Category Archives: causation

Conflicting data on Facebook: good for university attachment, bad for Cause-related fundraising

(Facebook Wheel of Friendship - photo by jurvetson)

(Facebook Wheel of Friendship - photo by jurvetson)

Despite the online fundraising success of the Obama campaign, the Washington Post reports that Facebook Causes, “hugely popular among nonprofit organizations seeking to raise money online, has been largely ineffective in its first two years, trailing direct mail, fundraising events and other more traditional methods of soliciting contributions.” Only the Nature Conservancy and Students for a Free Tibet have raised more than $100,000 on Facebook Causes, and most of the 179,000 non-profits listed on Facebook don’t even make $1,000 from the site.  This is more depressing when you realize that Facebook usage has swelled to over 200 million.  Twenty five million Facebook users show their affinity through Facebook Causes and their belief in the environment or women’s rights or freedom of choice, but fewer than 1% of such users actually donate.

Other experiments have shown that 1-3% of a nonprofit group’s e-mail list donate money when solicited, at an average of about $80 per person. That is more than 44 times the rate at which such users are donating online through Facebook Causes.

Note: one reader, Will Coley, brought to my attention two blog postings contesting the Washington Post report.  See Fine Blog and  Beth’s Blog.  I don’t find these refutations all that persuasive; sure there are lot of Facebook Causes that are not NPOs (so the donation/cause is not the right statistic) and Facebook has a lot of young users (who are not big donors), but the original motivation of Facebook Causes was to help harness social networks to raise a lot for non-profits, and this has largely been a failure, although maybe it helps Facebook users to identify themselves with other users that share their values.

The more hopeful finding about Facebook comes from a recent paper “Social Capital, Self Esteem and the Use of Online Social Networks”.  [This is a longitudinal follow-up paper to an earlier paper by Ellison, Steinfield, and Lampe in 2007 called “The Benefits of Facebook Friends: Social Capital and College Students’ Use of Online Social Network Sites.“] Ellison et al. found in panel survey data they gathered at Michigan State University (MSU) stronger evidence that Facebook usage predicted later increased levels of “bridging social capital” than that “bridging social capital” caused increased Facebook use.  [Note: see below on their strange measure of bridging social capital.]

It’s an intriguing finding, although one should note that the size of the panel is quite small (92 students completed the earlier and later survey) and there was attrition both in whom they originally asked to do the survey (where only 277 out of 800 students contacted responded) and then secondary attrition when only a third of those 277 students then filled out the follow-up survey. [Ellison et al. note that the 92 seemed demographically representative of the 277 students, but one can never know about hidden attributes that might have explained why people would stick with the survey and also explained why these same people would have made more friends.]

Moreover, one would suppose that the power of Facebook to build social capital and bridging social capital is probably higher at a university setting where most of the e-friendships are in the same town, and one is thus more likely to encounter budding Facebook friends in real life.  (Almost all research shows that it is easier to build trust and stronger ties face-to-face, so having a strong geographic concentration of Facebook friends and ‘near friends’,  in an environment where new students are establish friends,  should provide Facebook with the strongest dynamic for friend-building.)

The paper, as I noted in a blog post on the earlier study, uses weird measures of bridging social capital.  Bridging social capital is supposed to measure the degree to which one has social friendships to people of a different religion, or social class, or race or ethnicity.  Their “bridging” measures are more about attachment to MSU as a community and include: “I feel I am part of the MSU community”, “I am interested in what goes on at MSU”, “MSU is a good place to be”, “I would be willing to contribute money to MSU after graduation”, “Interacting with people at MSU makes me want to try new things”, etc.    I definitely had loyalty to my college when I was there, but I don’t know that this necessarily says a whit about how diverse my friendships were there.

With this unusual measure of “bridging social capital”, the researchers found that both higher-esteem and lower-esteem students were likely to benefit by increased “bridging social capital” (i.e., have a stronger attachment to MSU) from Facebook use, although this effect was highest for students with low self-esteem at the beginning of the study.  And they found that Facebook produced greater attachment to MSU even after controlling for general Internet use and measures of psychological well-being.

While their survey doesn’t directly get at this question, it seems somewhat different than the common findings with technology that the socially-rich get richer, and, rather than leveling the playing field, it may fuerther tilt it.  Ellison et al. don’t directly measure level of social capital at the outset, but in their finding that those low in self-esteem may benefit the most (at least in attachment to MSU), it suggests that at least in this domain the socially unattached may benefit more.

For more information, see :

Charles Steinfield, Nicole B. Ellison, Cliff Lampe. Social capital, self-esteem, and use of online social network sites: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology 29 (2008) 434–445

To Nonprofits Seeking Cash, Facebook App Isn’t So Green: Though Popular, ‘Causes’ Ineffective for Fundraising by Kim Hart and Megan Greenwell (Wash Post, 4/22/09)

Happiness is contagious

dancingfriendsNick Christakis (Harvard School of Public Health) and James Fowler (Univ. of Calif., San Diego), who previously used the Framingham Heart Study to show that having fat friends increasingly makes people obese, are back with a very interesting paper showing that happy friends make you happy — what the co-authors called ‘an emotional quiet riot’.

It is already established that happiness and having social capital (friendships) are linked, but this research demonstrates that it matters how happy your friends are and that it is the happy friends that are causing your happiness rather than vice versa. Conversely, having unhappy friends over time makes you less happy.

The research shows up in the latest issue of BMJ. “Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study.”  [The study involved 5,124 adults aged 21 to 70 who were followed between 1971 and 2003.]

They measured happiness with a 4-item construct:  “I felt hopeful about the future”; “I was happy”; “I enjoyed life” and “I felt that I was just as good as other people.”

They found that happiness is a network phenomenon, clustering in groups of people that extend out to 3 degrees of separation (the friends’ friends of one’s friends), but with greater impact on friendships that are 2 or 1 degree of separation from you.  Demonstrating the magnitude of this effect, co-author James Fowler noted, “if your friend’s friend’s friend becomes happy, that has a bigger impact on you being happy than putting an extra $5,000 in your pocket.”

They found that happiness spreads across a diverse array of social ties, from spouses to siblings to neighbors. They found no happiness effect of co-workers and found that nearby ties had a far greater influence than distant ties: for example, knowing someone who is happy, makes you 15.3% more likely to be happy, but having happy next-door neighbors makes you a full 34% more likely to be happy (much higher than having happy neighbors merely on your block). The optimal effect was for a happy friend living less than half a mile away, which boosts your chance of happiness by42%. In one of the study’s surprises, happy spouses (which one assumes live less than a half mile away!) only increased one’s chance of happiness by 8%. Part of the lower spouse effect is that happiness spreads more effectively through same sex relationships than relationships (romantic or not) between a man and a woman.  (Gays take note!)  Christakis and Fowler believe we may take emotional cues from people of our gender.

They observed that network characteristics (where you were in the network and how happy the people were around you) could independently predict which individuals would be happy years into the future.

They suggest that there may be an evolutionary basis for human emotions.  Previous work noted that emotions like laughter or smiling seemed evolutionary adapted to helping people form social bonds.  [They note: "Human laughter, for example, is believed to have evolved from the 'play face' expression seen in other primates in relaxed social situations. Such facial expressions and positive emotions enhance social relations by producing analogous pleasurable feelings in others."]

While they couldn’t prove it, they suggested 3 possible causal mechanisms:

  1. happy people might share their good fortune
  2. happy people might change their behavior toward others (by being nicer or less hostile)
  3. happy people might exude a contagious emotion (although this would have to be over a sustained time period)

Christakis and Fowler noted that the 3-degrees of separation impact observed in happiness was the same as for smoking and obesity (which also reached out 3 degrees). They wonder whether a “3-degrees of influence” extends to behaviors like depression, anxiety, loneliness, drinking, eating, exercise and other health-related activities.

So the next time you’re unhappy realize that you may be “infecting” your friends with unhappiness as well.  Christakis’ work is suggesting that we need friends, but we also need to carefully pick friends that are happy and have healthy behaviors or we risk that their unhappiness and unhealthy behaviors will spread to us.  The New York Times notes that one of the co-authors indicated that he now thinks twice about his mood knowing that it affects others. That said, he noted: “We are not giving you the advice to start smiling at everyone you meet in New York….That would be dangerous.”

While they think that face-to-face connection is important in spreading happiness (hence the decline of these effects with distance), they did a separate study of 1,700 Facebook profiles, where they found that people smiling in their photographs had more Facebook friends and that more of those friends were smiling. While the Facebook study is just an initial foray into the online word, Christakis thinks that it shows that some of these happiness findings might extend on social networking as well.  And it would take longitudinal studies to determine whether our online activities are gradually eroding our need for face-to-face communication to spread happiness.

Note: Justin Wolfers (on the Freakonomics blog) is skeptical of this research.  As he notes:

[It’s possible that it is not your friends’ happiness that is causing yours, but that “if you and I are friends, we are often subject to similar influences. If a buddy of ours dies, we’ll both be less happy. Or, less dramatically, if our favorite football team wins, we’ll both be happier. But this isn’t contagious happiness — it is simply a natural outcome of the shared experiences of people in the same social circles. Unfortunately, observational data cannot distinguish the headline-grabbing conclusion — that happiness is contagious — from my more mundane alternative: friends have shared emotional influences.”

Wolfers notes that a very careful article by Ethan Cohen-Cole and Jason Fletcher uses the same research design to show how it can lead to silly conclusions.  Cohen-Cole and Fletcher find in another dataset that this approach shows “height, headaches, and acne are also contagious.” As Wolfers notes, it’s more likely that “the same jackhammer causing your headache is likely causing mine.” And the height finding is obviously not causal but more likely a function of homophily (people choosing similar friends).

See Clive Thompson, “Is Happiness Catching?” (NYT Sunday Magazine, 9/13/09)

Boston Globe story available here.

New York Times story available here (which also has a nice graphic showing the clustering in this network of happy and unhappy people).

L.A. Times story available here.

See Wolfers’ Freakonomics blog post here.