Summary: This is a useful video from DNews for getting students to begin thinking about the importance of ethical questions in social scientific research. Hosts Laci Green and Trace Dominguez discuss a study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers reported to have found evidence that emotions can be transferred to others via an emotional contagion. Basically, the design of the study involved manipulating the timelines of 689,003 Facebook users. The researchers found that when they filtered people's timelines to only include negative content for a week, people were more likely to post morose status updates. Positive content, on the other hand, seemed to produce positive status updates. The findings of the study aside, the research certainly puts a new spin on longstanding questions regarding ethics in social science. • Back in 1961 social psychologist Stanley Milgram began a series of controversial experiments intended to investigate obedience to authority, and today one can flip through any introductory sociology textbook to learn of Milgram's results. It turns out that under the right circumstances a substantial number of people can be persuaded to kill, or at least electrocute, others with very little coercion. Milgram's research on obedience was timely and interesting, but it was also controversial. Unbeknown to the research subject, no one was actually on the receiving end of the electric shocks, but the experiment forced the subjects who delivered the shocks to confront an unsettling truth about their own morality. For ethicists, herein lies the ethical dilemma. Many have argued the study was unethical, since the subjects may have been psychologically harmed by the realization that they would kill another person simply because a man in lab coat instructed them to do so. • Is the Facebook study, then, similarly unethical? One person framed the concern nicely when he sardonically tweeted "probably nobody was driven to suicide. #jokingnotjoking." The fact is Facebook effectively flexed a substantial muscle when it allowed researchers to tweak its timeline algorithm. The company proved it could change the mood of hundreds of thousands of people. One wonders how many of the users were struggling with depression at the time of this experiment, and if they happened to be included in the group that received a steady diet of negative content, what role did Facebook play in quickening their downward spiral?
Submitted By: Lester Andrist