For Better Or Worse, Emotions Are Infectious on Facebook

A new study finds that both positive and negative emotions expressed in Facebook posts can have an exponential impact on others.


It was only a few months ago that Princeton researchers ignited social media hysteria by comparing Facebook to an infectious disease to predict its decline. While the panic was probably premature, a study from PLOS One suggests that Facebook may be more like an infectious disease than we realize.

The study, which used data from Facebook users between 2009 and 2013, discovered that both positive and negative moods can be infectious. While positive posts result in more positive posts, the same is true of negative posts.

“Each additional positive post decreases the number of friends’ negative posts… and each additional negative post decreases the number of friends’ positive posts,” the study says. It also found that positive posts had a stronger effect than negative posts, though the difference is negligible.

According to the study, the results could have larger implications for the emotional spillover of social networks. While the direct impact may be minimal, there is big potential for exponential impact with global consequences. Indeed, the researchers found that individual expression is impacted by what others within the social network are expressing.

These results imply that emotions themselves might ripple through social networks to generate large-scale synchrony that gives rise to clusters of happy and unhappy individuals. And new technologies online may be increasing this synchrony by giving people more avenues to express themselves to a wider range of social contacts. As a result, we may see greater spikes in global emotion that could generate increased volatility in everything from political systems to financial markets.

Still, the potential for increased happiness is also huge. According to James Fowler, lead author of the study and UC San Diego School of Medicine professor, understanding the relationship between social media and emotion could result in an overall improvement in public health.

“We should be doing everything we can to measure the effects of social networks and to learn how to magnify them so that we can create an epidemic of well-being,” he told CNET.

Image credit: NIAID

Publish date: March 13, 2014 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT