3 things businesses can learn from facebook’s controversial experiment

You may have heard about facebook’s controversial psychological experiment in which they altered what some users saw in their facebook news feeds so that some users saw more positive posts than normal and others saw more negative posts.

The experiment is being slammed in the media and I honestly think the criticism is going too far, considering how tiny the effect was on the subjects.

But regardless of whether you like the experiment’s setup, the results are interesting and apply not only in social networks but potentially also in workplaces. Here are three lessons workplaces should take to heart.

1: Written communication is emotionally contagious  - so watch your email tone

The purpose of the experiment was to examine emotional contagion, a well-known psychological phenomenon that basically means that we are affected by the emotions of people around us. Spending time with happy people makes you happier, spending time with sad people makes you sadder, etc.

Many experiments have shown that we are affected by people we spend time with, but this is the first experiment to show that emotional contagion also happens through written words alone.

This supports the idea that we should watch our language in emails and other written communication at work, because the words we use can affect the recipients.

2: This could potentially snowball

The experiment showed that the subjects who saw fewer negative messages in their newsfeeds increased their own positive output AND reduced the number of negative messages slightly.

This means that increasing positivity in written communications could potentially have a snowball effect, because people who received fewer negative messages would then write fewer negative messages themselves.

Of course the opposite is true as well: Seeing more negative messages makes people write more negative and fewer positive messages themselves which has probably already caused a snowball effect in many workplaces.

3: Seeing fewer emotional messages made people withdraw overall

Interestingly, people who saw fewer messages with either positive or negative content shared less on facebook in the following days. Experimenters call it “a withdrawal effect.”

This is interesting because many workplaces tend to suppress emotions of any kind, which could theoretically lead to people withdrawing and being even less likely to express emotions at work.

The upshot

I want to make this very clear: I am not arguing for mindless positivity, of for outlawing negative messages or negative emotions at work. What I’m saying is that this experiment indicates that we affect people’s emotions simply by the words we use and we can use this knowledge actively to avoid having an unnecessarily negative effect.

Your take

What are emails in your workplace like? Noticed any patterns? If researchers were to run the same linguistic analysis they ran at facebook, what would they probably find? Have you noticed any effect on yourself?

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4 thoughts on “3 things businesses can learn from facebook’s controversial experiment”

  1. Hi Alex,

    Thanks for this digestion of the Facebook experiment. While I do not agree with their strategy, I do agree with you that positive communication makes a huge difference – both in business and in private.

    Since we write much more today than ten years ago (there’s statistics that say hundreds of billions of emails are sent every day around the globe), we need to focus more on our writing ability and on the quality of our words.

    A badly written email can hurt a lot as most of us have experienced (it happened to me twice during the last weeks that I felt aweful for several days because of some emails I received – and they were from friends). Very often, the authors do not realise that their words hurt the recepient. They simply type what comes to their mind and forget that the other person does not see their face and body and cannot hear their voice. These things, however, are very important during communication as they help us evaluating what the other person actually wants to say. Also, the moment when the recipient reads the email can be a bad one as there’s a time lap between sending and receiving.

    So, paying attention to what we write is a must. Remember the times when we still wrote letters by hand (I kind of miss this time). Letters were re-written several times until they were ready to be sent. Let’s do the same with emails, not only at work yet also in our private life. And if we do not know how to write what we want to say, we better use the phone or meet in person.

    Does that make sense to you?

    Chief Communication Stylist

  2. A coworker of mine has to job to collect the wishes and requirements of his apartment to form them into tasks for us developers. We techies like him. He sometimes includes jokes and stuff into the tasks, and when we talk with him he keeps his talk bullshit and buzzword free.

    During his annual performance review, he was praised because he has such a good understanding with us. And then he was scolded for his tone and told he should be more ‘professional’ when writing the tasks. The irony escaped his boss.

    I can’t really tell for emails, because 95% of the mails I get are auto generated.
    I use instant messaging a lot. I guess most messages are to the point, but some times when send funny stuff too. I certainly know which names I like popping up in my messanger. So I guess that counts.

  3. Thank you for breaking down the outcomes of the study and not just criticizing the study itself (which should have follow standard human testing procedures).

    I was reading another article about how we label people influences their behavior, I think it our friends put out negativity, they expect people to respond at the same level. As businesses that engage in social media, its so important to know how we’ve labeled our target audience, because it directly effects our tone.

  4. Never, ever send an email in anger.

    I would often take the receipients name(s) out and type my message and leave it in draft for a day before sending it. Usually after a day I would delete the draft.

    I worked in a company where sending flame emails was the norm. I would call or go see the sender. Not in anger but in deep concern. After a while I stopped getting those kinds of emails. They hated having me call or show up.

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