Psychology Melbourne Blog

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How heart-felt are your tweets?

Edited by Jill Wright,

Now might be a good time for a little social networking self-analysis. According to University of Melbourne psychologists and their counterparts at the University of Pennsylvania, social media can serve as a litmus test of community wellbeing.

Their research, published in the journal Psychological Science, showed that Twitter tweets act as a psychological barometer, allowing them to predict elevated risks of heart disease, among other conditions.

The psychologists discovered that expressions of negative emotions, such as "hate" and "bored" and expletives in local community tweets were associated with higher heart disease risk, even after variables like income and education were taken into account. Positive words like "wonderful" and "friends" indicated lower risk.

The lead researchers, Dr Margaret Kern from the Centre for Positive Psychology, Melbourne Graduate School of Education and Mr Johannes Eichstaedt from the University of Pennsylvania, said that Twitter tweets could be a window into a community's collective mental state, aggregating information about people that can't be readily accessed in other ways.

They conclude that analysis of tweets showed great promise for epidemiologists. 

The study focused on a random sample of tweets made between 2009 and 2010, using established emotional expressions and automatically generated clusters of words reflecting behaviours and attitudes, to analyse a random sample of tweets made by individuals who had made their locations available. They then matched the data with health data from about 88 per cent of the US population. 

"We can't predict the number of heart attacks a community will have in a given time frame, Mr Eichstaedt said, "but the language may reveal places to intervene."

Dr Kern noted, “The world of social media is a new frontier for social science research.”

About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the APS Victorian branch Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.