Facebook’s Mood Experiment; What it Means, and Why it Matters

This week, scientists and researchers from Facebook, Cornell, and UCSF published a joint paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which claims they were able to successfully manipulate the moods and status updates of users just by altering the content that popped up in their news feed over the course of two weeks.

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Photo: Northfoto / Shutterstock

Using an algorithm that automatically scanned posts for either “happy” or “negative” words, researchers were able to selectively feed people news that would either elevate their mindset, or cause it to plunge into the depths of depression, depending on where they landed in the randomized selection process.

The paper, “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks,” details just how effective the company could be at manipulating the moods of its heavy users by subtly switching up the content that each of them saw whenever they chose to log in. The more negative or sad posts a person was exposed to, the more likely their next update would reflect that same sentiment, and vice versa for those in the study who saw only happy or “uplifting” material in theirs.

This isn’t exactly a new science either. Google has spent years trying to find ways that a user’s search and browsing history could be used to manipulate them into buying certain goods or clicking on specific ads. The company even has a dedicated team of psychologists and behavior pattern specialists on the payroll whose only job it is is to report back on how they can more effectively get into the heads of users in order to pound out a profit before they’ve come and gone from the site.

Go back a decade or two further and you can see the same logic applied to something as simple as going to the grocery store. What on the surface may just look like a hodgepodge of different foods crammed onto a few shelves is actually a carefully calculated amalgam of psychological indicators, designed to keep you shopping quickly, efficiently, and most important — profitably.

Items which pull down the lowest margins for a chain are often shoved away to the top or bottom shelves, with the prime money makers meticulously lined up right at eye level for shoppers who don’t even know what they want until they get to the store and find out.

This all may sound pretty outrageous, but even if you wanted to do something about it, the researchers behind the study claim everything they did was covered under Facebook’s Data Use Policy, absolving them of responsibility and leaving the rest of us scratching our heads as to what we actually signed up for when we clicked the “Agree” button at the bottom of the page.

Here is the relevant section of the policy, in case you were considering deleting your account for the safety of your own sanity:

“For example, in addition to helping people see and find things that you do and share, we may use the information we receive about you … for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.”

On the surface, it’s understandable to feel unnerved by something like this. Dig a little deeper though, and you’ll see that Facebook isn’t doing anything that big business hadn’t already figured out fifty years ago and has been expertly honing ever since.