No, it's not the same. Photo: Ken Piorkowski / Flickr
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Study shows people prefer pain to their own thoughts – except it doesn’t

"A few bored students gave themselves an unpleasant tingle, but most preferred to sit around instead." Snappy or what?

Take a few dozen students, stick them alone in empty rooms and ask them to do nothing for fifteen minutes. Wait! First connect up electrodes to their ankles and give them the power to zap themselves when bored. This is what researchers in America did, in a study that’s been widely reported – because zap themselves those students did. It looks, on first glance, like proof that people would prefer anything – even pain – to boredom.

Writing in the journal Science, the authors concluded:

What is striking is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid."

Sounds bad, right? Students were so bored by their thoughts they decided to electrocute themselves, with a shock so painful they’d previously said they’d actually pay money (money!) not to receive it. They couldn’t even last 15 minutes with inside their own head. It makes for a bleak conclusion – except, it’s not really true. Let’s take a look at what actually happened.

The experiment had two stages. Firstly, the 42 students rated a series of external stimuli from one to nine on how pleasant they were. These ranged from gentle guitar music and a photo of a river scene to a cockroach picture and a mild electric shock. In Part 2, they were told to sit alone in a room and entertain themselves with their thoughts as best they could. They weren’t allowed to fall asleep or leave the chair, but they had the option of experiencing one of the previously-given stimuli.

Over the next 15 minutes, 18 of the 42 students gave themselves at least one shock. The psychologists from Harvard and the University of Virginia didn’t publish any data on how the electric shock – or any of the other stimuli – fared on the ‘pleasant’ scale in Part 1.

Let’s make this clear. 58 percent of the students did not press the button. And even of the ones who did, they didn’t do it often – excluding the one outlier who managed to squeeze in 190 shocks within the quarter-of-an-hour. The average number of shocks was 1.5 for men and just 1 for women.  

In addition, the intensity of the shock was pretty weak: 4 milliamperes (mA) for men and 2.3mA for women. Participants were told the shock is designed to be “unpleasant but not painful”. This chart shows from the Centre of Disease Control and Prevention gives a bit of perspective:

Lodged somewhere between a "faint tingle" and a "slight shock", you can see it's a bit of a stretch to claim painful electrocutions. And as for saying that the volunteers would pay to avoid that pain, exaggeration again. After the participants had experienced the shock, researchers asked how much of an imaginary $5 they’d spend to not receive the shock, to which most people answered about a dollar. The pain was valued at a meagre 58p.

So what does this all mean if you're locked in an empty room with just a zapper for entertainment? If we're going to extrapolate generic conclusions from a really small study, let's at least stick to the results. Chances are, you're not going to shock yourself. And if you did, once would be quite enough. Not because you're scared of your thoughts or you're unhappy in your own company, but because when you've got nothing else to do that big button screaming 'shock me' is just too tantalising to resist - and when is anyone ever in a situation like this in real life? If anything, it's a surprise so few people did actually press it. 

The whole thing might seem like a huge non-issue, but in fairness to the researchers there's a lot of interesting stuff going on here. For instance, take a look at the gender aspect: two thirds of the men shocked themselves but just a quarter of the women did – despite being subject to a weaker current. It's certainly worth further investigation. But don't be fooled by the attention-snatching headlines.

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“A cursed project”: a short history of the Facebook “like” button

Mark Zuckerberg didn't like it, it used to be called the “awesome button”, and FriendFeed got there first. 

The "like" button is perhaps the simplest of the website's features, but it's also come to define it. Companies vie for your thumbs up. Articles online contain little blue portals which send your likes back to Facebook. The action of "liking" something is seen to have such power that in 2010, a class action lawsuit was filed against Facebook claiming teenagers should not be able to "like" ads without parental consent. 

And today, Facebook begins trials of six new emoji reaction buttons which join the like button at the bottom of posts, multiplying its potential meanings by seven: 

All this makes it a little surprising that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent a good portion of the noughties giving the like button a thumbs down. According to Andrew Bosworth, Vice President of Advertising and Pages at Facebook (and known simply as "Boz") it took nearly two years to get the concept of an approval button for posts off the ground.

In a fascinating Quora thread, Boz explains that the idea of a star, plus sign or thumbs up for posts first came up in July 2007, three years after "TheFacebook" launched in 2004. Throughout these initial discussions, the proposed bursts of positivity was referred to as an "awesome button". A few months later someone floated the word "like" as a replacement, but, according to Boz, it received a "lukewarm" reception. 

The team who ran the site's News Feed feature were keen, as it would help rank posts based on popularity. The ad team, meanwhile, thought "likes" could improve clickthrough rates on advertisements. But in November 2007, the engineering team presented the new feature to Mark Zuckerberg, and, according to Boz, the final review "[didn't] go well". The CEO was concerned about overshadowing the Facebook "share" and comment features - perhaps people would just "awesome" something, rather than re-posting the content or writing a message. He also wanted more clarification on whether others would see your feedback or not. After this meeting, Boz writes, "Feature development as originally envisioned basically stops". 

The teams who wanted the button forged ahead with slightly different features. If you were an early user, you might remember that News Feed items and ads collected positive or negative feedback from you, but this wasn't then displayed to other users. This feature was "ineffective", Boz writes, and was eventually shut down. 

So when Jonathan Piles, Jaren Morgenstern and designer Soleio took on the like button again in December 2008, many were skeptical: this was a "cursed project", and would never make it past a sceptical Zuckerberg. Their secret weapon, however was data scientist Itamar Rosenn, who provided data to show that a like button wouldn't reduce the number of comments on a post. - that, in fact, it increased the number of comments, as likes would boost a popular post up through the News Feed. Zuckerberg's fears that a lower-impact feedback style would discourage higher value interactions like reposting or commenting were shown to be unfounded. 

A bigger problem was that FriendFeed, a social aggregator site which shut down in April 2015, launched a "like" feature in October 2007, a fact which yielded some uncomfortable media coverage when Facebook's "like" finally launched. Yet Boz claims that no one at Facebook clocked onto FriendFeed's new feature: "As far as I can tell from my email archives, nobody at FB noticed. =/". 

Finally, on 9 February 2009, "like" launched with a blogpost, "I like this", from project manager Leah Pearlman who was there for the first "awesome button" discussions back in 2007. Her description of the button's purpose is a little curious, because it frames the feature as a kind of review: 

This is similar to how you might rate a restaurant on a reviews site. If you go to the restaurant and have a great time, you may want to rate it 5 stars. But if you had a particularly delicious dish there and want to rave about it, you can write a review detailing what you liked about the restaurant. We think of the new "Like" feature to be the stars, and the comments to be the review.

Yet as we all know, there's no room for negative reviews on Facebook - there is no dislike button, and there likely never will be. Even in the preliminary announcements about the new emoji reactions feature, Zuckerberg has repeatedly made clear that "dislike" is not a Facebook-worthy emotion: "We didn’t want to just build a Dislike button because we don’t want to turn Facebook into a forum where people are voting up or down on people’s posts. That doesn’t seem like the kind of community we want to create."

Thanks to the new buttons, you can be angry, excited, or in love with other people's content, but the one thing you can't do is disapprove of its existence. Championing positivity is all well and good, but Zuckerberg's love of the "like" has more to do with his users' psychology than it does a desire to make the world a happier place. Negative feedback drives users away, and thumbs-down discourages posting. A "dislike" button could slow the never-ending stream of News Feed content down to a trickle - and that, after all, is Facebook's worst nightmare. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.