Two Emory psychologists analyzed more than 38,000 people’s tweets with big data methods, finding that people’s perspectives on the future influences their day-to-day decision-making.

Associate Professor of Psychology Phillip Wolff and Ph.D. candidate Robert Thorstad (19G)’s study suggests that causal links between an individual’s future sightedness, i.e., how far into the future their thoughts about the future extend, and their decision-making habits and risk aversion. The study was published Feb. 5 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).

“We live in this interesting age where we write incredible amounts of our lives on Facebook and Twitter,” Thorstad said. “We wanted to ask whether it says something about how you think.”

The experimenters used two types of in-person experiments to analyze a person’s future-sightedness and then compared it to the future-sightedness of their online content.

The researchers established a connection between future thinking and decision-making by showing that Twitter users who reflected “relatively far future sightedness” in their tweets took fewer risks than people with “relatively near future sightedness,” according to the study. Wolff and Thorstad found that people who are future sighted are more likely to invest in the future and avoid harmful risks.

Wolff and Thorstad analyzed thousands of tweets to confirm the link between future sightedness and decision-making by showing that people with more future sightedness are “likely to choose future rewards over smaller, immediate rewards,” according to the study.

To determine the effect of future sightedness on investment decisions, the experimenters surveyed people in person and asked them if they would prefer to receive $60 immediately or $100 over the course of six months. If the individual chose the $100, they would be characterized as future sighted.

Another experiment the authors used showed the effect of future sightedness on risk-averse decision-making using the Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART), a computerized measure in which participants could earn money by continually inflating a balloon. Participants were told that each additional inflation could result in the balloon popping. The participants would then lose any money that they had earned.

Participants in each in-person experiment provided their Twitter usernames to the experimenters, who classified their online future sightedness based on past public tweets. Those tweets were then measured against the decisions they made during the experiment.

The research suggests that risk-taking decreases if people exhibit more future sightedness in tweets, meaning that the “ability of future sightedness to predict decisions suggests that future sightedness is a relatively stable cognitive characteristic,” according to the study.

The importance of the study, the psychologists claim, lies in its explanation of how automated analysis of an enormous amount of social media text can measure psychological constructs.

“In the not-so-distant future, a computer can get that information much more rapidly,” Thorstad said. “For example, I can tell that you are [a] partier without ever tweeting about going to a party.”

Using Twitter as their evaluation media allowed Wolff and Thorstad to review how people authentically write.

“[People who tweet] do not seem to be self-monitoring,” Thorstad said. “Certainly some people’s tweets are composed and produced, but most of it is spur of the moment.”

Wolff and Thorstad studied the participants’ public tweets to eliminate observer bias, a phenomenon that results from respondents inadvertently providing incorrect or misleading responses due to the knowledge that they are being monitored or observed.

Wolff and Thorstad are now working on diagnosing clinical disorders through Reddit.