Thursday, July 10, 2014

Manipulating Facebook Users' Newsfeeds: the Ethics of Testing Emotional Contagion

Facebook is the proverbial gold mine for social and behavioral researchers. Individuals spend hours on it each day documenting their lives, their interactions with others, and their interaction with media. The program collects and analyzes the information, providing an interesting glimpse into various aspects of humanity. The ethics of using Facebook and other social media outlets to gather data is more opaque, however. Facebook users generally post information to a closed group of friends with the expectation that their friends will view the information as part of a normal social interaction. Although the information is posted on the web, some would argue that there is an expectation of privacy. If researchers glean information from Facebook posts without permission, it is similar to a researcher recording a conversation without permission, etc. Engaging participants in a study without their knowledge, particularly by manipulating their newsfeeds, is even more egregious. A Facebook data scientist and two other researchers from the University of California and Cornell University conducted a study in 2012 where they attempted to test the response that users would have to reading negative or positive posts on their newsfeed; they manipulated nearly 700,000 users’ newsfeeds and tracked the users’ responses to see if they mirrored the negativity or remained neutral (i.e. “emotional contagion”).  The Facebook users became unwitting participants in a research study without giving permission; in addition to the lack of consent, the participants were manipulated with the intent to influence the individual’s state of being. While an IRB generally approves using manipulation to study participants, there are specific elements that are required to be in place such as the post-consent debriefing that helps the participant to understand the full nature of the study and provides a more complete consent. In a study where the researcher is manipulating emotions and there is the potential to make a participant upset, the debriefing session is particularly important so that the researcher can gauge the mental state of the participant and assess if additional help is needed.

Facebook users don’t exist in a vacuum. Every day their data are used by corporations to manipulate users to buy products or click on certain links. However, the relationship of trust between researchers and participants is a valuable commodity and when it is abused it is costly not only to participants but to researchers as well. Facebook users voiced their opinion about the manipulation and Adam Kramer, the Facebook data scientist who worked on the study, responded by posting this apology: "I can understand why some people have concerns about it, and my coauthors 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."

Monday, June 30, 2014

Does Being Cool at 13 Pay?

Researchers at the followed a group of Charlottesville, VA, teenagers over a ten year period to gauge whether popularity at age thirteen equates to success ten years down the road. Joseph Allen, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, led the study that was recently published in Child Development. Their conclusion? Popularity in middle school isn't a guarantee for later success in life and it may in fact have negative consequences as well. As young adults, the more popular youths were using 40% more drugs and alcohol than the "not so cool" kids and were 22% more likely to run into trouble with the law. Kelly Wallace, CNN reporter, submitted this detailed report.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Teenagers More Vulnerable in Police Interrogation


Interrogation techniques used by the police force often incorporate stressors that result in confession, sometimes even false confessions. Teenagers are more susceptible to interrogation pressure and may waive Miranda rights or make incriminating statements without having the proper counsel to guide them through the interrogation process, resulting in higher penalties and loner prison sentences. Only twenty percent of a surveyed police force is prepared to interrogate minors, Todd Warner, a U.Va. PHd candidate in Psychology discovered in his recent study. “Police officers have a very difficult job trying to determine who actually perpetuated the crime under investigation, and while they are well-trained on laws and the legal system, many of them lack knowledge on adolescent decision-making, which can have a detrimental effect on suspects who may not be guilty, and also on the proper functioning of the legal system,” Warner said. For more information about this study, check out the UVaToday article as well as other postings on local Charlottesville news stations.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Congratulations Grant Foundation Scholars!

L-R: Education professor Joanna Lee Williams and psychology professor Noelle Hurd
Joanna Lee Williams and Noelle Hurd were selected to receive major support from the William T. Grant Foundation and are named Grant Foundation Scholars. This honor is rarely bestowed on more than one candidate from an institution and was last received by a UVa recipient (Joseph Allen) in 1991. Both Williams and Hurd are assistant professors and conduct research with Youth-Nex: The UVa Center to Promote Effective Youth Development. They will both receive $350,000 in research support in addition to intense mentoring by relevant scholars. For more information about the candidates please see this UVA Today article.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Mental Maps

Andrew Mondschein, new faculty member in the
University of Virginia School of Architecture.
What are you missing every day on your daily commute? It may be more than you think if you take public transportation or rely on Google Maps to get you there. Andrew Mondschein, faculty member in the UVa School of Architecture, led a team of researchers who discovered that "cognitively active" travelers (i.e. those driving a car, walking, or riding a bike) are more aware of their surroundings as they navigate than "cognitively passive" travelers (i.e. car or bus passengers) who are simply moved from one location to another. Having gaps in your mental map, Mondschein theorized, can be more significant than just missing a billboard advertisement. Cognitively passive travelers may be missing job opportunities, goods and services available, and/or recreation activities that they might otherwise have noticed if they were navigating the streets on their own. “I think transportation planners need to consider the experience of travel in addition to simply establishing links between ‘A’ and ‘B’,” Mondschein said.  ”Travel is exploration, and there’s long-term value in this kind of learning." For more information, check out this article in UVa Today.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Insights on the Family

Tom Graham hosted two UVa professors on Virginia Insights (WMRA) to hear about their research on the family.

Sarah M. Corse, Ph.D. - co-author of the study "Intimate Inequalities: Love and Work in a Post-Industrial Landscape," presented at the August, 2013, annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia.
Robert E. Emery, Ph.D. - Co-author of "Overnight Custody Arrangements, Attachment, and Adjustment Among Very Young Children"  (August, 2013. "Journal of Marriage and Family").  Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center for Children, Families, and the Law, University of Virginia.  Author of numerous books, including  The Truth About Children and Divorce (Penguin Group).
To hear the interview, check out this link.

Getting older may not be a good excuse...

We've all had moments where the answer we are looking for is on the "tip of the tongue" and as age increases, it is easy to assume the temporary memory lapse and a few extra grey hairs are connected. Dr. Timothy Salthouse and U.Va. undergraduate researcher Arielle Mandell created a study to determine if age and a lapse in the brain's ability to recall facts are related. After quizzing over 700 participants, they initially found that older participants did struggle to recall answers as well as their younger counterparts. But after the researchers factored participants' general knowledge, for example, they found no association between how often the participants' memory recall failed and their performance on the types of memory tests often used in the detection of dementia. 

For more information, check out this article on NBC 29.