Users Unknowingly Increase Online Messaging When They Compare Themselves to Coworkers

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Being able to see how much your coworkers are using Skype results in an increase in your own Skype activity

A 2016 study shows that in an office environment, having access to information about coworker communication activity on Skype can cause users to increase their own activity on the social networking platform.

When given the chance to compare their own data about the number of messages they sent and received to that of their coworkers, people increased their communication activity.

Even though there was a clear effort to increase communication activity when given this comparative feedback, people were largely unaware of the fact that this effect was happening to them.

These findings support the theory that receiving information about performance and activity can cause users to alter behavior

The findings were built on a growing body of research surrounding the feedback intervention theory, which posits that receiving information about your own activity can cause you to alter that activity, either positively or negatively, according to a study from the American Psychological Bulletin. In the digital world, there are a variety of different feedback mechanisms. Being able to see the number of friends, followers, likes and re-tweets you have serves as feedback. With the sophistication of data management on the internet, feedback has become much more nuanced, such as when a suggested advertisement or article pops up on your news feed because of something you clicked on days or weeks ago.

In this case, feedback was simply the ability to see how the individual's Skype activity stacked up with that of their coworkers. With access to their coworkers' communication information, they could compare data about the number of messages they sent and received and see where they landed in a hierarchy of their peers. 

Researchers were able to show the impact of feedback by monitoring activity over three phases. The "A" phases came in the beginning and end of the study period when no feedback was available. During these phases, users were completely unaware of how their activity compared to that of their coworkers. In the middle "B" phase, however, users were provided a list showing where they placed among their coworkers in four separate categories. The ability to view feedback resulted in an obvious jump in all four communication categories during the middle phase.

Not only did all four communication indices jump up during the feedback phase, but three out of four went back down after feedback was taken away, indicating that the reason for the change was due to the presence of feedback.

This sharp change stems from our tendency to mimic the people around us

This study also hints at an important human behavior that goes beyond digital feedback and social networking. Our tendency to exhibit the behavior of those we interact with has been a research topic for decades, but only recently has the phenomenon been tested in online social networks. With growing opportunities for online interaction and the ability to record online activity, this concept of social influence can more easily be traced throughout a group of people on a social network. It also may explain why after seeing the communication habits of coworkers, the subjects in the aforementioned study started to increase their own activity.

When looking at the four communications categories listed in the chart above, we can begin to discern why workers might want to become more like their peers with higher scores. The study notes that each of the four online communication measurements corresponds to a very real behavioral index. The total number of messages sent or received is a measure of participation in the group. The number of messages received, or the "inward communication" as the study puts it, is really a measure of popularity. The number of messages sent, or "outward communication," defines the level of influence of a given subject. Finally, the number of times both people in a given pair initiate a conversation with the other one is a measure of the reciprocal nature of a relationship, or "reciprocity."

By analyzing the meaning behind these indices, it becomes clearer why subjects began to communicate more often and more effectively after having access to everyone's communication information. When given the chance to see how much more participatory, popular, influential and reciprocal their coworkers were in their communication, everyone immediately increased their activity in all four of these categories. 

While this increase in activity is clearly occurring, people are unaware of the effect that feedback is having on them

One of the most interesting findings of the study was that people did not realize that this feedback effect was happening to them. A questionnaire revealed that subjects did not agree with the suggestion that the feedback indices had any effect on the their own activity or the activity of the group. 

It is unclear from the study if this finding was actually a measure of awareness or denial. While it is undeniable that people responded to the feedback they were given, some might be hesitant to admit that they changed their behavior after comparing their own activity to that of their coworkers. As seen in the video below, while the respondent conceded that he might change his behavior, it became a question of how big the difference was between him and his coworkers.

This measure of effect awareness is critical because it determines how cognizant we are of the reasoning behind our actions. While the consequences for this current study were low, many examples from around the world and throughout history indicate that our inability to detect external effects on our behavior can be severely damaging. There is even a debate over whether or not the tendency to deny external effects is ingrained in our biochemical structure, which would leave us with little potential to recognize how and why we are influenced to take certain actions. 

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