How to Make Facebook Politics Less Painful Using Behavioral Design

I made just one innocent political comment, and it practically started a war. The conversation quickly escalated until my conservative aunt Karen was yelling at Chris, a left-leaning friend from high school. Once Karen stopped yelling, Chris responded with a thoughtful, tempered response—except for the thinly-veiled Hitler reference at the end of it.

In truth, Karen and Chris have never met in person, and they live thousands of miles apart; this encounter happened on Facebook (names changed for this essay). I have seen dozens of similar conflicts in the past few months and admit to shamelessly engaging in some myself. Yet, if Karen and Chris had met face-to-face, I think their conversation would have gone differently.

The social norms of in-person communication clearly don’t exist online, and Facebook is limited by constraints of design, structure, and algorithms—constraints that don’t exist in person. So, how can Facebook make politics less painful? Let’s take a look at four behavioral design strategies Facebook could use to facilitate discourse and help you avoid offending a good friend’s aunt!

1. Relationship Context

In the middle of a heated conversation, we sometimes forget we’re talking to a person, not a target. What’s worse is that most of the people we encounter on Facebook are connected to us within two or three degrees. Karen and Chris are just two degrees apart, with me as their mutual connection. Before emotions lead them to start verbally assaulting each other, they need subtle reminders: “Max likes and trusts this person…maybe I should give them the benefit of the doubt.” Facebook can do more than just indicate that I am a mutual friend; it can contextualize the relationship and make that information visible as the conversation occurs.

I’ve encountered this situation myself: As I angrily began crafting an argument in response to some woman I thought was “clearly irrational,” I realized I was going head-to-head with my good friend’s mom! This realization instantly diffused my emotions. I edited the “snide” out of my remarks and, while I still disagreed with her stance, we had a pleasant, productive conversation.

What it could look like:

2. Increase Visual Empathy

In a 2008 research study, radiologists were presented with photos of their patients as they analyzed x-rays for those respective patients. This tweak helped humanize the radiologists’ work, and, as a result, they felt more empathy toward their patients. To the benefit of the patients, the radiologists were also more meticulous in their analyses when presented with the photos.

While photos abound on Facebook, they seem to have found second-tier status in comments, as they’ve been reduced to a few hardly-visible pixels. Applying the principles from the radiology study, Facebook could make photos (specifically faces) much more noticeable. If the psychological effect from the radiology study holds here, larger profile images would encourage users to have empathy and be more deliberate and “meticulous” with their comments.

Current Facebook

Revised for Empathy

3. Emphasize friendship “triggers”

The last time you met someone new, you probably followed a familiar pattern of questioning: What’s your name? Where are you from? What do you do?

When we meet new people, we assimilate who they are within the context of our own personalities. We quickly filter through questions to determine how they are like us. The rote conversation veers off course as soon as we find a shared connection. “Oh, you live in Ohio? I grew up in Ohio…” In this sense, introductions are a methodical checklist to uncover shared interests, and research studies have proven that shared interests are the basis for friendship in online networks.

Unfortunately, Facebook interactions don’t often lead with introductions. Your first exposure to someone might be a comment that hotly contradicts your own beliefs, while the reality may be that you have much more in common with that person than you realize. When you hover over a name or photo in Facebook’s Newsfeed, a small profile box appears so you can see a mini-introduction to that person. However, information such as “9 recent posts,” which Facebook currently displays in the profile box, doesn’t seem very useful. Instead, Facebook should mention mutual friends (as it currently does) and introduce mutual interests. Isn’t that more friendly? Even something as simple as the heart icon in this example could have a positive psychological influence on users as they formulate opinions about strangers.

Normal profile box

Revised for mutual interests

4. Give Users More Control

A few months ago, I observed a particularly awkward Facebook conversation that escalated way too quickly—something we’ve all seen before. My friend John (name changed) shared a political opinion in a post, then a friend of a friend reacted with personal attacks, logical fallacies, and the whole arsenal of troll techniques. Rather than feeding the flames, John simply deferred, saying “It looks like we have different opinions, but more importantly I respect you as a person and your right to express your beliefs.” And that was the end of the conversation…or so I thought. Instead, the troll doubled down! More personal attacks, more flawed logic, and John was left wondering whether he should remove the post altogether.

A simple Facebook feature could empower users to more easily moderate their posts: disabling comments. This way, when Karen and Chris start arguing, and I begin to feel uncomfortable with how they’re talking to each other, I don’t have to remove the post completely. After all, it’s my post, why should I allow Karen and Chris to commandeer it? At the same time, I don’t want to delete their comments because I’m afraid they might feel like I singled them out. Instead, I could just disable comments. Facebook already allows you to turn off notifications for a particular post, so disabling comments is a natural step to empower the owner of the post.

Other platforms, including YouTube and Instagram allow you to disable comments, so it’s not clear why Facebook avoids it, and I certainly think it would be a useful feature in this context.

What Else?

These are just a few ideas to apply behavioral design in a way that might improve debate on Facebook. Do you think they would work? What ideas have I missed? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.


This article was originally published on TechCrunch. Thanks to Tookie Graham, Sagar Doshi, and Dustin Skinner for reading versions of this article.

What Most People Don’t Know About Behavioral Design

Editor’s note: I recently had the chance to speak with Susan Weinschenk, a behavioral scientist, author, and speaker, about her upcoming talk Habit Summit in April. (I’ll be attending Habit Summit and you can register here!) She’s had a fascinating career in behavioral design, as you’ll see in this interview.

Q: You’re the author of the book, One Hundred Things Every Designer Should Know About People. What’s one takeaway from the book that readers get most excited about?

Susan Weinschenk: I think one thing that gets people is they have never stopped to think about the important role of peripheral vision.

Read more

How to Conquer Crappiness and Achieve Glory

This essay offers a peek into my upcoming workshop, How to Achieve Goals Using Psychology and Technology, which you can register for here.

In the small college town where I live, one summer job is the clear favorite among students: door-to-door sales. Hundreds of twenty-somethings leave every year to make their homes in Minnesota, Texas, Illinois, New Jersey—you name it—where they’ll peddle a product or service to local residents. The popular products are home security systems and pest control. The summer sales routine is an all-out assault, as the salespeople canvas neighborhoods one door at a time.

Read more

The Secret to Creating Opportunity

Depending on your familiarity with the history of aviation, you may recognize the name of Thomas Selfridge; he bears the unfortunate distinction of “first person to die in an airplane crash.” This is his story.

Thomas Selfridge was a First Lieutenant in the United States Military and, in the year 1908, stood at the forefront of the ever-intriguing field of aviation. At the age of 25, he was a noted member of Aerial Experiment Association. He was one of the first to record a flight in Canada, and he had already designed his own aircraft, which he called Red Wing.

Read more

4 Ways to Be Less Distracted by Technology

When technology comes up in a casual conversation with a friend—whether you’re discussing Pinterest, Netflix, or the newest OnePlus 2 smart phone—we often joke about just how bad the addiction has gotten. Lately, I haven’t even been sure if addiction is the right word. Sure, there are people with serious technology addictions, on the level of chemical dependence, but the majority of us have little more than a nagging habit, understated by the fact that we love our technology so much.

Read more

The Simple iPhone Hack I Discovered to Achieve My Habit Goals

Last week I discovered a pretty amazing, simple way to track a habit on my phone—it’s a “habit hack” that has made a huge difference in my daily routine. Today I’m going to teach it to you. But first, some backstory. (Scroll down if just want the hack and not the background behind it.)

Read more

Tech Habits that Will Make You Cringe (and How to Fix Them)

Last night I climbed into bed around 11:30 PM, plugged in my iPhone to charge and swiped to the home screen to find my favorite alarm clock app—Sleep Cycle. But before I could get to the app, I quickly opened Facebook to see if I had missed anything. One of my friend’s had just had a baby, so I liked her photo, then flipped through a few more.

Read more

These 3 Apps Made Me Run a Stupid Marathon

Two years of junior high track and cross country were enough for me to put running for exercise on a ten-year hiatus. For me, running is painful, boring, lonely, inconvenient, and a long list of other negative adjectives. However, alongside this list, another list has steadily grown over the years: the reasons I need to improve my lifestyle. Here’s a snapshot:

Read more

How to Stop Checking Your Phone Like an Addict

On December 16, 2013, a Taiwanese tourist was walking along St. Kilda pier in Melbourne, Australia. The pier offers a beautiful scenic view of the ocean, so I’d imagine many tourists have their cell phones out to take pictures. As expected, this female tourist had her phone out too, except she wasn’t saving precious memories–she was checking her Facebook newsfeed. She walked along the pier staring at her phone, and it was the distraction that did her in. KERPLOP. She fell right into the ocean.

Read more
Older posts

Learn how you can apply Behavior Design 

Receive my FREE weekly articles with real examples of behavior design in practice.