Tag Archives: psychology

Newsflash: Facebook has Always Manipulated Your Emotions

Emotional Contagion is the idea that emotions spread throughout networks. If you are around happy people, you are more likely to be happy. If you are around gloomy people, you are likely to be glum.

The data scientists at Facebook set out to learn if text-based, nonverbal/non-face-to-face interactions had similar effects.  They asked: Do emotions remain contagious within digitally mediated settings? They worked to answer this question experimentally by manipulating the emotional tenor of users’ News Feeds, and recording the results.

Public reaction was such that many expressed dismay that Facebook would 1) collect their data without asking and 2) manipulate their emotions.

I’m going to leave aside the ethics of Facebook’s data collection. It hits on an important but blurry issue of informed consent in light of Terms of Use agreements, and deserves a post all its own. Instead, I focus on the emotional manipulation, arguing that Facebook was already manipulating your emotions, and likely in ways far more effectual than algorithmically altering the emotional tenor of your News Feed.

First, here is an excerpt from their findings:

In an experiment with people who use Facebook, we test whether emotional contagion occurs outside of in-person interaction between individuals by reducing the amount of emotional content in the News Feed. When positive expressions were reduced, people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts; when negative expressions were reduced, the opposite pattern occurred.

In brief, Facebook made either negative or positive emotions more prevalent in users’ News Feeds, and measured how this affected users’ emotionally expressive behaviors, as indicated by users’ own posts. In line with Emotional Contagion Theory, and in contrast to “technology disconnects us and makes us sad through comparison” hypotheses, they found that indeed, those exposed to happier content expressed higher rates of positive emotion, while those exposed to sadder content expressed higher rates of negative emotion.

Looking at the data, there are three points of particular interest:

  • When positive posts were reduced in the News Feed, people used .01% fewer positive words in their own posts, while increasing the number of negative words they used by .04%.
  • When negative posts were reduced in the News Feed, people used .07% fewer negative words in their own posts, while increasing the number of positive words by.06%.
  •  Prior to manipulation, 22.4% of posts contained negative words, as compared to 46.8% which contained positive words.

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Let’s first look at points 1 and 2 — the effects of positive and negative content in users’ News Feeds. These effects, though significant and in the predicted direction, are really really tiny. None of the effects even approach 1%. In fact, the effects are all below .1%. That’s so little! The authors acknowledge the small effects, but defend them by translating these effects into raw numbers, reflecting “hundreds of thousands” of emotion-laden status updates per day. They don’t, however, acknowledge how their (and I quote) “massive” sample size of 689,003 increases the likelihood of finding significant results.

So what’s up with the tiny effects?

The answer, I argue, is that the structural affordances of Facebook are such users are far more likely to post positive content anyway. For instance, there is no dislike button, and emoticons are the primary means of visually expressing emotion. Concretely, when someone posts something sad, there is no canned way to respond, nor an adequate visual representation. Nobody wants to “Like” the death of someone’s grandmother, and a Frownie-Face emoticon seems decidedly out of place.

The emotional tenor of your News Feed is small potatoes compared to the effects of structural affordances. The affordances of Facebook buffer against variations in content. This is clear in point 3 above, in which positive posts far outnumbered negative posts, prior to any manipulation. The very small effects of experimental manipulations indicates that  the overall emotional makeup of posts changed little after the study, even when positive content was artificially decreased.

So Facebook was already manipulating your emotions — our emotions — and our logical lines of action. We come to know ourselves by seeing what we do, and the selves we perform through social media become important mirrors with which we glean personal reflections. The affordances of Facebook therefore affect not just emotive expressions, but reflect back to users that they are the kind of people who express positive emotions.

Positive psychologists would say this is good; it’s a way in which Facebook helps its users achieve personal happiness. Critical theorists would disagree, arguing that Facebook’s emotional guidance is a capitalist tool which stifles rightful anger, indignation, and mobilization towards social justice. In any case, Facebook is not, nor ever was, emotionally neutral.

Jenny Davis is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at James Madison University and a weekly contributor to Cyborgology, where this post originally appeared. You can follow her on Twitter.

Is America’s Personality Changing? A Decline in the Willingness to Conform

In Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic, psychologist Jean Twenge argues that we’re all becoming more individualistic.  One measure of this is our willingness to go against the crowd.  She offers many types of evidence, but I was particularly intrigued by her discussion of the afterlife of a famous experiment in psychology.

In 1951, social psychologist Solomon Asch placed eight male Swarthmore students around a table for an experiment in conformity.  They were asked to consider two cards, one with three lines of differing lengths and another with one line.  He asked each student, one by one, which line on the card of three was the same length as the lone line on the second card. Each group looked at 18 pairs of cards like this:

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Asch was only interested in the last student’s response.  The first seven were confederates. In six trials, Asch instructed all the confederates to give the correct answer.  In twelve, however, the other seven would all choose the same obviously wrong answer.  Asch counted how often the eighth student would go against the crowd in these cases, breaking consensus and offering up a solitary, but correct answer.

He found that conformity was surprisingly common.  Three-quarters of the study subjects incorrectly went with the majority in at least one trial and a third did so half the time or more.  This was considered a stunning example of people’s willingness to lie about what they are seeing with their own eyes in order to avoid rocking the boat.

But then there was Vietnam and anti-war protesters, hippies and free love, the women’s and gay liberation movement, and civil rights victories.  By the 1960s, it was all about rejecting the establishment, saying no, and envisioning a more authentic life.  Things changed. And so did this experiment.

By the mid-1990s, there were 133 replications of Asch’s study.  Psychologists Rod Bond and Peter Smith decided to add them all up.  They found that the tendency for individuals to conform to the group fell over time.

One of the abstract take-away points from this is that our psychologies — indeed, even our personalities — are malleable.   In fact, the results of many studies, Twenge writes, suggest that “when you were born has more influence on your personality than the family who raised you.” When encountering claims of timeless and cultureless truths about human psychology, then, it is always good to ask ourselves what scientists might find a few decades later.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

All Hail the Go-Cup: Culture as a Form of Control

In New Orleans there is this magical thing where you can put your alcoholic drink in a plastic cup of any kind and leave the establishment you are patronizing — or even your own very house — and go outside!

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It’s called a “go-cup” and, in its simplest form, it looks like this:

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The bars and restaurants have them for your convenience and many residents keep a supply on hand too.

I still remember the first time I went to New Orleans, about five years ago, and realized that I could do this.  It was… okay “liberating” might be a strong word… but it did bring into sharp relief the lack of freedom that I experience in other parts of the U.S. that do not allow public consumption of alcohol.  Moreover, it revealed to me how deeply I had internalized the idea that (1) you can’t drink alcohol in public, (2) if you want to drink alcohol and you’re not at home, you have to purchase it from a vendor and, (3) if you purchase a drink, you must finish drinking it or abandon the remains if you want to go somewhere else.

None of these rules apply in New Orleans.

I had the pleasure of showing my friend Dolores around the city last month and chuckled as she kept forgetting that we could leave a bar or restaurant with a drink in hand.  I’d suggest we go and she’d remember, suddenly, that we could.  We didn’t have to sit around and finish our drinks.  Or, even crazier, we could pop into a bar as we walked by, order a drink, and keep going our merry way.  Her realization that these were possibilities happened over and over again, as she kept reverting to her non-conscious habits.

Dolores’ experience is a great example of how we internalize rules invented by humans to the point where they feel like laws of nature.  In our daily lives in Los Angeles, where we both live, we hang out together and drink alcohol under the local regulations. We rarely feel constrained by these because we forget that it could be another way.  This is the power of culture to make alternative ways of life invisible and, as a result, gain massive public conformity to arbitrary norms and laws.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Concern for Equality Linked to Logic, Not Emotion

A new study finds that people with high “justice sensitivity” are using logic, not emotions.  Subjects were put in a fMRI machine, one that measures ongoing brain activity and shown videos of people acting kindly or cruelly toward a homeless person.

Some respondents reacted more strongly than others — hence the high versus low justice sensitivity — and an analysis of the high sensitivity individuals’ brain activity showed that they were processing the images in the parts of the brain where logic and rationality live.   “Individuals who are sensitive to justice and fairness do not seem to be emotionally driven,” explained one of the scientists, “Rather, they are cognitively driven.”

So, no:

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Activists aren’t angry, they reasonably object to unjust circumstances that they understand all too well.

Image borrowed from Jamie Keiles at Teenagerie, who is a high sensitivity individual.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Happy Birthday Abraham Maslow!

Maslow was a psychologist, famous for ordering human needs in terms of priority, but sociologists aren’t too picky, and this was too hilarious to pass up:

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At GeeksAreSexy. Thanks Dolores R!

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

What Do Little Girls Really Learn from “Career” Barbies?

Like a lot of moms, I faced the Barbie dilemma when my daughter was younger. Ultimately I  figured a little bit of Barbie would sate her appetite (and stop the nagging) without doing too much harm. Like a vaccination, or homeopathic inoculation against the Big Bad. I told myself my daughter didn’t use her dolls for fashion play anyway: her Barbie “funeral,” for instance, was a tour de force of childhood imagination. I told myself I only got her “good” Barbies: ethnic Barbies, Wonder Woman Barbie, Cleopatra Barbie. Now that she’s 10 and long ago gave the dolls away (or “mummified” them and buried them in the back yard in a “time capsule”), I can’t say whether they’ll have any latent impact on her body image or self-perception. It would seem ludicrous, at any rate, to try to pinpoint the impact of one toy.

But now, according to a study published this week,  it turns out that playing with Barbie, even career Barbie, may indeed limit girls’ perception of their own future choices. Psychologists randomly assigned girls ages 4-7 to play with one of three dolls. Two were Barbies: a fashion Barbie (in a dress and high heels); and a “career” Barbie with a doctor’s coat and stethoscope. (NOTE: I just pulled these images from the web: I don’t know which actual Barbies they used.)

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The third, “control” doll was a Mrs. Potato Head, who,  although she comes with fashion accessories such as a purse and shoes, doesn’t have Barbie’s sexualized (and totally unrealistic) curves.

So, after just a few minutes of play, the girls were asked if they could do any of 10 occupations when they grew up. They were also asked if boys could do those jobs. Half of the careers, according to the authors, were male-dominated and half were female dominated. The results:

Girls who played with Barbie thought they could do fewer jobs than boys could do. But girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head reported nearly the same number of possible careers for themselves and for boys.

More to the point:

There was no difference in results between girls who played with a Barbie wearing a dress and the career-focused, doctor version of the doll.

Obviously, the study is not definitive. Obviously, one doll isn’t going to make the critical difference in a young woman’s life blah blah blah. Still, it’s interesting that it doesn’t matter whether the girls played with fashion Barbie or doctor Barbie, the doll had the same effect and in only a few minutes.

That reminded me of a study in which college women enrolled in an advanced calculus class were asked to watch a series of four, 30-second TV commercials. The first group watched four netural ads. The second group watched two neutral ads and two depicting stereotypes about women  (a girl enraptured by acne medicine; a woman drooling over a brownie mix). Afterward they completed a survey and—bing!—the group who’d seen the stereo- typed ads expressed less interest in math- and science-related careers than classmates who had watched only the neutral ones. Let me repeat: the effect was demonstrable after watching two ads.

And guess who performed better on a math test, coeds who took it after being asked to try on a bathing suit or those who had been asked to try on a sweater? (Hint: the latter group; interestingly, male students showed no such disparity.)

Now think about the culture girls are exposed to over and over and over and over and over, whether in toys or movies or tv or music videos, in which regardless of what else you are—smart, athletic, kind, even feminist, even old—you must be “hot.” Perhaps, then, the issue is not “well, one doll can’t have that much of an impact,” so much as “if playing with one doll for a few minutes has that much impact what is the effect of the tsunami of sexualization that girls confront every day, year after year?”

Peggy Orenstein is the author of four books, including The New York Times best-seller Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture.  You can follow her at her blog, where this post originally appeared, on facebook, and on twitter.

Baby Conductor: Children Absorbing the World Around Them

13A few times on SocImages we’ve been tickled to highlight instances of very young children performing adult behavior.  In each (adorable) case, they were great examples of how children learn how to a culturally intelligible adult and particular kinds of ones at that.

Our favorites include the baby worshipper, baby preacher, baby Beyonce, baby rapper, and babies learn how to have a conversation. Seriously. Click on every single one of those links. You won’t be disappointed.

This one is of a little girl in a Baptist church in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan mimicking a choir conductor.  It’s fantastic.

I’m sure you’ll have your own favorite thing about it, but mine is her intensity. Maybe it’s an indication of just how seriously she takes learning.  At one time, and in a different way in the modern world, learning to copy adults was a matter of life or death. This must be part of what it means to be a human child even today.

But it may also be part of the mimicry.  Conducting tends to be a pretty serious business. Maybe she’s just performing seriousness as part of the game, like her heartfelt facial expressions.

Either way, it’s a pretty impressive performance and a wonderful example of children’s active involvement in their own socialization.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Intimate Inequality at the Woolworth’s Lunch Counter, 1960

Ed, at Gin & Tacos, made a fantastic observation about this photo of a 1960 lunch counter sit-in at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, NC, protesting the exclusion of black customers.

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“The most interesting thing about it,” he writes:

…is that the employee behind the Whites Only lunch counter is also black. That’s curious, since on the scale of intimate social contact one would think that having someone handle your food ranks above sitting next to a fully clothed stranger on adjacent stools.

This, he observes, tells us something important about prejudice.

When I first saw this picture and learned about this period in our history… I thought that racism was about believing that another race is inferior. Like most people I got (slightly) wiser with age and eventually figured out that racism is about keeping someone else beneath you on the social ladder… If you actually thought black people were dirty savages you wouldn’t eat anything they handed you. But of course it has nothing to do with that. You’re fine being served food because servility implies social inferiority. And you don’t want to sit next to them simply because it implies equality.

When we observe efforts to uphold unequal social conditions, it’s smart to think past notions of hatred and fear (like the term homophobia unfortunately implies) and instead about how the privileged are benefiting and what they would lose along with their superordinate status.  Hate may be useful for justifying inequality, but at its root it’s about power and resources, not emotions.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.