facebook emotional contagion
June 16, 2014

Emotions Are Contagious On Facebook

Alan McStravick for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

The prospect of a highly contagious bird flu or antibiotic-resistant strain of some superbug that can be detrimental to health and even likely fatal are scenarios that are, as yet, unrealized and therefore only serve to worry those that think about them. Another very real contagion was just recently reported on by a research team consisting of social scientists from Cornell University, the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and Facebook.

The team found that we humans are very susceptible to the “emotional contagion” thanks to status updates and other news feed items we come across while surfing the social network. As one person is subjected to an emotion, their reactions tend to propagate out to friends and followers in their own status updates.

To arrive at this finding, the researchers reduced the number of positive or negative stories that appeared in the news feeds of just over 689,000 randomly selected Facebook users. By placing attention on both negative and positive notices, the team was able to show that the emotional contagion worked both ways.

"People who had positive content experimentally reduced on their Facebook news feed, for one week, used more negative words in their status updates," said Jeff Hancock, professor of communication at Cornell's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and co-director of its Social Media Lab. "When news feed negativity was reduced, the opposite pattern occurred: Significantly more positive words were used in peoples' status updates."

Their study, published online in this month's Proceedings of the National Academy of Science - Social Science is the first experiment of its kind to suggest that emotions expressed in an online social network environment are able to influence the moods of others.

In previous work by other researchers, the idea of emotional contagion had been observed in real-world situations. As an example, when interacting with a happy person, it can be an infectiously pleasant situation. Conversely, if a grumpy person challenges you with terse conversation, your sour mood will then affect others you later come into contact with.

Real-world contagions such as these require an interaction to occur and not merely exposure to one emotion or another. The researchers, recognizing the ubiquity of Facebook and other social network engagements, wanted to explore if online exposure to mood-laden text could change someone's mood in the same way a physical interaction could.

Additionally, the team wanted to know if someone being exposed to positive language in their news feed might not have the unintended but not unforeseen consequence of actually depressing the Facebook user. The depression, known as a social comparison effect, has been documented previously, where people, looking at the great experiences of their Facebook friends actually causes them to feel jealous and ultimately experience depression from having not enjoyed the same experiences.

The social scientists identified Facebook as the perfect environment in which to engage in their study.

Throughout the research process, the team never saw the content of actual posts. This fact was required due to Facebook's strict data use policy. The team instead counted the occurrences of both positive and negative words in more than 3 million posts with a total of 122 million words. In the study, they found that 4 million words were classified as positive while 1.8 million were considered negative.

According to Hancock, their results showed that an individual’s emotional expressions on Facebook were able to predict the emotional expressions of their friends. This held true for multiple days after the emotional responses were originally posted.

"We also observed a withdrawal effect: People who were exposed to fewer emotional posts in their news feed were less expressive overall on the following days," Hancock wrote in the paper.

"This observation, and the fact that people were more emotionally positive in response to positive emotion updates from their friends, stands in contrast to theories that suggest viewing positive posts by friends on Facebook may somehow affect us negatively," he added. "In fact, this is the result when people are exposed to less positive content, rather than more."

Hancock plans to direct future research into how the expression of both positive and negative emotions influence levels of engagement in other online activities. These engagements include functions such as 'liking' and 'commenting' on their friends posts. These actions could ultimately present findings that have implications for public health.

"Online messages influence our experience of emotions, which may affect a variety of offline behaviors," Hancock said.

This study was funded in part by the James S. McDonnell Foundation and the Army Research Office. Other members of the investigatory team include Jamie Guillory, a Cornell postdoctoral associate when the project began who now works at the UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education along with Adam D.I. Kramer of Facebook.

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