the ethical complaint: were participants in the Facebook study properly informed of the experiment?

Facebook, and others, have argued that agreeing to their data use policy constitutes “informed consent”. Informed consent is the permission that scientists get from people to conduct and experiment with (or on) them (or the permission that clinicians get to provide medical treatment in a hospital or clinic setting). Rules vary a bit from institution-to-insitution and nation-to-nation but in general, informed consent procedures typically give people an idea of what they’re getting into—a general overview of the experimental study or procedure, some information about its purpose, and almost always the explicit option to end participation at any time without any consequence. Informed consent information is required to be clearly written and in common language. In cases where there might be concern about potential participants’ understanding the consent information, scientists are typically required to discuss all of the information with them.

To be clear, informed consent is not associated with all data. The panels of people that review the ethical implications of studies, called Institutional Review Boards, sometimes wave the requirement for informed consent when the impacts of the study are deemed to be minimal, where sensitive data will not be collected, or where the procedures are deemed to be comparable to things that people would normally do on a day-to-day basis, among other reasons. Further, as people in the digital age, we generate a lot of data—we click around on the internet, information about our salaries and demographics is recorded by the government, even information about our health ends up in digital archives. Scientists can typically use these data troves to test their hypotheses. Access to data sources is typically granted via an institution (either the college or university or agency at which the scientists works or the one that holds the data), but as an individual who has generated data points, you may never be informed about a specific hypothesis test being done on “your” data. The question is whether the Facebook study fits into any of these categories of research. Some argue yes, some argue no.

Informed consent is almost always required in cases where scientists are substantially manipulating some aspect of human experience. And that is what Facebook claims to have done (although the jury is out about whether or not their claims represent a substantial manipulation of experience). Given that, it is not clear that the data usage policy is sufficient to be an actual informed consent.

Users of Facebook agree to a data usage policy which basically says that Facebook can use the data you generate (posts, likes, comments, and so on) as they wish. Many users agreed to the data usage policy well before the actual experiment and it’s likely that many did not read it completely. While the latter issue is the problem of individuals, there is growing concern that many usage policies (called End User License Agreements or EULAs) are actually too long to read—like you would have to spend, literally, months reading them. If companies are creating EULAs that are literally too long to read knowing that people are not reading them, do they count as informed consent? Further, because data usage agreements may have been completed long before the experiment, we didn’t know when the experiment would take place and therefore had no ability to opt out (which could have been as easy as not opening Facebook during the experiment).

While we typically focus on the informed consent procedures that happen before people complete experiments, how people are informed about the experiments after their data has been collected also counts. In emotion science, it is sometimes, even often, the case that we don’t tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth during informed consent procedures. We might tell you that you’ll be listening to music and then complete a few questionnaires about who you are when we are actually using the music to induce a positive or negative mood and measuring whether your mood changes with the questions. We might even tell you a completely made up story about what you’re doing and why (called a “cover story”). These procedures are used because what you know about a study can actually bias how you respond. But, at the end of the study, we come clean in what is called a “debriefing”. We give you more information about the study and why you completed the procedures that you did and even why a cover story was required. Some debriefings also give participants an option to have their data removed from the archive once they know the true purpose of the study. Publishing a paper full of findings, like Facebook did, does not constitute a debriefing.

The primary success of the Facebook study may be that it has gotten scientists and the public talking about these issues. Since the dawn of the internet, we’ve been creating a lot of data. As the cost of storing that data falls, collection of and long term archiving of that data becomes possible. It’s time to think seriously about how we inform people about how their data is being used and what sorts of ethical principles will guide the design of large internet studies in the future. Especially, if we plan to manipulate emotions.

Welcome to Emotion News!

Dear Readers,

Welcome to Emotion News, a new blog about the science of emotion. We are psychologists and neuroscientists who study the nature of emotions—what they are, how they are created by the brain and body, and how they shape every aspect of our lives. For more on our backgrounds, check out the About the Founders page. Most of the time, we conduct studies with humans or animals and write up our results for scientific audiences. But it seemed increasingly clear to us that there should be a venue for sharing this work more directly with the public, so we started this blog.

We saw a need for Emotion News for several reasons. First and foremost, people are intrinsically interested in emotions, and for good reason. Google the term “emotions,” and it returns 94,600 news articles referencing emotions in less than a second. Yet a lot of the information out there about what emotions are and what they do is just not accurate. People ask us all the time whether it’s true that the right side of the brain is the “emotional side” and the left side of the brain is the “rational side” (nope). Or whether a brain scan can really read their innermost feelings (not really). Or whether men are really biologically tuned to be less emotional than women (most signs point to no). Or whether animals have human-like emotions (the jury is definitely out on that one). In science, things are more gray than black or white, although that’s not how science tends to end up represented in the main-stream media. So we thought it was time for another forum in which emotion scientists write about the science.

We also thought that this blog was necessary because emotions are incredibly important to well, everything, and the public deserves to be educated about them. There is the pervasive impression in our culture that emotions are at worst, dangerous, and at best, frivolous and trivial aspects of human nature. Emotions make us “animal-like” the story goes, and then our evolved human reason has to step in to control our behavior. Of course, we’re biased—we’ve dedicated our careers to studying the nature of emotion—but it is a fact that emotions are absolutely essential to many aspects of what it is to be a human and they deserve our attention. Many years of research shows that emotions contribute to both psychological maladies and psychological flourishing. Stress-related emotions can reach under your skin to actually change how fast you’re aging. By contrast, people who look on the bright side of life have better cardiovascular health. Children who understand their own emotions and the emotions of others do better in school and are better leaders. Emotions shape our romantic relationships, predicting who gets together and stays together v. whose relationship falls apart. Emotions also shape every single decision we make on a day-to-day basis: altering whether we decide to eat v. forego another cupcake, whether we splurge on a new car v. invest in our 401 K, or whether we deem someone trustworthy v. dishonest. The belief that we can reliably “read emotions” in others causes TSA agents to give some people the extra pat down in the security lines at airports (even though US programs that trained TSA agents to diagnose potential terrorists based on emotional facial expressions and body language have largely failed to identify terrorists at airport). Finally, it seems clear that emotions are at the heart of many of the world’s most intractable conflicts. If knowing is half the battle, then we hope that making accurate information accessible will help both individuals, and by extension, society.

In short, our Mission is to bring you cutting-edge research from scientific labs around the globe, cutting out the scientific jargon, but still accurately presenting the story behind the findings. Because emotion crosscuts so many domains of research, we will represent research about emotions from diverse areas of research including social psychology, neuroscience, developmental psychology, clinical psychology, comparative psychology, and genetics. We will also invite colleagues from around the globe to share their own research and diverse outlooks. (Stay tuned, colleagues for invitations or get in touch with us if you have story ideas!) Our goal is to have novel content posted weekly as we gear up, and then hopefully multiple times a week (in a few months). Our aim is for Emotion News to be an open venue for discussion and commentary. Please see our commenting and editorial policies for more information. We hope you will join in!

Kristen & Eliza