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.