A newly published paper reveals that scientists at Facebook conducted a massive psychological experiment on hundreds of thousands of users by tweaking their feeds and measuring how they felt afterward.
In other words, Facebook decided to try to manipulate some people's emotional states -- for science.
The research involved Facebook's News Feed -- the stream of status updates, photos and news articles that appears when you first fire up the site. For a week in January 2012, a group of researchers, variously affiliated with Facebook, Cornell University and the University of California, San Francisco, altered the algorithm that determines what shows up in News Feed for 689,003 people. One group was shown fewer posts containing words thought to evoke positive emotions, such as "love," "nice" and "sweet," while another group was shown fewer posts with negative words, like "hurt," "ugly" and "nasty." The findings were published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a scientific journal.
The researchers were studying a phenomenon called "emotional contagion," a fancy psychological term for something you've almost certainly experienced: If you spend more time with a happy-go-lucky friend, you end up being more of a ray of sunshine yourself. (Same goes for sadness: Hang with a Debbie Downer, and you likewise become a vector for gloom.) Researchers have found that emotions can be contagious during face-to-face interactions, when a friend's laugh or smile might lift your spirits. But what happens online? Facebook was trying to figure that out.