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The Things We Do: Facebook Manipulates Our Mood

Roxanne Bauer's picture

When you smile, the world smiles back.”

We all know that smiling helps lift our moods as well as the moods of others.  Each time you smile at someone, you entice them to smile back.  But what about the messages we post online? 

Turns out, Facebook has been conducting a social psychology experiment on some of its users, and the results confirm what we already know… but in a surprising way.

In the experiment, Facebook manipulated the number of negative and positive posts appearing in the news feeds of some users.  When Facebook reduced the number of positive posts appearing in a news feed, making it feel more negative, individuals not only shared fewer positive posts but actually shared more negative posts, spreading the negativity they received. Conversely, when negative posts were reduced, making news feeds seem more positive, users produced fewer negative posts and more positive posts.  The study demonstrates the concept of emotional contagion (EC), the process by which a person or a group influences the emotions and affective behavior of another person or group through the conscious or unconscious induction of emotions. 

This builds upon an early study published in March that found that the depressing nature of a rainy day spread through Facebook, ruining moods for people not even experiencing the rain directly. "For every one person affected directly, rainfall alters the emotional expression of about one to two other people, suggesting that online social networks may magnify the intensity of global emotional synchrony,” the authors of that study wrote.

The Facebook experiment also suggests that emotional contagion is not limited to face-to-face interaction and can also occur via social media. This is significant considering people use social media to be informed and connected to their social circles and that simply observing the emotional experiences of others is enough to alter our own moods.

As access to information and communication technology (ICT) grows each year, the importance of social media will also increase. Globally, around 40% of the world population has an internet connection. In locations where Internet access is low or connection speeds are slow, rapid growth in the use of mobile phones and other devices promises has increased mobile broadband access. The International Telecommunication Union states that in 2014, “there will be almost 3 billion Internet users, two-thirds of them coming from the developing world, and that the number of mobile-broadband subscriptions will reach 2.3 billion globally. Fifty-five per cent of these subscriptions are expected to be in the developing world.”

“Online messages influence our experience of emotions, which may affect a variety of offline behaviors,” said Jeffrey T. Hancock, of Cornell University, one of the Facebook study’s authors.  While more research needs to be done on the topic, connections to public and mental health, social movements, and inclusivity seem particularly relevant.

The World Health Organization recognizes the potential of social media to encourage positive health outcomes, and community organizers already use social media to get people involved in their communities.  Ideas of justice can also be adjusted through debate and use of social media.  Storytelling and discussion about “reputations can enable organizational populations to maintain and strengthen their shared justice interpretations over time”, and “these shared interpretations may become expressed at a broader organizational level.”
Happy workers are also more productive. The results of a study published in the Journal of Labor Economics, claims to provide scientifically-controlled evidence that links human happiness and productivity. The study asserts that happier people are about 12% more productive.  Cary Cooper of Lancaster University points out that this finding from economists confirms what his fellow psychologists already know. “Working with big, longitudinal data sets, numerous studies have established the association between stress and lower productivity and reduced job satisfaction.”

So, if we know that emotions are contagious, people are using the internet and social media more and more, and that the practical implications of emotion are real, what should we do about it? 

Should we post happy thoughts to encourage productivity? Should health and community organizations push information and programming through social media to increase connectedness?  Should we all work to promote social justice by contributing to online debates? 

Personally, I find the Facebook study to be good news. It means we can all be warriors of nudge, providing information and goodwill to others online. What do YOU think?

Photograph by Marc Smith via Flickr Collection, available here.
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