Facebook’s Study Shows Why the Emotional Intent of Words Matter

All over the news this week is Facebook’s stealthy psychological experiment on users.

If you’ve missed the news, here’s the quick summary: Researchers from Facebook, Cornell University and the University of California “altered” the algorithm that determines what is seen in the news feed.

This change went into effect for nearly 700,000 users, divided into two groups. One group saw posts with words more commonly associated with positive emotions (“love, nice, sweet”) while the other group saw posts with more negative words (“hurt, ugly, nasty”).

Setting aside the moral question of submitting people to a psychological test they’re unaware of, the results are quite interesting.

The reality of “Emotional Contagion”

Published in a scientific journal, the results reported on the reality of “emotional contagion” in which your own mood is affected by those with whom you are associated (spend more time with “happy” people and you are likely to be more happy yourself, for example).

As discussed in this article:

Researchers have found that emotions can be contagious during face-to-face interactions, when a friend’s laugh or smile might lift your spirits. But what happens online? Facebook was trying to figure that out.

It turns out that, yes, the Internet is just like real life in this way. People who were shown fewer positive words on Facebook tended to turn around and write posts of their own that contained fewer positive words (and more negative words). And people who were shown fewer negative words tended, in turn, to write posts with fewer negative words and more positive words.”

Now think about what that means in your own life – at work and at home. What type of words – positive or negative – do you tend to hear more often? Words of praise or words of denigration? What type of words do you tend to use yourself?

Specifically in the workplace, I’ve heard numerous managers over the years comment: “I think criticism helps people learn more quickly. They need to know where they stand and where they can improve.” Criticism where needed is important, but weighting your words has deep value.

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3 ways this impacts the workplace

With this research in mind, we need to reconsider the impact in the workplace:

  1. What kind of culture and workplace environment are you trying to create (in your team or across your company)? If you want a positive, empowering culture in which others look for ways to support each other in achieving success, then the words that typically flow through the workplace matter.
  2. Are you providing a means for positivity to dominate your workplace? Changing bad habits or creating new good habits needs support. Social recognition, which encourages everyone to notice and appreciate the exceptional work of those around them (including the behaviors in line with their company’s core values), naturally facilitates a positivity-dominated workplace in which messages of appreciation and praise flow easily between people, across team and over regions/geographies.
  3. What do you tolerate from yourself and your own team members? This week, intentionally pay special attention to your words (verbal and written). Are you more positive or negative in what you say? Pay attention, too, to the body language of those around you. How do you see them reacting to positivity vs. negativity? If, for example, in a meeting setting, how do they contribute to meeting based on the type of words commonly used?

Consider the ratio of positive to negative

Keep in mind this research:

The factor that made the greatest difference between the most successful and least successful teams was the ratio of positive comments to negative ones. Top-performing teams gave each other more than five positive comments for every criticism, while the lowest-performing teams gave each other three negative comments for every positive one.”

What’s your own personal ratio of positive to negative comments? What’s your direct superior’s ratio? How does that affect you?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their company culture. As the Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek helps clients — including some of world’s most admired companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Intuit, KPMG, and Thomson Reuters — leverage recognition strategies and best practices to better manage company culture, elevate employee engagement, increase retention, and improve the bottom line. He's also a renowned speaker and co-author of Winning with a Culture of Recognition. Contact him at irvine@globoforce.com.

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