Bioethics Blogs

Issues of Research Ethics in the Facebook ‘Mood Manipulation’ Study: The Importance of Multiple Perspectives (full text)


By: Michelle Broaddus, Ph.D.

A recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describes a mood manipulation experiment conducted by Facebook scientists during one week in 2012 that suggests evidence of “emotional contagion,” or the spread of positive and negative affect between people. The backlash to this publication has been significant. As two examples, published a piece entitled “Facebook’s Unethical Experiment: It intentionally manipulated users’ emotions without their knowledge” and The Atlantic’s piece, “Even the Editor of Facebook’s Mood Study Thought It Was Creepy.”

In the interest of full disclosure, I have a personal but not close acquaintance with the lead author of the study, through conferences, and of course, Facebook. I have not been in direct contact with the lead author since the publication of the study.

So, was it unethical? One of the pillars of ethically conducted research is balancing the risks to the individual participants against the potential benefits to society or scientific knowledge. So first, what were the benefits? What did we learn? Previous research (some of it using Facebook) has suggested an effect of emotional contagion, but these previous studies used observational data. In other words, there was no “manipulation.” Therefore, the researchers could not conclude a causal effect of emotional contagion, given the possibility of several other variables that could have contributed to the spreading of emotions. The only way to conclude the possibility of a causal effect of one person’s mood on another is to randomly assign participants to experience different stimuli, or “manipulate” their exposure to stimuli.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.