Facebook May Have Secretly Messed with Your Head for Science

Paul Lilly

Not cool, Facebook

Ever wondered how social networks can impact your emotions? So did a Facebook data scientist and two other researchers who conducted a study that was recently published by The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Facebook's controversial study has drawn outrage from many of the site's members because it played with people's emotions without their knowledge or consent.

The study was conducted over a one-week period in 2012 and included about 689,000 unwitting participants. What the researchers wanted to find out is "whether exposure to emotional content led people to post content that was consistent with the exposure -- thereby testing whether exposure to verbal affective expressions leads to similar verbal expressions, a form of emotional contagion," according to an excerpt from the study, USA Today reports .

Sure enough, the study discovered that users with less postive content in their news feed used more negative words in their status updates. According to James Grimmelmann, a law professor at the University of Maryland, one of the experimental groups had positive words like "love" and "nice" filtered out of their news feeds.

"This, however, was not an observational study. It was an experimental study—indeed, a randomized controlled trial—in which participants were treated differently. We wouldn’t tell patients in a drug trial that the study was harmless because only a computer would ever know whether they received the placebo," Grimmelmann states in a blog post . "The unwitting participants in the Facebook study were told (seemingly by their friends) for a week either that the world was a dark and cheerless place or that it was a saccharine paradise. That’s psychological manipulation, even when it’s carried out automatically. This is bad, even for Facebook."

The fallout from the study prompted one of it's co-authors to offer additional insight into why it was conducted, and an apology to those angered by it.

"The goal of all of our research at Facebook is to learn how to provide a better service. Having written and designed this experiment myself, I can tell you that our goal was never to upset anyone," study co-author Adam Kramer wrote on Facebook . "I can understand why some people have concerns about it, and my co-authors and I are very sorry for the way the paper described the research and any anxiety it caused. In hindsight, the research benefits of the paper may not have justified all of this anxiety."

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