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Emotional contagion occurs on Facebook

Harold Mandel's picture

The way we live our lives and see the world has dramatically changed due to social networking on Facebook. Facebook appears to also be offering a new way to share emotions with other people. In fact new research shows there is evidence of a massive emotional contagion occurring through social networks.

Emotional contagion occurs without direct interaction

There is experimental evidence which has emerged of a large scale emotional contagion through social networks reported the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers have shown via an extensive experiment on Facebook that emotional states can actually be transferred to others via emotional contagion. This phenomenon leads people to experience the same emotions without actually being aware of this. The researchers have provided experimental evidence that this emotional contagion occurs without direct interaction between people and without nonverbal cues.

In laboratory experiments emotional contagion has been well established with people transferring positive and negative emotions to others. Although controversial, some data has suggested that longer-lasting moods such as depression and happiness can be transferred through networks. Researchers checked out whether people who use Facebook experience emotional contagion outside of in-person interaction between individuals.

For this Facebook study the amount of emotional content in the news feed was reduced. It was observed that when positive expressions were decreased, people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts. And when negative expressions were decreased, the opposite pattern was observed. It is indicated by these results that emotions which are expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions.

Massive scale contagion via social networks

This observation constitutes experimental evidence for massive scale contagion via social networks.
It is also suggested by this work that in contrast to prevailing assumptions, in-person interaction and nonverbal cues are not absolutely necessary for emotional contagion. Furthermore, it appears the observation of someone else's positive experiences constitutes a positive experience for people.

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It really does appear that emotional contagion sweeps through Facebook reported Cornell University in a discussion of this research. When things haven't been going well for awhile it might be a good idea to turn to your friends on Facebook for some positive reinforcement. Social scientists at Cornell, the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and Facebook, say their research shows emotions can spread between users of online social networks.

The emotional contagion effect works in both directions

When the researchers decreased the amount of either positive or negative stories which appeared in the news feed of 689,003 randomly selected Facebook users, they observed that the emotional contagion effect worked in both directions. Jeff Hancock, professor of communication at Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and co-director of its Social Media Lab, said people who had positive content experimentally decreased on their Facebook news feed, for one week, began to use more negative words in their status updates. And when news feed negativity was decreased, the opposite pattern occurred with significantly more positive words being used in peoples’ status updates.

The researchers have said this experiment has been the first to suggest that emotions which are expressed via online social networks influence the moods of others. In previous experiments emotional contagion was demonstrated in real world situations. It's been classically observed that interacting with a happy person is infectiously pleasant, while interacting with an unhappy person is infectiously unpleasant. Those type of contagions result from experiencing an interaction, not just exposure to emotion. The researchers wondered if online exposure to mood loaded text could change moods.

Messages online may influence our experience of emotions

Hancock has commented that even days later peoples’ emotional expressions on Facebook predicted their friends’ emotional expressions. There was also a withdrawal effect observed. People were less expressive overall on the following day when they were exposed to a decreased number of emotional posts in their news feed. It is the position of Hancock that messages online influence our experience of emotions, which may also affect a variety of offline behaviors.

The finding that emotions are shared on Facebook opens up significant considerations of the impact of social networking on our mental health. In view of the extensive reports on life threatening side effects from psychiatric drugs from the Citizens Commission on Human Rights and other human rights activist groups, the idea of being able to improve moods online via drug free manners on Facebook and other social networking sites is intriguing.

Of course there should also arise concerns about the possibility of negative social networking communications setting off depressive thoughts and even suicidal and homicidal behavior. In view of the fact that this research shows the emotional contagion effect works in both directions it is therefore very important to always have those with positive emotional content available online to counter potentially dangerous negative emotional content.