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Twitter: Happy Christians and Surly Atheists

Monday, July 22, 2013
posted by Douglas Keene

atheist christian tweetTwitter is increasingly being used to assess the country’s mood following various major events. Researchers like it because it gives them access to huge quantities of tweets which contain feeling words or opinions or attitudes they can analyze to describe a sort of “national mood”. Researchers also believe tweets are uncensored expressions of mood/thought and potentially a more accurate depiction of how the tweeter actually feels than one would find in a self-report where you directly inquire as to an individual’s thoughts and feelings. It is now increasingly common to find reports on tweet analyses comparing political orientations, thoughts on major issues or events, and even on litigation in cases capturing the national attention. [From our perspective they seem to have a point. A point that would be made stronger if you had to pass a blood alcohol test before posting a tweet. Is there an app for that?]

So we should not be surprised to see academics taking a look at religious orientation and its relation to tweet content in Christians and Atheists. Specifically, they were curious as to which group was happier. If it is true that, as Karl Marx famously said, “religion is the opiate of the people” then it would follow that Christians should be happier than atheists. And indeed they were. (We should make a point here that Karl Marx never actually said that. He came close but it wasn’t exactly what he said.)

So on to what the researchers did. They looked at the followers of five Christian public figures (Pope Benedict XVI, Dinesh D’Souza, Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen and Rick Warren) and five Atheist public figures (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Monica Salcedo, and Michael Shermer). Researchers randomly selected 3,600 followers of each of these public figures and collected up to 200 tweets per follower. Altogether, they accessed 12,849 Christian followers (877,537 tweets) and 8,716 Atheist followers (1,039,812 tweets). Wow. Who knew?

Researchers examined the tweet content for intuitive versus analytical thinking style with a text analysis program.  Their logic was this–analytical thinking style requires critical thinking and skepticism and can negatively impact mood while intuitive thinking draws from “gut” feelings and may not negatively impact mood.

And here is what the researchers found:

Christian followers tweeted more religious words than did atheists and when they tweeted about religion, Christian tweets were less negative and Atheist tweets were more negative.

Christians had more positive emotion and less negative emotion in their tweets than did Atheists.

Christians tweeted more about social connections than did Atheists and this tweeting about social connections was statistically related to being happier (as measured by positive tweets).

Atheists were more likely to use “insight” words (i.e., analytical thinking) than were Christians and insight words were associated with less happiness overall.

When Christians did use insight words, it was to say things like “know” or “feel” and when Atheists used them it was to use insight words like “thought” or “reason”. Researchers saw this as Christians being more certain (and intuitive) while Atheists were more tentative (and analytical).

In short, the research found a positive relationship between religion and happiness. The researchers are quick to assert “these findings should not be taken to mean that religion is a prerequisite for happiness or that atheists are doomed to be miserable”. They suggest atheists could increase happiness by developing social networks so they are not socially excluded. Or maybe atheists could work up a solid plan for covered dish suppers. [Sorry. That was negative. But growing up as a minister’s kid, I went to an awful lot of church events, and back in the day it was all about the food. That made this kid happy–or less grumpy–about going to go to church. My favorite was Shrove Tuesday. Pancakes!]

Our own interpretation of this study is that those who identify as Atheists online and follow prominent Atheists and tweet are more likely to be defending their beliefs online as they will be targeted by believers and engaged in debate. A degree of defensiveness is usually attached to an exploration of what it means to be an ‘outsider’. They may also be more likely to target believers and incite debate.

Twitter users are not a random sample. They are self-selected group who, in some instances, use Twitter to engage in debate with others of dissimilar beliefs. We would be very wary of reading too much into research based on Twitter samples (even large ones like this one). On the other hand, when we see a prospective juror who is a very vocal Twitter user–that gives us good information to apply to voir dire decisions.

To be fair, the authors are conservative in their assumptions and point out the flaws in the research methodology. From a litigation advocacy perspective, our best advice is to be careful on social media with your own tweets/status updates/et cetera and to be conservative in the assumptions you draw about the character or mental health of others based on tweets/status updates/et cetera alone.

Ritter, RS, Preston, JL, & Hernandez, I. (2013). Happy tweets: Christians are happier, more socially connected, and less analytical than atheists on Twitter. SSRN Electronic Journal DOI: 10.1177/1948550613492345



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