Facebook recently made headlines in light of a controversial investigation of its News Feed’s effects on users’ psychological health. According to Newsweek, the study manipulated the News Feeds of 700,000 Facebook users, separating them into two groups. “One [group] was subjected to a newsfeed of primarily positive posts; the other was flooded with emotionally negative items.”
The purpose, according to Facebook, was to examine the legitimacy and scale of what researchers call “emotional contagions.” In other words: How are users affected by the positive or negative feelings expressed among their peers?
The study, now published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, concluded that “the emotions expressed by friends, via online social networks, influence our own moods, constituting, to our knowledge, the first experimental evidence for massive-scale emotional contagion via social networks.”
Your emotional state is indeed influenced by the shared emotional states of others. And while the controversial Facebook study was the first of its scale to investigate the phenomenon via social media, many other reports on mood contagion — on social media and elsewhere — have been published in the past.
James Fowler, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, has conducted a great deal of research on emotional contagions. According to Reuters, Fowler has concluded that the “contagion” effect works both ways and operates on a larger scale than we might realize.
“If a social contact is happy,” says Fowler, “it increases the likelihood that you are happy by 15 percent. A friend of a friend, or the friend of a spouse or a sibling, if they are happy, increases your chances by 10 percent. A happy third-degree friend — the friend or a friend of a friend — increases a person’s chances of being happy by 6 percent. But every extra unhappy friend increases the likelihood that you’ll be unhappy by 7 percent.”
Fowler’s social media-specific research on the topic yielded similar results, with his March report suggesting that “online social networks may magnify the intensity of global emotional synchrony.”
On the basis of Fowler’s findings, Edge concluded that “Happiness, in short, is not merely a function of personal experience, but also is a property of groups. Emotions are a collective phenomenon.”
Mood is dependent on a number of factors, ranging from genetics to specific circumstances and events occurring within a person’s life. The element of collectivity continues to be a major influencing factor, and it is one rooted deeply within humans’ evolutionary psychology. According to Psychology Today: “From an evolutionary perspective, emotional contagion is essential for survival. For example, when threatened by a predator, emotional arousal spreads within a prey group and enables more of the animals to escape from danger.”
While emotional contagion may hold less relevance today in staving off predatory beasts, study after study continues to testify to humans’ effects on each other’s moods. The advent of social media has triggered an even more novel and widespread platform for human connection. With the proliferation of mood is more far-reaching than ever before, humans’ emotional synchronicity has grown to transcend geographical bounds.
Such conclusions are not only important in understanding our mental health but our physical health, as well. As Fowler notes: “Happiness has been shown to have an important effect on reduced mortality, pain reduction, and improved cardiac function. So better understanding of how happiness spreads can help us learn how to promote a healthier society.”
So next time you’re updating your Facebook, try sharing something happy — science says it could make someone’s day.
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