Sunday, April 14, 2013

How is Facebook influencing your behavior?

We have all heard the phrase, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” My late mentor and friend, Chris Peterson lived by the words, “Other people matter.” Jackie Robinson chose to have, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on others lives,” written on his tombstone. In the intriguing, and highly addictive, Netflix original series House of Cards, Francis (Kevin Spacey) wisely states that, “Generosity is its own form of power.” Each of these idioms highlight the unique value of social currency among human beings, who are the only mammals who spend most of their time with non-kin.

Last week, I had the honor of giving a talk at the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s (ADAA) annual meeting in La Jolla, Ca. The keynote was given by Dr. James Fowler, a professor at University of California-San Diego. Dr. Fowler studies social networks, or how humans influence one another. For example, he discussed longitudinal evidence that obesity in the United States truly is an epidemic such that if one person is obese, their friends have a higher likelihood of being obese, as do their friends’ friends. He remarked that this finding was picked up by major news outlets in Europe and the US with very different messages. In Europe, the headlines read, “Are you making your friends fat?” while in the states the headlines read, “Are your friends making you fat?” Ironically, the subtle difference emphasizes the ever-present layer of cultural context on all of these social dynamics.

The experiment I want to share today was one in which many of you were likely participants. If you were one of the 61-million people who had a Facebook account and logged in on the day of the US congressional election in 2010, then you contributed to the research I’m about to share. Thank you for your participation! Basically, Dr. Fowler conducted a randomized intervention to test whether the behavior of your friends influences your voting behavior. To do this, he rigged Facebook so that 1/3 of everyone who logged on that day saw a banner at the top of their news feed that looked like the picture above. It included a reminder that today was election day, a button for you to click to share with the world that you voted, and then a row of photographs of your friends who had also clicked the “I Voted” button. Another 1/3 of participants saw almost the same advertisement on their news feed; however there were no photographs of their friends. The final 1/3 saw their regular, old news feed with no Election Day banner at all. Their question was:

If you think your friends voted, are you more likely to vote?

No surprises, the people who saw the photos of their friends were 2% more likely to click the “I Voted” button than those who saw the other Election Day banner. Now, 2% sounds like a small effect, but across 61 million people that is 400,000 voters. To put that into context, 537 votes meant the difference in the entire presidential election in 2000. Be that as it may, I know what you’re thinking: “Anyone can lie on Facebook and say they voted, but does this translate to real voting behavior?” Good question. The short answer is yes.
Most people don’t realize, but whether or not you vote is a matter of public record. So, they dug into the records and looked at whether seeing photos of your friends resulted in more actual voting. We all know that voter turnout increases when swarms of college students go door to door on behalf of their campaign, but can that be replicated on the internet? Until the present study, we thought the answer was no because efforts to get people out to vote via email has been ineffective. In this study, they found that people who saw the election information on the their news feed (without photos of their friends) were no more likely to vote than people who saw nothing at all, but the people who saw the election message with photos of their “voting” friends were 0.4% more likely to actually vote. Thus, see photos of their friends who voted actually caused almost 60,000 people to vote in the congressional election.

But wait, there’s more. They also looked at how influential specific people were in their effect on true voting behavior. In short, the effect of seeing photos of your friends on your voting behavior was stronger if those friends were your close friends (e.g., tagged in photos together, write on each others’ walls) rather than people you knew in high school but don’t really interact with much. In fact, that influence exerts a sort of contagion effect throughout your friendships, and your friends’ friends.

It goes without saying that a 0.4% increase in voting isn’t a huge impact unless you are reaching millions of people like in this study. Nonetheless, this finding introduces some interesting questions. First, in what other small ways are the things we are passively viewing and clicking influencing our behaviors and the behaviors of those around us? At the very least, this finding reminds us that even though we live in a world where “everyone should mind their own business,” we are actually doing quite the opposite. This study suggests that we are all influencing one another, so an increased awareness of how may help us live in a society more consistent with what we want. This is obvious to most people about the “real” world, while the internet started as a place where people could behave anonymously and thus social behavior was not influential in the same ways. By now, all that has changed. What you do on the internet, or even what you seem to be doing on the internet, reaches a large audience; click wisely.

If you’re interested in reading more about social epidemics, Dr. Fowler and his colleague, Dr. Christakis published a popular psychology book on the topic which you can purchase here.

Bond, R. M., Fariss, C. J., Jones, J. J., Kramer, A. D., Marlow, C., Settle, J. E., & Fowler, J. H. (2012). A 61-million-person experiment in social influence and political mobilization. Nature489(7415), 295-298.

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