“It’s become farcical. Whoever we ask, nobody seems to know anything. Did the study have ethical approval? First the answer was yes. Then it was no. Then it was maybe. Then it was no again. Was it funded by the US army? First the university said yes. Then it said no, without explanation. Why did the scientific journal not state whether the study was ethically approved, as required by its own policy? Sorry, editor Susan Fiske told me, I’m too busy to answer that question.
I’m referring of course to the study published last week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in which researchers from Facebook and Cornell University teamed up to study “emotional contagion”. Over a one-week period in 2012, they changed the content of news feeds for a random sample of Facebook users. For one group of users they removed content that contained positive words, for another group they removed content that contained negative words. They then measured whether subtly biasing the emotional content in this way changed the emotional content of status updates by the users. Sure enough it did. Making feeds more negative led to more negative behaviour, and vice versa.
Scientifically, the study is remarkable in some ways and unremarkable in others. The sample size of 689,003 is truly huge – possibly the largest in the history of psychology. And the results are interesting insofar as they show that very small changes in the emotional state of our environment can have knock-on effects for how we act (and presumably how we feel) in social networks. On the other hand, the effects in the study are minuscule, among the smallest statistically significant results ever published. As psychologist Tal Yarkoni has pointed out, were the effects to be expressed in terms of average human height, they would have an effect of just one 20th of an inch across the entire male population of the United States.”
Chamber C (2014, 1 July) Facebook fiasco: was Cornell’s study of ‘emotional contagion’ an ethics breach? The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/science/head-quarters/2014/jul/01/facebook-cornell-study-emotional-contagion-ethics-breach (accessed 5 December 2015)
(Reference from the updated Booklet 37 of the Griffith University Research Ethics Manual. Perpetual licences are available for use by all researchers within an institution. Institutions have used the GUREM as the basis for producing their own research ethics manual, as a professional development resource and a teaching and learning materials for HDR candidates.)
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2. (01/04/14) Facebook fiasco: was Cornell’s study of ‘emotional contagion’ an ethics breach?
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4. (10/05/15) Untangling research and practice: What Facebook’s “emotional contagion” study teaches us
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