In a study of 689,000 of its users, Facebook discovered the key (strokes) to happiness.

We show, via a massive (N = 689,003) experiment on Facebook, that emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness. We provide experimental evidence that emotional contagion occurs without direct interaction between people (exposure to a friend expressing an emotion is sufficient), and in the complete absence of nonverbal cues.

And the methodology by which Facebook and Cornell studied “emotional contagion”?

In an experiment with people who use Facebook, we test whether emotional contagion occurs outside of in-person interaction between individuals by reducing the amount of emotional content in the News Feed. When positive expressions were reduced, people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts; when negative expressions were reduced, the opposite pattern occurred. These results indicate that emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions, constituting experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks. This work also suggests that, in contrast to prevailing assumptions, in-person interaction and nonverbal cues are not strictly necessary for emotional contagion, and that the observation of others’ positive experiences constitutes a positive experience for people.

Emotions can be conveyed by words? In print? What an exciting discovery!

One methodological note left out of the summary: the study was conducted in secret. The users had not been informed that Facebook was rearranging the news feeds they received.

Facebook says what’s the big deal? A Facebook user consents to be used by the corporation’s “terms of service.” When protests to the study were raised, corporatespeak assured us the study was vetted in its “strong internal review process.”

One of the authors of the report issued an apology. Of sorts.

Some say if you don’t like what Facebook does, don’t sign up, or get off it (if possible). Which is fine. But don’t expect the emotional contagion, once unleashed, will be confined to Facebook users.

It’s not hard to imagine how this study might be used. Fortunately, Neighbor Zuckerberg is not the sort of dude who goes about manipulating emotions for fun, profit, advertising or politics.

Hey Mark, you won’t let the NSA in on this little game, will you?

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Mark Rabine has lived in the Mission for over 40 years. "What a long strange trip it's been." He has maintained our Covid tracker through most of the pandemic, taking some breaks with his search for the Mission's best fried-chicken sandwich and now its best noodles. When the Warriors make the playoffs, he writes up his take on the games.

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1 Comment

  1. It is my understanding that one important component of rigor in any test that purports to be scientific is that the subjects do not know they are being tested.

    Even when people volunteer for tests, there is usually a control group who are given a placebo in order to reduce the distortion that is introduced into peoples’ behavior when they know they are being watched or tested.

    If you do not want to be in the public domain, then do not participate in public websites, at least with your real identity. That is hardly a radical new discovery and I didn’t need to involve 689,000 others to figure that out.

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