There have been any number of studies and papers down the years that have attempted to understand the seemingly random nature of human behaviour. As more of us have flocked online, the academics have followed us in a bid to try and understand better how things spread through a network of people.
Whilst there is far from any kind of consensus on how it happens (sorry marketing agencies), what is hard to dispute is that it happens in the first place. An interesting recent paper explores how something as simple as our mood can spread rapidly through our online social networks.
The study went through over 1 billion anonymized status updates from over 100 million Facebook users to see whether positive updates would encourage more positive updates (and vice versa).
“Our study suggests that people are not just choosing other people like themselves to associate with but actually causing their friends’ emotional expressions to change,” the researchers said. “We have enough power in this data set to show that emotional expressions spread online and also that positive expressions spread more than negative.”
Which is an interesting finding. There are enough sayings about emotions being contagious for us to appreciate how this can happen in the real world, but it’s interesting to see it replicated online.
The researchers used a snazzy piece of software to gauge the emotional content of each status update. To test their hypothesis, they waited for a trigger event, which in this case turned out to be a rainy day. Their data suggested that rainy days lowered the mood of status updates by a predictable, albeit relatively small, amount.
On these rainy days, they tested to see whether the grouchy posts from people in the rainy areas were affecting the posts of those in their network in sunny areas. To remove any potential for bias, they stripped out all mentions of weather related topics from their analysis.
It turned out that each extra negative post yielded 1.29 more negative posts amongst someones social network. More optimistically however, each positive post yielded an addition 1.75 positive posts amongst the network.
“It is possible that emotional contagion online is even stronger than we were able to measure,” the researchers said. “For our analysis, to get away from measuring the effect of the rain itself, we had to exclude the effects of posts on friends who live in the same cities. But we have a pretty good sense from other studies that people who live near each other have stronger relationships and influence each other even more. If we could measure those relationships, we would probably find even more contagion.”
With an ever growing number of organizations utilising enterprise social networks, this research should provide some telling insights into how a particular mood can spread rapidly throughout the workforce, causing spikes and troughs in the mood of employees.