Do Facebook posts reveal how someone really feels? According to new research, happy statuses don't necessarily mean someone's happy, but sad posts are telling.
A new study published this month in the Journal of Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking found that Facebook is a pretty good barometer of when someone is feeling down.
Plenty of research over the past few years has looked at how Facebook makes us feel, but understanding how Facebook exposes our real life emotions could have much more significance. One day, the thinking goes, doctors could monitor a patient’s mental health by observing their social media streams. If a patient’s Facebook posts turned a little dark, for example, their psychologist might read it as a cue to step in.
Past research has presented conflicting evidence. One 2010 study found correlation between well-being and Facebook status by looking at whether negative and positive posts aligned with times when users might be expected to post something negative, like after a national tragedy, or positive, like over a holiday weekend. Three years later, another study flat out contradicted those results.
In this month's study, researchers from Stanford University, Cambridge and the Singapore Management University instead questioned Facebook users about their mood directly. Using myPersonality, a Facebook application that allows users of the social network to volunteer as participants in psychological tests, researchers polled users on their satisfaction with life, then measured the results of the test against their Facebook status updates over the past year.
In the final sample of 1,124 users, words generally accepted as indicators of positive emotion were used twice as often as negative words. Positive words seemed to have little correlation to a user’s life satisfaction. But for posts within the past nine months, researchers found that users who posted negative comments to Facebook also usually reported that they were unsatisfied in life.
This is probably common sense to anyone who has ever posted a smiling selfie while on a terrible vacation. On Facebook and elsewhere, we’re inclined to perform. A happy post often serves as little more than an indication of us projecting the version of our selves we’d like others to see. A negative post, then, becomes a pretty good indication that our life isn’t unfolding in quite the way we’d imagined.
The study follows on the heels of another, smaller one that found that our smartphone activity reveals if we're depressed, suggesting that the technology around us is a path into our brains. The researchers in this study said that knowing which Facebook posts should be taken at face value will allow social scientists build upon what we might otherwise infer. The study's authors wrote:
It suggests that Facebook data can be a valid source to explore psychological processes and phenomena. They open up the opportunity for health professionals to monitor users’ psychological states naturally and provide appropriate interventions if needed. Tools can be developed to identify factors and events that influence [subjective well-being] on a large scale, and provide policy makers with concrete evidence so that they can effectively formulate policies and create activities to improve the well-being of citizens.
A few years from now, perhaps a psychologist won't have to rely only on information patients give them to evaluate their mental health. Access to your Facebook data might prove just as valuable.