Facebook Transfers Contagious Emotions


Facebook users may want to check their friend list. If a person has negative friends with posts that go viral, their friends will be infected with a negative mood, too. The bright side is that the cure spreads even faster, a positive post is even more likely to spread, a new study found. Emotions are contagious and Facebook users are transferring their feelings, affecting each other across the country.

Over one billion status updates were made anonymous, then studied, covering Jan. 2009 through March 2012. The results, published in PLOS ONE, come from over 100 million different users across all major American cities. Exposure to positive posts results in more positive posts, and negative posts work the same way and spread more negative posts. However, positivity is a better contagion, and the more upbeat posts are more likely to spread.

“We wanted to see if emotional changes in one person caused emotional changes in another person and that’s exactly what we found,” said UC San Diego political scientist James Fowler, lead author of the study. He is also a professor of medical genetics and political sciences at UCSD.

They tracked rainfall and watched to see if cloudy days Chicago would affect how Sand Diego friends felt about their day. “When it rains on you, you write more negative posts,” Fowler said, “but it affects your friends too.” There will be a “transmission” or transfer, of those emotions through Facebook as one or two people reading will take on these contagions emotions expressed within the post they read.

The focus was on rainy weather because it is correlated to negative moods. However, to remove any topic contagion, they searched only for phrasing that would indicate “sad” or “happy” so the spread of emotion could remain the focus. “We wanted posts where it is raining on you and it is making you write negative posts that are not about the weather,” Dr. Fowler explained.

Positivity appeared more the more effective virus. For each person with a positive status there would be 1.75 percent of that persons’ friends who then make their own positive status. The negative posts only spread through 1.29 perfect of their friends. Fowler suspected this was because Facebook itself was designed to promote the positivity. He pointed out that the “like” button with no “dislike” button was a good example. He mentioned they chose Facebook for this reason. It is a social media place based more on emotion than, for example, Twitter which Fowler considered, “more for spreading information.”

The authors say the results imply emotions could be rippling around social networks and forming a “large-scale synchrony that gives rise to clusters of happy and unhappy individuals.” These new online technologies may increase the synchronization by letting individual expression reach a larger group of people. There could be wider implications beyond just Facebook, the authors predicted there could be other ways of transferring contagious emotions which may be witnessed elsewhere. They project that political systems and even financial markets could be affected by “greater spikes in global emotion.”

By Whitney Hudson

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