Doing Harm by Way of Habit

Facebook’s experiment on emotions got more feedback than any academic research had before. Many quitted, some raged. The reaction concerned, first, experimenting, second, manipulating.

Facebook experimented with News Feed by reducing or increasing posts containing positive and negative emotions. Then it measured the users’ reaction, which happened to be small but statistically significant, mostly because of the huge sample.

So, Facebook once tried what reputable The New York Times and Washington Post do every day (not to mention TV, penny press, and advertising industry). In fact, traditional media scrutinized the study and maybe raised more emotions than the original researchers did in the experiment.

Facebook surely learned the lesson and won’t publish significant research readily. Just like any other relatively open private company, including Google and Microsoft. Going stealth is safer for employees, which also means less collaboration with outsiders from universities and less openness to the public in general.

If doing “experiments” is punishable, then it’s better to leave everything as is. But that does most harm.

Experiments test hypotheses. When you have no experiments, you have hypotheses alone, true and (more often) false. Meanwhile, decisions are still being made. In Facebook, in GE, or in the government. Policymakers have to. They have many hypotheses for that, even if they never mention the word.

If you’re a CEO of a large corporation, you have hypotheses about your employees. You may think that praise works better than salary, and praise more. Or increase the payroll, or threaten the employees. But without experiments you can’t know if you’re right. Having positive experience indicates a little, because anyone can be right by chance. Even coin flipping gives a 50% chance. Without systematic evidences, you end up doing Machiavellian stuff and hurting people who trust you.

Current practices do much harm because they came out of all the crazy theories authors had. Governments have their own, corporations do. Experiments in the present help find better solutions. And all attention to the Facebook study, Ebola, and Michael Jackson’s death you could devote to questioning what happens every day. It makes the difference.

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