Tag Archives: social psychology

The Facebook Experiment: Cow-Sociology, Redux

Once having arrived at a set (or sets) of defensible moral positions, social psychologists should better be able to educate those outside the field concerning appropriate ethical criteria by which to judge the field's work...
Alan C. Elms, 1975
Warnings of public backlashes against psychologists, diminished subject pools, and a tarnished professional interest had little, if any, visible effect. The psychologist's ethical stance remains to his or her chosen methodology. Where the behavioristic model applies, deception is usually part of it.
C.D. Herrera, 1997
The reason we did this research is because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product. We felt that it was important to investigate the common worry that seeing friends post positive content leads to people feeling negative or left out.
Adam Kramer, 2014

Now that the initial heat has faded, it is a good time to place the Facebook experiment in historical perspective. In the first two quotes above, social psychologist Alan C. Elms and philospher-ethicist C.D. Herrera represent two sides of a debate over the ethics and efficacy of relying on deception in experimental research. I highlight these two quotes because they demonstrate moments within social psychology, even if they are a generation apart, when deception surfaces as a topic for reconsideration. Elms, one of the original research assistants involved in Stanley Milgram’s obedience research, writes as deception is being called into question. Herrera, writing with the benefit of hindsight, suggests that paradigms other than behaviorist are the way forward. The crux of this disagreement lies in the conceptualization of the research subject. Is the research subject a reflexive being with an intelligence on par with the researcher’s intelligence, or is the research subject a raw material to be deceived and manipulated by the superior intelligence of the researcher?

<a href="http://akenator.deviantart.com/art/Danger-cow-signal-in-the-fog-166643929">Danger, cows ahead</a> CC BY-SA akenator

Danger, cows ahead
CC BY-SA akenator

Unseen, but looming in the background of this disagreement, is the Industrial Psychology/Human Relations approach, which developed in the 1920’s and 1930’s through the work of researchers like Elton Mayo and his consociates, and in experiments such as those at the Hawthorne plant.

This debate is worth revisiting in light of the Facebook experiment and its fallout. Any understanding of the Facebook experiment — and the kind of experimentation allowed by Big Data more generally — must include the long, intertwined history of behaviorism and experimental deception as it has been refracted through both Adam Kramer’s home discipline of social psychology and somewhat through his adopted discipline of “data scientist” [1].Read More… The Facebook Experiment: Cow-Sociology, Redux