Dean Eckles on people, technology & inference


Update your Facebook status: social comparison and the availability heuristic

[Update: This post uses an older Facebook UI as an example. Also see more recent posts on activity streams and the availability heuristic.]

Over at Captology Notebook, the blog of the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, Enrique Allen considers features of Facebook that influence users to update their status. Among other things, he highlights how Facebook lowers barriers to updating by giving users a clear sense of something they can right (“What are you doing right now?”).

I’d like to add another part of the interface for consideration: the box in the left box of the home page that shows your current status update with the most recent updates of your friends.
Facebook status updates

This visual association of my status and the most recent status updates of my friends seems to do at least a couple things:

Influencing the frequency of updates. In this example, my status was updated a few days ago. On the other hand, the status updates from my friends were each updated under an hour ago. This juxtaposes my stale status with the fresh updates of my peers. This can prompt comparison between their frequency of updates and mine, encouraging me to update.

The choice of the most recent updates by my Facebook friends amplifies this effect. Through automatic application of the availability heuristic, this can make me overestimate how recently my friends have updated their status (and thus the frequency of status updates). For example, the Facebook friend who updated their status three minutes ago might have not updated to three weeks prior. Or many of my Facebook friends may not frequently update their status messages, but I only see (and thus have most available to mind) the most recent. This is social influence through enabling and encouraging biased social comparison with — in a sense — an imagined group of peers modeled on those with the most recent performances of the target behavior (i.e., updating status).

Influencing the content of updates. In his original post, Enrique mentions how Facebook ensures that users have the ability to update their status by giving them a question that they can answer. Similarly, this box also gives users examples from their peers to draw on.

Of course, this can all run up against trouble. If I have few Facebook friends, none of them update their status much, or those who do update their status are not well liked by me, this comparison may fail to achieve increased updates.

Consider this interface in comparison to one that either

  • showed recent status updates by your closest Facebook friends, or
  • showed recent status updates and the associated average period for updates of your Facebook friends that most frequently update their status.

[Update: While the screenshot above is from the “new version” of Facebook, since I captured it they have apparently removed other people’s updates from this box on the home page, as Sasha pointed out in the comments. I’m not sure why they would do this, but here are couple ideas:

  • make lower items in this sidebar (right column) more visable on the home page — including the ad there
  • emphasize the filter buttons at the top of the news feed (left column) as the means to seeing status updates.

Given the analysis in the original post, we can consider whether this change is worth it: does this decrease status updates? I wonder if Facebook did a A-B test of this: my money would be on this significantly reducing status updates from the home page, especially from users with friends who do update their status.]

Definitions of unconscious processing in cognitive and social psychology

John Bargh, Professor of Psychology at Yale, and his ACME (Automaticity in Cognition, Motivation, and Emotion) Lab are doing very exciting work. I had read some articles by Bargh some time ago (e.g. Bargh & McKenna 2004) and encountered his work in the context of debates about how objects can automatically activate attitudes that apply to them. But it hasn’t been until recently (following a discussion with James Breckenridge) that I’ve begun to really engage with the larger body of research Bargh and his collaborators have produced — and the interesting reflections and arguments found in the reviews of this and related work that he and his collaborators have written.

I expect I’ll be writing more about this work, but in this and some follow-up posts I want to just say a little bit about the general character of the research and, more specifically, how this work engages with and employs definitions of ‘unconscious’ and ‘unconscious processing‘.

Bargh & Morsella (2008, in press, page numbers are to this version) highlights how cognitive psychology and social psychology have operated with different definitions and different emphasis in investigating what they call “unconscious”. For cognitive psychology, “subliminal information processing – […] extracting meaning from stimuli of which one is not consciously aware” – has been paradigmatic of the unconscious (p. 1). That is, its study of unconscious processing is the study of the processing of stimuli of which one is unaware. On the other hand, for mainstream social psychology research, including work with priming, “the traditional focus has been on mental processes of which the individual is unaware, not on stimuli of which one is unaware” (Ibid.).

This is a striking difference that, as Bargh & Morsella illustrate, has consequences for how “dumb” or “smart” and “limited” or “pervasive” unconscious processing is. If unconscious processing is limited to processing of subliminal stimuli, then it doesn’t have much to go on. But the social psychology definition — the liberal, process-awareness definition — allows us to call a lot more things unconscious processing.

I recognize shortcomings with the cognitive psychology definition — the narrow, stimulus-awareness definition. And Bargh and Morsella’s statement of the process-awareness definition does enable them to say some striking things (e.g. about automatic activation of motivations).

But I also wonder whether this redefined term can bear much theoretical weight. Specifically, I have two concerns:

  1. this definition makes what is unconscious depend on each person’s knowledge of the causes of their actions — and this can get tricky in unintuitive and highly individual ways
  2. this definition seems to count on having good identity conditions for the kinds of objects to which ‘unconscious’ is supposed to apply (e.g. events, processes), but identity conditions (which are often hard to come by in general) are tricky for this domain in particular.

These are familiar problems in philosophy of mind, and they deserve consideration when designing theoretically useful definitions of unconscious processing. I aim to take up each of these issues in more detail in another post.

Bargh, J.A., & Morsella, E. (2008, in press). The unconscious mind. Perspectives on Psychological Science.

Bargh, J.A., & McKenna, K.Y.A. (2004). The Internet and social life. Annual review of psychology, 55, 573-590.

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