There has been lots of press in the last week about the recent experiment conducted on Facebook in which 700,000 people, unbeknownst to them, were assigned to groups in which they received either negative or positive posts in their newsfeed. The purpose of the experiment was to see what effect that would have on the things they themselves shared in their Facebook updates.
Not surprisingly, the study found that people who were exposed to negative news were more likely to share negative news, and those who were exposed to positive stories shared more upbeat postings.
People have understandably been outraged that the subjects for the study weren’t notified ahead of time, nor obviously had anyone given their consent. It seems it isn’t so much that we mind being guinea pigs; it’s that we mind not being asked if we’d mind being guinea pigs.
There are a few helpful lessons to be learned in all of this, although I don’t think one of them is that we are affected by the emotional content we’re subjected to. If you’ve ever been in the company of someone who chronically focuses on the negative (and who among us hasn’t), you know how difficult it is not to be affected.
I’m also not sure it serves us to come away from this incident with the simplistic lesson that Facebook is a corporate villain not to be trusted. The truth is we are being emotionally manipulated all the time, though not usually in such a scientific way. Many, if not most, media outlets, as well as many corporations and politicians engage in this behavior on a regular basis.
For me the important lessons have to do with our responsibility for what we do with our own minds.
Minding Your Mind: Being Aware of What You Take In
The fact that our minds and emotions can be distorted by the information and emotional content we take in is one of the reasons many spiritual teachers admonish their students to be very discerning about what they expose themselves to.
Several years ago I attended a retreat put on by Thich Nhat Hanh’s community, and while there I was initiated into the Five Mindfulness Trainings. These five trainings bring into concrete practice the Buddhist teachings about right understanding and true love, the things that can enhance the wellbeing of ourselves and the world.
The last of the Five Mindfulness Trainings is called “Nourishment and Healing,” and it encourages mindfulness about how we consume four types of “nutriments” — food, sense impressions, volition and consciousness. One of the things the practitioner of the trainings determines to do is not to expose her/himself to websites, TV shows or movies that are toxic.
When we immerse ourselves in violent images and fearful or hateful narratives we are allowing our minds to be shaped in a way that is unhealthy not only for ourselves but for all the others who will be subjected to the negativity or paranoia it will induce in us.
This doesn’t mean we stick our heads in the sand and refuse to look at the suffering in the world. What it does mean is that we refrain from indulging the toxic energy of hatred or violence in such situations.
Minding Other People’s Minds: Being Aware of What You Put Out
We have a responsibility to tend the health of our own minds, but as the Facebook experiment points out, we also have a responsibility for what we place before other people’s minds. The way we interact with others matters.
When it comes to social media I am often astonished at the vengeful tone of much of the “news” that I come across. Oftentimes, the article or website I’m directed to is providing useful information that I, as a citizen, need to know. But many times the information is infused with so much energy of us vs. them that I will not share it because, even though the information is valuable, I don’t want to be an accomplice in spreading that toxic energy.
Let me share a situation that’s been with me as I’ve pondered all of this.
A few days ago one of my nieces posted on Facebook that she was having to keep herself, her two young sons and their dog indoors on a gorgeous summer day because their neighbor was having his trees sprayed with insecticide. It was a windy day, so the insecticide, which as she pointed out was a neurotoxin, was going everywhere.
She did what any mindful parent would and protected herself and her loved ones by staying inside.But as she knows, and as we all know, when it comes to the biosphere none of us can shield ourselves from the toxicity. It’s all around us. After the landscape crew drives away, the poisonous residue remains.
The same holds true of the cybersphere. With the advent of social media we’ve all been given a sprayer, if you will, and the energy we spew out into the collective mind affects us all.
Mindfulness: Claiming Our Power
Consider, if you will, the possibility that Facebook and the researchers did us all a favor by pointing out how mindlessly we usually take in information. Unless we have committed ourselves to the practice of being mindful we probably aren’t tuned in enough to ourselves to recognize how we are being affected by external stimuli.
Consider also the possibility that Facebook pointed out for us how much power we have to shape the world we are creating together. Because remember that the study wasn’t just about negativity and it’s effect on us, but also about positive energy which, when disseminated through the cybersphere, had a positive effect on others.
In other words, we have the power to lift one another up.
When we mindfully monitor the energy that infuses the information we take in and that which we share, and if we’re committed to helping heal the world, social media gives us great power indeed. We can use our “sprayer” in a way that benefits the future by disseminating a vision for a world of hope and possibility.
Ellen Langer, Harvard psychology professor who is sometimes called the “mother of mindfulness,” states toward the end of her book Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility, “My social psychology colleagues are fond of saying that behavior is context-dependent. I am saying that if we are mindful, we can create the context” [p. 183].
Facebook has just given us an invitation to create the context.