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Social media reveals how we think about the future

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How we think about the future affects the decisions we make.

While this is like stating the obvious, researchers have noted that the relationship between these two behaviours has been inconsistent so far. This could be due to biased reports by participants in a laboratory setting or due to the small sample sizes of the studies.

Naturalistic data and large sample sizes can be found on social media which tells you a lot about how people think and behave on a daily basis.

And that is why psychologists from Emory University tapped into big data tools and analysed millions of Tweets from nearly 40,000 individual’s daily life.

The psychologists used many methods to automatically analyse Tweets left by individual subjects.

This shows that people who think into the future and not think about the future in general and the ones who will exhibit investment behaviour.

They also gathered experimental data using Amazon’s crowdsourcing tool Mechanical Turk – a website where individual can complete psychological experiments and other internet-related tasks.

Participants at Mechanical Turk were asked to supply their Twitter handles.

The participants at Mechanical Turk were asked to answer a classic delay discounting questions such as: Would you prefer $60 today or $100 in six months?

Their Tweets were also analysed. Future orientation was measured by the tendency of participants to tweet about the future compared to the past. Future-sightedness was measured based on how often tweets referred to the future, and how far into the future.

The findings showed that future orientation was not related to investment behaviour. Rather participants with far future-sightedness were more likely to wait for future rewards than those with near future-sightedness.

This shows that people who think into the future and not think about the future in general and the ones who will exhibit investment behaviour.

In a second Mechanical Turk experiment which used a digital Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART), participants could earn real money every time they inflated a balloon. But each inflation could lead to the balloon popping and as a result they would not earn any money for that trial.

If participants stopped inflating the balloon before it popped, they could bank the money they earned and move on to the next trial.

The tweets of the BART participants were also analysed. The results showed that those with longer future-sightedness were less likely to take the risk of fully inflating the balloon.

Another study analysed for future sightedness based on Twitter profiles associated with a particular state in the United States.

They measured a state’s risk-taking behaviour by using publicly available statistics such as seat-belt compliance rates, drunken driving rates and teen-aged pregnancy rates and shows that shorter future sightedness based on tweets from individual states was closely related to higher rates of risky behaviour similar to results from individual experiments.

To measure a state’s investment behaviour, the researchers used state statistics for spending on state parks, pre-kindergarten education, highways and education. They found that states that invested heavily were associated with tweets from individuals with longer future sightedness.

The psychologists believe that Twitter’s demographics are not that far off from the general population in terms of gender, economic status and education levels including the percentages of Twitter users living in rural, urban and suburban areas.

The results of this study suggest that people who think far into the future make a variety of future-orientated decisions such as investing in the future or avoiding future harms. This future thinking may affect decisions by making the future more connected to the present.

The studies also show how big data methods can be applied to naturalistic data found on social media to uncover underlying psychological processes and understand how people actually think and behave.

Source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences


Meena Azzollini

Meena is passionate about holistic wellbeing, alternative healing, health and personal power and uses words to craft engaging feature articles to convey her knowledge and passion. She is a freelance writer and content creator from Adelaide, Australia, who draws inspiration from family, travel and her love for books and reading.

A yoga practitioner and a strong believer in positive thinking, Meena is also a mum to a very active young boy. In her spare time, she loves to read and whip up delicious meals. She also loves the smell of freshly made coffee and can’t ever resist a cheesecake. And she gets tickled pink by anything funny!