Facebook has persuasive powers, but can the social network curtail bad behaviors such as smoking? That’s what researchers want to find out. A study in the most recent issue of Science magazine tries to figure out whether or not Facebook has the kind of power to help people change for the better.

It might sound Big Brother-like, but it’s more like helping good behavior go viral. Researchers are trying to “seed” good behavior and watch it spread.

The study’s author, Thomas Valente of the University of Southern California, explained to The Daily Beast how it might work:

If we’re able to scan all the photographs that somebody has up on their Facebook account, and we see that there are some friends that smoke and some that don’t, [then] we can figure out how to trigger communications across Facebook that say, “Look, you’re smoking and your friends don’t. You may think that a lot of your friends approve of your smoking, but they probably don’t. How can we generate some supports for you [that will] enable you to quit smoking?”

Valente noted that influence through social media is far from a new thing. Brands have been doing it for years, but now he’s wondering if the message can go from “buy this,” to “stop smoking.”

Jesse Singal, The Daily Beast writer, further elaborated on Valente’s goal for positive influence through Facebook:

Valente’s hope is that social-network interventions may not just stamp out harmful behaviors, but also change how the average person views the very notion of behavior in the first place. In the long run, network interventions could help shift people away from judgmental, stigma-laden responses to negative behaviors, Valente said — if you’re fat or smoke or do drugs it’s because of a personal failing, a choice you made — and toward a better understanding of how influenced we all are by the social worlds in which we operate.

Readers: Do you think Facebook influence can be used for good?

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