Facebook and Psychology - Everything matters

Next time you feel like broadcasting some gloomy tale of woe on Facebook, you might want to think twice. Your friends could catch your feelings.

Psychologists have long known that emotions, just like germs, are contagious. People exposed to a person experiencing strong emotions may experience similar feelings, catching them through facial expressions, tones of voice or some other means. But now there is a new means of transmission -- social media.

Facebook data scientist Adam D.I. Kramer analyzed postings by about 1 million English speakers and their roughly 150 million friends in multiple countries on the social network to show that the words people use in their status updates drive the emotions of their online friends, even days later. Kramer found people who used emotionally loaded words like "happy," "hug," "sick," and "vile" in their status updates sparked similar emotions in later Facebook postings by their friends.

"Up to three days later, for people who use more negative words, their friends will also use more negative words," Kramer said. "If people are using more positive words, not only are their friends using more positive words, their friends also will use fewer negative words."

Kramer's analysis is not just an academic study of the vast amounts of data that underlie Facebook's social web. His work is related to Facebook's fast-growing social products and the advertising that powers them.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg studied psychology at Harvard and often talks about the psychological underpinnings of Facebook's business model, saying, for example, its photo-sharing service became tops on the Internet not because of software wizardry, but because Facebook filled a basic human need by allowing people to "tag" photos of their friends and share them. To build on that, Facebook has assembled a data science team that mines the vast amount of information contained in the relationships and profiles of the social network's more than 600 million users.

Kramer's study on emotional "contagion," which he presented at the 2011 annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, is an example of how people's online social interactions are increasingly important sources and tools for social research.

Other companies are pouring through data, too. Yahoo (YHOO), for example, has been using social sites like Amazon.com's Mechanical Turk, an online marketplace that matches freelance jobs with people looking for work, to study questions such as whether better paid people produce better quality work.

Facebook now tracks the emotional states not just of people, but of nations. Kramer also developed Facebook's "Gross National Happiness" index, based on a computer analysis of emotion-laden words used by more than 400 million Facebook users since 2007. The ongoing fluctuations in that multinational index, following events like the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, hint at the social bonds between societies.

"During the earthquake in Japan, many Asian countries showed a dip in their overall happiness," Kramer said, "whereas many Western countries were unaffected -- except for Chile, which just had a catastrophic earthquake" last year.

Kramer, 30, stands out as brainy even by Facebook standards. After growing up in a small town in western Massachusetts, he studied computer science as an undergrad and graduate student before getting a doctorate in social and personality psychology. His thesis was on "decisional procrastination," or why it can sometimes be good to put off decisions.

Psychologists still don't know, Kramer said, whether a person who feels sad upon hearing their friend Joe say his dog has died feels sad for Joe, sad for the dog, or is just mirroring Joe's feelings. But Kramer said emotion transmitted through status updates could not be mirroring, because that requires one-to-one communication.

The study found that for every negative word such as "sick," "petty" or "lame" Facebook members used in a status update, their friends used 28 percent more negative words on the following day than would be expected, based on their pattern of speech at other times.

One key finding, Kramer said, is that emotional states are not mutually exclusive opposites.

"You're not either sad, or you're happy," he said, of the mixed emotions people feel at any moment. "There are bittersweet emotions."
Facebook data scientists used an anonymous computer program to scan the status updates of about 1 million English speakers, searching for positive words including "thanks," "wonderful," "cute" and "sunshine"; and negative words including "angry," "worst" and "sucks." They then scanned the status updates of those people's roughly 150 million friends, to see whether the emotions were echoed by others, and discovered a pattern where negative and positive feelings were transmitted to friends for the following three days. Facebook's Gross National Happiness index is at apps.facebook.com/gnh_index.

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