Science Interviews


Tue, 10th Jun 2014

Can bad moods be contagious?

Jorina von Zimmermann, University College London.

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Social Media AppsHave you had a bad day? Maybe you should think twice about posting a miserable status update on social media, because you might be bringing all your friends down with you.  

In a new study, researchers - including Facebook's own data team - have looked at the impact of seeing only positive or negative Facebook updates in people's news feeds, to see what kind of impact it had on their mood. It turns out that updates can be surprisingly contagious.

Kat Arney went to see social psychology researcher Jorina von Zimmermann at University College London to find out more... 

Jorina -   What they did is they used the newsfeed on Facebook and they manipulated it.  Apparently, there's an algorithm which sort of shows the newsfeed to people depending on what they like and they manipulated this algorithm so that for some people, only newsfeeds were displayed with a lot of negative content – so negative emotional words basically – and for another group, they did the same thing but was positive emotional words.

Kat -   People seeing really positive stuff in their newsfeed, how did that influence them?

Jorina -   They looked at the effects of reading those newsfeeds  on status updates and they found that the people who had received a lot of positive emotional content through the newsfeed, they actually had more positive status updates.

Kat -   And vice-versa for negative ones I guess.

Jorina -   Yes, so it worked exactly the other way around as well.

Kat -   Now this seems quite weird that just reading something, reading positive things from your friends will make you say more positive things on Facebook and vice versa.  How does this fit in with what we know about social networks generally?

Jorina -   It’s surprising that they don’t have any other cues, just merely text.  But it’s not surprising in a sense that networks have been shown to be spreading behaviour in various kinds of ways like, they’ve been shown to spread obesity, destructive behaviour, violence, anxiety on the negative side.  But then also, positive things like happiness.  I think there was a study and they found that happiness really spreads over networks.  If one person is happy, that can sort of influence on the people’s moods as well.

Kat -   So, you're saying basically, if my friends are obese, that’s going to influence me to become fatter and then if my friends are all kind of happy and thin then – I basically need to find some happy thin friends.

Jorina -   Yeah, that’s exactly what the research would suggest.  Just recently last year, they found that basically, people are influenced by 3 degrees and they called it “3 Degrees of Influence”.  What it means is that you as a person have an influence on other people by 3 degrees.  So, you influence your friends and those friends have friends who you can also influence via your friends and those friends can also influence their friends.  So, you can influence friend’s friend’s friends basically.

Kat -   To me, this seems really interesting that this is almost a whole new way of having influence quite a long way away.  And people said, “Well Facebook, it’s just for pictures of your kids or your dog, or something.”  This suggests that there can be real social impacts from social networking.

Jorina -   Yeah and this is sort of what the researchers say that networks are everywhere and they’ve become bigger and bigger.  Now, they span the entire globe basically.  I think they sometimes talk about global emotional synchrony.  So basically, they're saying that one event or like one emotion that one individual has at one point can actually influence the emotions of many, many other people.  Especially with things like Facebook that can potentially influence thousands of people.

Kat -   Are there any other examples of this kind of contagion going on on Facebook?

Jorina -   There's been another study done and they have used rainfall as a measurement.  So they checked the status updates of people depending on rainfall and found out that rainfall decreases mood and makes people quite unhappy.  What they found was that that will also influence the mood and the quality or like the emotional content of the status updates of the friends of these people who live in cities where it didn’t rain.  So basically, if it rains in London, and I've got a friend in Australia, potentially, my mood might get affected by the rainfall here, will also affect them even though the sun is shining and it’s 30 degrees.

Kat -   So in these experiments, the Facebook team kind of manipulated people’s newsfeeds.  Do you reckon I should start unfollowing people who just post miserable stuff all the time?

Jorina -   Yeah, that could definitely be a solution I think.  If you read negative things then even unconsciously, you'll probably be influenced by it.  So, if you decide to read the happy content, maybe that makes you happier.  My personal opinion is that, it works, just like that in the real world.  If you go into a shop and the shop attendant smiles at you, it makes you happy.  If you read something positive on Facebook about somebody who you care about, that will also make you happy.

Kat -   Jorina von Zimmerman.  You can tell us what you think on the Naked Scientists Facebook page.

Chris -   Positive comments only, thank you.


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You should not forget to mention that the effects in the facebook study were extremely small. So their practical relevance can be doubted. In other words: We probably wouldn't even notice this contagious mood effect. Me, Thu, 21st Aug 2014

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