Spend any amount of time online and you’re likely to see the same patterns repeat themselves over and over again: somebody says something offensive or controversial on social media, they’re met with anger and disgust, and they either apologise or double down.
For some, this cycle has become somewhat of a career, with the garnering of outrage forming the backbone of their (often incredibly tedious) public personas. But does responding to such toxic or offensive remarks, especially en masse, actually work? Or does it simply increase sympathy for the offender, no matter how bigoted their remarks were to begin with?
According to research published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, the latter is more likely. The paper looked at the impact of viral outrage on convincing observers that an offender is blameworthy — and found that as outrage increased, observers believed it was “more normative” to express condemnation, but simultaneously believed that outrage was excessive and felt more sympathy for the offender.
At 8:07am on a Saturday morning in early 2018, phones throughout Hawaii buzzed with a distressing message. “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter,” it read. “This is not a drill.” Similar warnings interrupted television and radio transmissions. And until a follow-up message 38 minutes later clarified that it had been a false alarm, many residents were left expecting the worst.
But according to a new study published in American Psychologist, the toll on Hawaii residents lasted much longer than those terrifying minutes. Researchers analysing the kinds of words tweeted before and after the false alarm have found that anxiety seemed to be heightened for days — particularly among those who appeared the least anxious to begin with.
You might imagine – as prior research suggests many people do – that putting your feelings into words will only intensify them. In fact, many laboratory studies have found the opposite to be true. Stating out loud, or writing down, what you are feeling – a process that psychologists call “affect labelling” – seems to down-regulate emotions, diminishing their intensity.
Now an intriguing study has explored this phenomenon outside of the lab, analysing over a billion tweets to find examples of when people used a tweet to put their emotional state into words. From analysing the emotional language used in preceding and subsequent tweets, Rui Fan and his colleagues were able to see how the act of affect labelling influenced the course of an emotional state. “We found that, for a majority of individuals, emotional intensity decreased rapidly after their explicit expression in an ‘I feel’ statement,” the researchers write in their paper in Nature Human Behaviour.
Johannes Eichstaedt was sitting in a coffee shop by Lake Atitlan in Guatemala when he received a slack about a tweet about a preprint. In 2015, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist and his colleagues published a headline-grabbing article linking heart disease to the language used on Twitter. They’d found that tweets emanating from US counties with high rates of heart disease mortality tended to exhibit high levels of negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, disengagement, aggression, and hate. The study, published in Psychological Science, has proven influential, already accruing over 170 citations. But three years later, the preprint authors Nick Brown and James Coyne from the University of Groningen claimed to have identified “numerous conceptual and methodological limitations”. Within the month, Eichstaedt and his colleagues issued a riposte, publishing their own preprint that claims further evidence to support their original conclusions.
As recent revelations surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have highlighted, corporations and political organisations attach a high value to social media data. But, Eichstaedt argues, that same data also offers rich insights into psychological health and well-being. With appropriate ethical oversight, social media analytics could promote population health and perhaps even save lives. That at least is its promise. But with big data come new challenges – as Eichstaedt’s “debate” with Brown and Coyne illustrates.
Students showed less comprehension of the items they’d chosen to repost.
What fun it is to write something on Twitter or Facebook and see lots of people repost what you said – no matter the disclaimers in people’s online profiles, we usually interpret reposts of our comments as a mark of endorsement. However, a new study in Computers in Human Behavior puts a bit of a downer on things. The researchers based at Peking University and Cornell University say that the very option to share or repost social media items is distracting, and what’s more, the decision to repost is itself a further distraction and actually makes it less likely that readers will have properly understood the very items that they chose to share.
The research was conducted with dozens of Chinese undergrad users of the Chinese micro-blogging site Weibo (very similar to Twitter). In one study, the students had to read forty short (maximum 140 Chinese character) Weibo posts about a recent controversial issue in China – whether or not to help elderly people who have fallen over. Half the participants had the option to repost the items, whereas the others did not. The key finding was that the group who had the option to repost each item performed less well in a subsequent comprehension test of the 40 Weibo posts. Moreover, the participants who could repost made twice as many errors for the posts they had reposted than those they hadn’t. Why should this be? “The feedback function encourages individuals to make quick responses, taking away the time individuals would otherwise use to cogitate and integrate the content information they receive,” the researchers said. They added: “This finding has overarching implications given that the majority users of micro-blogging sites only read and repost others’ messages”.
A second study was similar, with some students given the option to repost Weibo items and others not given this option, but this time the Weibo part of the task was followed by a reading comprehension test on a New Scientist article. The finding – students who’d had the reposting option on Weibo performed worse at the subsequent reading comp test, and this seemed to be because they were more mentally tired after reading the Weibo posts. The researchers said: “When we are reposting and sharing information with others, we unwantedly add burden to our cognitive resources and, as a result, our own understanding of the information is compromised and our subsequent learning hindered.”
Stigma is a problem for all forms of mental illness, but arguably obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) – a condition that at its most severe can ruin lives – is subject to a disproportionate amount of trivialisation and ridicule.
A brief perusal of the hashtag #OCD on Twitter makes this obvious – the term is used frequently everyday to lampoon fussy, perfectionist behaviours. A new study asks how this Twitter trivialisation affects other users’ views of the condition and of the people who do the trivialising.
Rachel Pavelko and Jessica Myrick created several fictional Twitter accounts (half were male, half female), together with bio, avatar and 15 recent tweets. Half of the fictional account users self-identified as having OCD. Their bios said: “Enjoy friends and good movies. Making my way through this world with a diagnosis of OCD.” (A self-identifying hashtag–#livingwithOCD–was also included in their tweets). The other accounts without an OCD identity had bios that said: “I love: friends, good movies, sports, and ice cream.”
For each of the accounts, nine of the visible tweets were fillers and said things unrelated to OCD like:
“When I’m old, I’m totally using the scooters at the grocery store.”
For the OCD tweets, some accounts always framed the condition respectfully and in clinical terms, as in:
“It’s not easy to deal with, but therapy and my great support system certainly help me everyday. #livingwithOCD”.
“Raising money for the National Alliance on Mental Illness to support my aunt in her struggle with #OCD”
Other accounts always trivialised the condition, with tweets like:
“Can’t stand all these crazy perfectionist people in my office. Not impressed that your file folders are alphabetized. #ThatsSoOCD.”
The remaining accounts featured a mix of serious and trivial OCD tweets.
Nearly 600 participants were recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk site (just over half were male, the average age was 33), a minority of whom reported having OCD (3.9 per cent) or other mental illness (29.2 per cent), or having a family member with OCD (9.3 per cent). Each participant looked at one of the Twitter accounts and answered questions about their feelings towards the fictional person and about people with OCD in general.
Good news: those participants shown accounts that trivialised OCD were no more likely to say they wanted to keep their distance from people with the condition. More good news: people who self-identified as having OCD on Twitter, regardless of how they tweeted about their condition, were in general like more by the participants than those who didn’t. And what about the accounts where the person didn’t have OCD but wrote tweets that trivialised the condition? Such accounts were liked less by the participants than those that treated the condition with respect.
“This implies,” the researchers said, “that trivialisation, while seemingly cute or done in jest, can actually backfire for social media users.”
The researchers also said that the positive reaction among participants to the fictional account holders with OCD suggests that Twitter, and possibly other forms of social media, could be a safe space for people with the condition to share their experiences with others.
_________________________________ Pavelko, R., & Myrick, J. (2015). That’s so OCD: The effects of disease trivialization via social media on user perceptions and impression formation Computers in Human Behavior, 49, 251-258 DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2015.02.061
Updated for November 2014, here are the 100 most followed psychologists and neuroscientists on Twitter based on follower counts recorded over the last few weeks. If we’ve missed anyone (individuals, not organisations) who should be in the top 100, please let us know via comments and we’ll add them in. This is an update to our February 2014 post. Check the comments to that earlier post for even more psychologists on Twitter than we were able to include here. We’re aware there are issues with lists like this (for example, Twitter accounts vary in how many active followers they have), but we hope you find it useful nonetheless. BPS Twitter accounts are presented below, but not counted in the tally towards 100.
Updated for 2014, here are the 100 most followed psychologists and neuroscientists on Twitter based on follower counts recorded over the last few weeks. You can follow all 100 as a Twitter list here (thanks @psychoBoBlogy). If we’ve missed anyone who should be in the top 100, please let us know via comments and we’ll add them in to future iterations of the list. This is an update to our July 2013 post. Check the comments to that earlier post for even more psychologists on Twitter than we were able to include here.
Media headlines frequently link young people’s widespread use of Facebook with the narcissism of their generation (e.g. “Facebook’s ‘dark side’: study finds link to socially aggressive narcissism). A new investigation involving hundreds of US college students and hundreds of members of the US public has found that it’s actually the older generation for whom this claim is more accurate. However, use of Twitter tells another story.
First to challenge those Facebook headlines. Shaun Davenport and his colleagues found that students (average age 20) who scored higher on narcissism (measured by the Narcissistic Personality Inventory) were no more likely to post Facebook status updates, nor did they tend to have more Facebook friends.
By contrast, among the general public recruited online (average age 32), higher narcissism was linked with more use of Facebook, in terms of number of updates and number of friends. The researchers speculated that for young people who have grown up with Facebook, it’s common practice to use the social network regardless of one’s personality type. For older generations who did not grow up with Facebook (the age range for the public sample was 18 to 75), Davenport and his team said sending status updates was “not part of their social norms” and may instead be driven by narcissistic motives.
What about Twitter? Analysis showed that for the students, higher narcissism was associated with more active usage of Twitter. Moreover, higher narcissism was associated with students’ motives for using the site. More narcissistic students were likely to say they posted updates to attract followers and to gain admiration on the site. There were associations between student narcissism and vain motives for using Facebook too, but these links were weaker than for Twitter. “This pattern of results suggests that college narcissists prefer Twitter to Facebook and narcissism predicts reasons for usage as well as active usage,” the researchers said. They added that Twitter may have a number of features that particularly appeal to narcissists, including the fact that relationships need not be reciprocal (people can follow you on Twitter, without you having to follow them).
For the general public, higher narcissism was also linked with more active Twitter usage (more so even than Facebook usage). However, for this sample, links between narcissism and vain motives for using Twitter were weaker than for links between narcissism and vain motives for using Facebook.
A strength of this study is the use of two large samples covering different age groups. A weakness is its correlational design, which means we can’t know for sure if one factor (say, narcissism) is really driving a second factor (e.g. more Twitter updates). It’s possible the relationship works in reverse or that some other factor or factors are at play. “We concur with other researchers who have called for a greater use of experimental designs,” said Davenport and his team. “Given the early stages of SNS [social networking site] research, such methods would allow for greater control to isolate variables and allow for tests of causality.”
_________________________________ Shaun W. Davenport, Shawn M. Bergman, Jacqueline Z. Bergman, & Matthew E. Fearrington (2014). Twitter versus Facebook: Exploring the role of narcissism in the motives and usage of different social media platforms. Computers in Human Behavior DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2013.12.011