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They don't give us any estimates of effect size. So I've calculated the standard deviations, assuming that the standard errors they give were determined on the basis of 13 subjects times 12 narratives per category, for N=156. If this is correct, then the effect sizes for time to peak are moderate to large-ish — the average time-to-peak difference between CSP and CPP was 1.66 seconds, d=0.36; the average difference between AS and CPP was 3.53 seconds, d=0.71). The effect sizes for duration are small to moderate (a mean difference between AS and and CPP of 0.55 seconds, d=0.05, and a mean difference between CSP and CPP of 4.68 seconds, d=0.47).But wait, how did they test the way that Twitter and Facebook and TV News "numb our sense of morality and make us indifferent to human suffering"? Um, well, they didn't.OK, so how do these interesting but frankly underwhelming results suggest that "Using Facebook or Twitter may make you a bad person because it ruins your moral compass", as one news story put it? How did another reporter conclude from this research that "the digital torrent of information from networking sites could have long-term damaging effects on the emotional development of young people's brains"?Well, it all started with the press release by Carl Marziali, "Nobler Instincts Take Time", USC News, 4/14/2009.
Egged on by a rather fanciful press release from the University of Southern California media office, and a quote from a sociologist, the story was unstoppable. I got hold of the research paper, with some hassle. In a sentence, the study finds that the brain bloodflow changes which are observed when a subject is experiencing compassion for social pain peak, and dissipate, at a slightly slower rate to those seen with compassion for physical pain.It does not mention Twitter. It does not mention Facebook. It does not mention social networking websites. It makes - and I'm being generous here - a single, momentary, passing reference to the rapid pace of information in "the digital age" in the discussion section, but that is all. Am I a lone pedant? I emailed Prof Antonio Damasio, the senior academic and "corresponding author" on the paper. "Thank you for your inquiry. As you can see if you read our study, we made no connection whatsoever with Twitter. Some writers did make that connection but it is not ours." Where did it come from, I asked? He dug. "I found the press release from USC where the writer made, on his own, a connection to social networks. We, the authors, certainly didn't and don't."The connection to Twitter and other social networks, as far as I can see, makes no sense. I presume you will reach the same conclusion after reading our article."