Investigators discovered positive emotions are much more prevalent on Facebook, rebutting theories that viewing positive posts by friends may somehow affect us negatively.
For the study, social scientists at Cornell University, the University of California, San Francisco, and Facebook, analyzed the way emotions can spread among users of online social networks.
Investigators analyzed the amount of either positive or negative stories that appeared in the news feed of 689,003 randomly selected Facebook users, and found that emotions can be spread both ways, an effect termed “emotional contagion.”
“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, Ph.D., co-director of Cornell’s Social Media Lab.
“When news feed negativity was reduced, the opposite pattern occurred: Significantly more positive words were used in peoples’ status updates.”
The research study is found online in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Science) and Social Science.
Previous experiments had demonstrated emotional contagion 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 three million posts with a total of 122 million words.
They report that four 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 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 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.
Source: Cornell University