We get more engaged when our buttons are pushed. It’s no surprise that negative information captivates the brain and stirs emotions, you have to look no further than our news channels and newspapers. Negativity keeps the audience captive, in part, because the brain is wired to be more sensitive to negativity. Negative emotions are so salient and effective in seizing our attention because our survival has depended on them. The fear of a tiger, the disgust at the sight of rotten food – those negative emotions have been there to protect us. Now, we have a glimpse of what negativity does to our brains in the cyber jungle.
To investigate how emotions influence online behavior, a group of Slovenian and British researchers completed automatic sentiment analysis of nearly 2.5 million posts left on BBC discussion forums by over 18 thousand users. In short, they analyzed the language according to whether it was positive, negative or neutral. They discovered that most posts contained negative emotions and that the most active users in individual threads expressed predominantly negative sentiments. Participants with more negative emotions also wrote more posts. In other words, when it comes to the emotional content of BBC forums, the negativity reigns supreme and drives forum discussions. As the authors of the study observe, “the Internet transfers not only information but also emotions.”
In a separate study of emergence of the emotional behavior among Web users, researchers analyzed the emotional content of discussion-driven comments on digg stories from digg.com to better understand how emotions drive the behavior of the social network members and how individual members influence the collective emotional states. They found that avalanches of negative emotion triggered by a single post produced self-organised behaviour amongst users. “Dissemination of emotions by a small fraction of very active users appears to critically tune the collective states,” the researchers observed.
These findings should not surprise you if you have been a member of a social network or online community. Controversies, negative comments and flaming do engage members and generate even more controversy and negativity. But before we crown trolls as community engagement experts, let’s consider the implications of these findings.
In my earlier post, I discusseded the research by James Fowler, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego and Nicholas Christakis, a physician and sociologist at Harvard University, the authors of “Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives,” who also study how emotions spread across social networks. According to their findings, positive networks built on cooperation and altruism tend to thrive, while negative ones tend to dissolve. They also observe that people who smile in their profile photographs tend to have more friends and are measurably more central to their social network, compared to those who do not smile and who are likely to be on the periphery of the online world. Their research suggests that happiness is also a collective emotional state. So, what does this all mean?
Perhaps, to understand the collective dynamics of online interactions, we should also consider the purpose behind an online community, the reason for its existence. If you come to a website that aims at generating discussions around news items or stories, negative engagement may do the job. People come to those news outlets for information, entertainment, and opinions. They are not trying to build social connections and relationships. In this context, the brain is tempted not only by the negativity but also by easily-available opportunities for status enhancement, unfortunately, often at somebody else’s expense. With the prevailing anonymity and lack of social ties, constraints and repercussions, it’s no surprise that abrasive language, bad tone, and tunnel vision dominate the discussions. What you probably won’t find on such forums are creative ideas, novel solutions, collaborative fact-checking or problem-solving because they require more positive mental states.
Positive emotions tend to broaden our focus, enabling us to discover more tools and solutions to life’s challenges and ultimately making us more resourceful, according to the research by neuro-psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, the author of “Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive.” In contrast, when we experience negative emotions, our focus is narrow. This tunnel vision precludes us from switching perspectives and seeing creative solutions while positive emotions let our minds open, or “bloom.”
If you want to build a community where people would come to connect, nurture relationships, collaborate, actively learn, safely share, and support one another, then you probably want to manage the death spiral of negative comments more diligently. (For a discussion on how to deal with negative comments, hop over to “Spin Sucks.”) Is there an optimal ratio of positive comments to negative comments for a community to thrive? Dr. Fredrickson, for example, discovered that experiencing positive emotions in a 3-to-1 ratio with negative ones makes people more resilient and creative in meeting life’s challenges and achieving their goals. (You can find out your ratio and get other online tools at Dr. Fredrickson’s website http://www.positivityratio.com.) Perhaps, thriving online communities have their own pattern yet to be discovered.
So, what do you think? How damaging are negative comments to an online community? What would you do if a few members of your community were to start a death spiral of negativity, threatening the collective emotional stability of your group?