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Emotional Contagion and Social Networks

By Roberta Attanasio

More than two decades ago, Gerald Schoenewolf described emotional contagion as a process in which a person or group influences the behavior of another person or group through the conscious or unconscious induction of emotional states and behavioral attitudes. However, “The science of emotional contagion goes back to 400 B.C., when Hippocrates, the founder of medicine, observed that some women seemed to transfer “hysteria” to one another. By the 1700s, researchers began to discover that people mirror the smiles and frowns they see on someone else’s face. In the late 1800s, German psychologist Theodor Lipps took the idea a step further, suggesting that this unconscious imitation was the root of empathy. But it’s only within the past several decades that scientists have begun to understand the dynamics behind such exchanges, finding that “emotional contagion” affects all human relationships, from marriage to business to professional sports.”

Photo Credit: olga.palma, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Now, in a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on June 2, 2014, social scientists at Cornell University, the University of California, San Francisco, and Facebook, report novel findings about the spread of emotions among users of online social networks.

The study (Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks) — carried out with 689,003 randomly selected Facebook users — manipulated the extent to which people were exposed to emotional expressions in their News Feed. Results show that emotional states can be transferred to others, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness.

Jeff Hancock, one of the scientists involved in the study, said in a  press release “People who had positive content experimentally reduced on their Facebook news feed, for one week, used more negative words in their status updates. When news feed negativity was reduced, the opposite pattern occurred: significantly more positive words were used in peoples’ status updates.”

The scientists 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, for a total of 122 million words. They report that 4 million of those words were “positive” and 1.8 million were “negative.”

Interestingly, 22.4% of posts contained “negative” words, whereas 46.8% of posts contained “positive” words, thus indicating that the number of “negative” posts on Facebook is about half the number of the “positive” ones.

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

Jalees Rehman reminds us that “The fact that the researchers relied on the general Facebook Data Use Policy as sufficient permission to conduct this research (manipulating News Feeds and analyzing emotional content) should serve as a reminder that when we sign up for “free” accounts with Facebook or other social media platforms, we give corporate social media providers access to highly personal data.”

One Comment

  • mgnd88

    This study has generated a lot of controversy, not because of its design or findings, but because of the unethical behavior of the authors, who used unaware test subjects (facebook users) without the type of institutional approval usually required for this type of studies. Finally, today, Facebook publicly apologized. The following is from

    Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg has admitted that a week-long psychological experiment affecting almost 700,000 unaware users was “poorly communicated.”
    As the Wall Street Journal reports, the company executive said: “This was part of ongoing research companies do to test different products, and that was what it was; it was poorly communicated. And for that communication we apologize. We never meant to upset you.”

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