I haven’t followed the Facebook study kerfuffle in any detail, nor have I looked at the study itself. But the ethics of the study have really bothered folks. I do think Facebook is incredibly creepy for the information and power they possess, so I can see why folks’ creepometers would be super-sensitive to Facebook experiments.* Still, I don’t get the freakout. Or, at least, there are existing research designs behavioral scientists use that I’ve already decided that I’m okay with, so it’s hard for me to understand the outrage about the Facebook experiment. Three examples:
1. Experiments that use outright deception. Subjects are straight-up lied to, including elaborate scenarios where people they believe to be fellow subjects are really researchers, etc.. They’ve only given a non-specific informed consent. They are often manipulated in ways that are intended to elicit stronger emotional states than whatever mild melanchoia/happieness Facebook was going for. I’ve never understood why debriefing afterwards is supposed to be such a great ethical cleanser for doing this, except that it generally underscores the point that _usually_ people aren’t too upset.
2. Audit studies. Major audit studies deceive subjects, do not use informed consent, do not debrief afterward, and waste people’s time by having them do call-backs for bogus job/housing applicants.
3. Affective neuroscience studies. Have you seen some of the photos folks are shown in those studies? OK, so maybe I’m just showing off my super-squeamish side here, but even though people sign consent forms, it is far from clear they know that is what they’ve signed on for.
* That said, if you want to see some cute Australian animal photos taken by my beloved, etc., feel free to FB friend me.