Facebook study says emotions are contagious through the social network. But didn’t we just say these are fake emotions?

Facebook manipulated what roughly 700k users saw in their feed and observed a correlation the positivity of posts people saw and what they wrote

Credit: Shutterstock

Credit: Shutterstock

We already know that the use of Facebook affects our moods, but how exactly does what our friends say online influence our own emotions? A study released earlier this month says that people can transfer emotions via Facebook (i.e. if your friends post happy statuses you are more likely to feel happy), but I question whether this study says anything at all about happiness. Rather, if you ask me, the study just shows that people are likely to conform to the social norms of their peers, and if the social norm is to post about how happy you are, other users will follow, and this may have absolutely nothing to do with users’ real feelings.

Researchers Adam D. I. Kramer of Facebook’ core data science team, Jamie E. Guillory from the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco, and Jeffrey T. Hancock of the Departments of Communication and Information Science at Cornell University on June 2 published their study titled “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks,” that said the more positive posts someone sees in their News Feed, the more likely they are to post positive statuses, and vice versa, the more negative posts they see, the more likely they are to post negative updates.

What they tested

The researchers manipulated what 689,003 Facebook users saw in their news feeds for one week in January 2012. Two parallel experiments were conducted; in one of which exposure to positive content was reduced and in the other exposure to negative content was reduced. The positive or negative charge of posts was determined by Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count software. The research determined that 22.4% of posts contained negative words, while 46.8% contained positive words. (Don’t worry, the researchers never actually saw the posts being analyzed for the study, which is in line with the Facebook Data Use Policy to which all users have agreed.)

All users in the study showed similar emotional expression before the experiment. Each experiment had a control group, for which a similar proportion of posts in their news feeds were omitted randomly. The results shows that when positive posts were reduced in the news feeds, the percentage of positive word in people’s status updates decreased by -0.1% and the percentage of negative words increased by 0.04%, and conversely, when negative posts were reduced, the percentage of negative words decreased by -0.07% and the percentage of positive words increased by 0.06%.

While these numbers are pretty small, they do show emotional contagion, the study concluded, meaning that the emotions expressed by our friends online influence our own moods. The study also showed that people who were exposed to fewer emotional posts wrote fewer emotional posts themselves.

Emotions at Face(book) value

Overall, the study said that emotional states can be transferred to others without their awareness without any direct interaction between people. However, I have to question whether we can take peoples’ statuses as true markers of their emotional states. Just last week I wrote a post about a video that makes fun of the difference between what we post on Facebook and what we feel in real life, So should we take this study at Face(book) value?

Maybe the explanation for the correlation is more about keeping up with the Joneses rather than feeling happy because your Facebook friends appear happy. In our competitive world, if someone sees their friends posting happy thoughts, why wouldn’t they too post happy thoughts just to prove that their lives are equally positive? And conversely, if someone sees more negative posts, maybe they too are just conforming with what seems normal to post on Facebook.

Moreover, if we look at previous studies about how Facebook affects happiness, we see that the more people use Facebook the more likely they are to be depressed, irrelevant of what content is viewed. And doesn’t this seem to ring more true than what the new study says? Who can say they haven’t spent a night at home scrolling through their feed and feeling depressed about their fear of missing out on all the fun? If this new study were true, when you stayed home and saw your friends posting about their fun lives you would catch some of their happiness, instead of wondering why your life was so much more lame than their lives.

However, one of the big takeaways from this new study is that Facebook has the ability to filter what you see in your news feed based on content. And while we can debate about how ethical this is, the truth is that you agreed to letting Facebook do this when you opened your account. And what is the difference between Facebook manipulating what you see and randomly filtering your feed? Facebook never hid any information. Users in the experiment could have gone to any of their friends’ pages to view the updates they didn’t see in their news feeds.

My takeaway on this is a bit different. What I want to know is why isn’t this a feature on Facebook? How great would it be if I could go into my Facebook settings and tell it what I would and would not like to see in my news feed? No baby pictures please, more pictures of friends traveling abroad, and less statuses with food pictures. And while we’re at it, take all the negative posts away also, I don’t want to see them.

Photo credit: Shutterstock, Facebook requests

Aviva Gat

Olah Chadasha and former finance reporter from New York City. Gat is a writer, runner and traveler who came to Israel for the good food and weather. She writes for Geektime’s English and global desk.



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