the manilow problem for the facebook study

I love this song!  I FEEEL SAD WHEN YOU’RE SAD / I FEEL GLAD WHEN YOU’RRE GLAD. But wait: isn’t that what that Facebook experiment found?  Or at least “I express sad when you express sad / I express glad when you express glad”?

Now consider now a statement from one of the authors of the Facebook study: “we found the exact opposite to what was then the conventional wisdom: Seeing a certain kind of emotion (positive) encourages it rather than suppresses is.”

Wait, what? How do we get to a world where conventional wisdom would say that seeing the display of an emotion suppresses expressing an emotion rather than encourages it? Has conventional wisdom never been to a karaoke bar?

It’s a common cycle in behavioral science: commonsense to counterintuition and back again.

First, you have the commonsense idea. Then, because fields like psychology and sociology are forever having to explain how they are not just common sense, you get the embrace of some “everybody thinks it’s like this, but it’s really like this” finding. That, in turn, opens the door for another person to come along later and present themselves as upsetting an academic apple cart when really they’re finding what person-on-the-street would have predicted in the first place.

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

8 thoughts on “the manilow problem for the facebook study”

  1. job security

    That being said, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a lot of this stuff is coming out in PNAS, Science, or Nature (what Gelman and others call the tabloids). I’d guess that when submitted to social science journals, social media papers are more likely to encounter a reviewer who says, “I don’t care how big your data are, this is a banal finding,” who isn’t fooled by breathless claims of counter-intuitiveness, and/or has a working knowledge of Barry Manilow.


      1. I wish I could blame it on your template tinkering, but I can’t. “Job security” was meant as a tongue-in-cheek explanation for the phenomenon in the original post.


  2. That’s a great point that deserves more attention: counter intuition per se does not suggest the truth of an argument. Interestingly, materialists, positivists, behaviorists et al. rag on the interpretive and critical social science crowd for hunting for paradoxes of people’s motivations, false consciousnesses, etc. — but their arguments are exactly the same form.

    “Aha! X wasn’t caused by what you thought it was. Bear witness my clever paradox. You had less kids because your income went up and they’re more expensive now (not because you like them less); you got AIDs because of the combinatorial probability of an infection path on a random graph (not because you’re not religious enough).” This often degrades to finding any old aha.


  3. Sometimes I’m happy, sometimes I’m blue. My disposition depends on my Facebook feed. But in which direction? Conventional wisdom can explain either. Happy feeds make me feel happy (social contagion); happy feeds make me blue (social comparison). Just so long as conventional wisdom doesn’t take me to a karaoke bar where they’re doing Barry Manilow.

    Anyway, how well does the result travels outside the experiment? Especially when the effect is so small, I’d ask about specific conditions under which the effect holds. I also wonder why they didn’t report on user variables – demographics, number of friends, time spent FB, etc.


  4. Well, sometimes people actually are so stupid that what seems like a straw man actually becomes the conventional wisdom. For instance, I just read Keeley’s War Before Civilization and it seems like a no duh kind of thing to say that life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short, but there actually was a very strong, arguably dominant, strand in cultural anthropology to argue that war comes out of states and that pre-civilized life is essentially pacific.

    That said, I don’t think this applies to the Facebook study since contagion is the conventional wisdom (and I say this as someone who has argued that contagion is overrated in chapter 4 of my book).


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