By Justin Reich and Mitchell L. Stevens
When the teacher and poet Taylor Mali declares, “I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional Medal of Honor and an A- feel like a slap in the face,” he testifies to the powerful ways teachers can use emotions to help students learn and grow. Students -- and their parents -- put a great deal of trust in college educators to use these powers wisely and cautiously. This is why the unfolding debacle of the Facebook emotional contagion experiment should give educators great pause.
In 2012, for one week, Facebook changed an algorithm in its News Feed function so that certain users saw more messages with words associated with positive sentiment and others saw more words associated with negative sentiment. Researchers from Facebook and Cornell then analyzed the results and found that the experiment had a small but statistically significant effect on the emotional valence of the kinds of messages that News Feed readers subsequently went on to write. People who saw more positive messages wrote more positive ones, and people who saw more negative messages wrote more negative ones. The researchers published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and they claimed the study provides evidence of the possibility of large-scale emotional contagion.
The debate immediately following the release of the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has been fierce. There has been widespread public outcry that Facebook has been manipulating people’s emotions without following widely accepted research guidelines that require participant consent. Social scientists who have come to the defense of the study note that Facebook conducts experiments on the News Feed algorithm constantly, as do virtually all other online platforms, so users should expect to be subject to these experiments. Regardless of how merit and harm are ultimately determined in the Facebook case, however, the implications of its precedent for learning research are potentially very large.