Mind & Body

You're a Totally Different Person in the Morning, According to this Massive Twitter Study

Everyone's familiar with the way morning plans to get your work done on time and hit the gym somehow turn into a late-night slice of pizza bathed in the glow of your office laptop. Thoughts, plans, and even emotions predictably change as the day wears on, but a new study looking at hundreds of millions of tweets shows just how much that's true.

Tell Me How You Really Tweet

For a study published last month in the journal PLOS ONE, Nello Cristianini, Stafford Lightman, and Fabon Dzogang from the University of Bristol analyzed four years' worth of tweets posted from the 54 largest cities in the U.K. In all, their sample consisted of 800 million tweets containing 7 billion words, not including links, hashtags, or emoji. Next, they analyzed the words with a tool called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC), which categorizes words in "psychologically meaningful categories." For the Bristol researchers, that included a whopping 73 variables, including positive and negative emotions, "core drives" like power and achievement, personal concerns like work and death, and social concerns like friends and family, among many others.

Finally, they looked at how often each of these words appeared in each hour of the day. The patterns that appeared were stark.

When Old Midnight Comes Around

Some of the patterns were obvious: People were more likely to mention family on the weekends and food during mealtimes. They tended to tweet about how they were feeling around 7 a.m., time around morning rush hour, and work, risk, and money during the work day.

But the biggest differences happened between morning and night. From early to mid-morning, people were clearly focused on achievement and power. Tweets also had the telltale signs of categorical and analytical thinking: they showed a frequent use of nouns, articles, and prepositions, which other studies have linked to intelligence and education. This time of day also has some (perhaps obvious) contrasts between the weekdays and weekends: Moods are low when people are on their way to work during the week, but during the weekends, "this becomes a feel-good time," write the authors.

Then, starting in the late night and peaking in the wee hours of the morning, tweets took a darker, more existential turn. Words indicating anxiety, sadness, and other negative emotions were more common, along with talk about religion. Death-related words were most common at 3 a.m. Interestingly, "netspeak" was at its all-time high at midnight, and comparative words peaked an hour later.

This all makes sense, according to the researchers. Your body works on a 24-hour cycle known as a circadian rhythm, which controls things like your sleep cycles, your metabolism, and even your body temperature. It explains why you might feel refreshed mid-morning but need a nap in the afternoon. That's thanks to the production of certain hormones: Cortisol keeps you awake and alert while melatonin makes you sleepy. Cortisol production happens to peak between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m., right when this study found that people were the most analytical. It hits an all-time low in the middle of the night when melatonin production is ramping up. That's when people are most likely to talk about death and religion.

The big limitation to this study is that they couldn't control for who was tweeting when, since Twitter's terms of service require that the tweets be anonymous. It's possible that people who like to talk about death are more likely to log on at night and worker bees who like to talk about money are more likely to log on in the morning, but the hope is that the sheer amount of data — remember, this is 800 million tweets over four years — would overwhelm any difference in users. But even if you don't turn out to be completely different between morning and night, Twitter certainly is.

To learn more about circadian rhythms, check out "Rhythms of Life: The Biological Clocks that Control the Daily Lives of Every Living Thing" by Russell G. Foster and Leon Kreitzman. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Circadian Rhythm and Your Brain's Clock

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. The body's systems follow a circadian rhythm, which is synchronized with the rise and set of the sun. 00:37

  2. Humans are generally the only species who subscribe to a once-a-day sleeping pattern. 02:18

  3. Constant disruptions from our regular sleep patterns can be linked to diabetes, obesity and depression. 02:54

Written by Ashley Hamer July 3, 2018

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