'Emotional contagion' sweeps Facebook

Jun 14, 2014 by H. Roger Segelken And Stacey Shackford

When it hasn't been your day – your week, your month, or even your year – it might be time to turn to Facebook friends for a little positive reinforcement. According to a new study by social scientists at Cornell, the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and Facebook, emotions can spread among users of online social networks.

The researchers reduced the amount of either positive or negative stories that appeared in the news feed of 689,003 randomly selected Facebook users, and found that the so-called "emotional contagion" effect 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," reports 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."

The experiment is the first to suggest that emotions expressed via online social networks influence the moods of others, the researchers report in "Experimental Evidence of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion through Social Networks," published online June 2 in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Science) Social Science.

Previous experiments had demonstrated in real-world situations – interacting with a happy person is infectiously pleasant, for instance, whereas crossing swords with a grump can launch an epidemic of grumpiness.

But those "contagions" result from experiencing an interaction, not exposure to emotion, and researchers wondered if online exposure to mood-laden text could change moods. They also wondered whether exposure to the happiness of others may actually be depressing, producing a social comparison effect.

Facebook, with more than 1.3 billion users of every emotive disposition, and its news feed feature – in which a constantly tweaked, Facebook-controlled ranking algorithm regularly filters posts, stories and activities enjoyed by friends – proved an ideal place to start.

Researchers never saw the content of actual posts, per Facebook's data use policy; instead, they counted only the occurrence of positive and negative words in more than 3 million posts with a total of 122 million words. They report that 4 million of those words were "positive" and 1.8 million were "negative."

Hancock said peoples' emotional expressions on Facebook predicted their friends' emotional expressions, even days later.

"We also observed a withdrawal effect: People who were exposed to fewer emotional posts in their 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 expressions of positive and negative emotions influence levels of engagement in other online activities, such as liking and commenting on posts.

He said the findings could have implications for public health.

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

Explore further: Facebook emotions can be 'viral' but aren't very contagious, study finds

More information: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2014; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1320040111

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User comments : 7

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alfie_null
5 / 5 (3) Jun 14, 2014
In light of Eugene Goostman, that Turing Test winner, Facebook might consider using Eugene clones to introduce synthetic friends into its network. Unwittingly friending virtual Eugenes, people (real people) would hang out on Facebook more often, for greater lengths of time, because it makes them feel so good.

Hmmm. Kind of dystopian. A milestone might be when lonely souls are sustained with nothing but virtual friends.
BSD
5 / 5 (3) Jun 14, 2014
Is there any real use for Facebook? I can't think of one.
Doug_Huffman
5 / 5 (4) Jun 14, 2014
Is there any real use for Facebook? I can't think of one.
It's a honeypot for the compliant and credulous.
Jantoo
1 / 5 (4) Jun 14, 2014
Which is why we shouldn't do the Facebook from PO forum: I mean all these mindless (un)liking: upvoting/downvoting, name calling, joking and meme spreading and mafian coalitions in trolling and stalking the other users. All of it kills the matter of fact discussion in its very consequences. In particular, I don't like the anonymous voting system, because it opens the space for voting trolls and it replaces the need of argumentation: the clicking the asterisk is so seductive and easy! There are a much better ways, how to realize and utilize the voting system, not only at the Facebook.
Sinister1812
4 / 5 (2) Jun 14, 2014
Facebook doesn't have enough drama already.

Sounds a little like a paid advertisement.
Captain Stumpy
5 / 5 (4) Jun 14, 2014
Is there any real use for Facebook? I can't think of one.
It's a honeypot for the compliant and credulous.
@Doug_Huffman
or a replacement for those who are socially inept
this (article) is just another way of saying that having friends and sharing with them the good and the bad makes life easier
Sounds a little like a paid advertisement.
@Sinister1812
it does, a little, doesn't it? maybe this is how they decided to refresh their static/declining growth numbers and bring their popularity back up to former growth rates?

Dr_toad
Jun 14, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Sinister1812
5 / 5 (1) Jun 14, 2014
@Sinister1812
it does, a little, doesn't it? maybe this is how they decided to refresh their static/declining growth numbers and bring their popularity back up to former growth rates?


@Captain_Stumpy
Haha, yeah you're right. The last I heard, Facebook was losing users. And now they say it's growing in popularity? Maybe this is an ad lol!