07/07/2014 09:11 am ET Updated Sep 06, 2014

The Contagion of National Anger

Facebook and two university researchers have been criticized for a study in which the popular social networking site deliberately manipulated the news feeds of 700,000 users to test "emotional contagion," the concept that people can pass on their emotional state to others. When Facebook reduced the number of incoming positive messages from friends, the researchers found that users were less likely to post positive content. As one commentator put it, Facebook deliberately made people sad.

The study raises questions about the ethics of the researchers (the lack of informed consent from study participants) and the trust users can have in Facebook. Yet the results are consistent with considerable communication in our national life. Interestingly, some of the same people using the power of emotional contagion in the examples below have been quick to condemn Facebook for its unconscionable manipulation:

• Political advertising (which is overwhelmingly negative) is designed specifically to produce revulsion about an opposing candidate.
• The extremes on the political left and right routinely attack policies and people in campaigns designed to produce sufficient anger to stop (or facilitate) proposed actions and/or drive emotionally enraged voters to the polls on behalf of their candidate.
• The actions of many government, business, industry, religious, charitable, and not-for-profit institutions are the fodder for social media attacks designed to generate frustration, anger, and even hatred.
• Prodded by angry Twitter feeds, individuals rush to condemn others. Mainline cable and online channels, reporting what is "trending," propagate the negative emotions, often before confirming facts are available.

Emotional contagion works in part through what neuroscientists have labeled the brain's "mirror neurons." Their chief function is enabling us to unconsciously and mentally mimic the experiences of others. That is why one person yawning often leads others to do so. When this takes place, comparable emotional reactions can also move from one person to another. When we see others cry, we are often moved to cry as well.

The brain's amygdala, the source of empathy, also contributes to the ability to share the emotions of others. What the Facebook study suggests is that we don't even need nonverbal cues (e.g. seeing the other person, facial expressions, body movements) for emotional contagion to work. Words alone are enough.

There may also be an evolutionary aspect to the fact that negative emotions are contagious. Survival depended on our ability to attune ourselves to bad news (e.g. physical threats) and to pass it on quickly. And it has gotten easier to find bad news. In Innumeracy, John Allen Paulos suggests that the larger the geographic sphere we can access, the more likely we are to come across nasty, negative events. You may never have had a mass murderer in your town, but mass murders all over the globe can affect you emotionally in seconds, all thanks to modern technology.

Emotional contagion can, of course, pass on hope as well as hate, optimism as well as pessimism. Yet, at the national level, that seems less likely than in our local communities, where there may be more positive news reports, events, celebrations, and personal contact to generate positive emotions. Other than the joy many took in the U.S. competition in the World Cup and the way we came together in national mourning after 9/11, how many recent national events have fed positive emotional contagion? If it's reported nationally, the news is usually negative.

Has this contributed to the decline in trust in almost all institutions in America life (the military and law enforcement being the only two exceptions)? We cannot be sure. What we do know is that, in a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 63 percent of Americans think we are on the wrong track, and 74 percent in a recent Gallup Poll are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country.

Clearly, when the federal government or other national institutions do something wrong, it should be reported and addressed. But when we get only bad news -- or use our energies mostly to create and propagate anger -- the picture of our national life is unbalanced. While we may comfort ourselves that our local communities can rest immune from the emotional contagion that results, there is no guarantee that this is true. Foul moods don't necessarily respect geographic or jurisdictional boundaries.

We need an antidote when negative emotional contagion goes viral. Part of the remedy is personal. We need to realize how easily (and unconsciously) our emotions can be engaged. We need to develop the capacity to filter what comes in and use reason to check the accuracy of the messages we receive and our tendency to respond with negativity. This can be taught and learned, starting early in the school years. Part of the remedy is social. We need individuals and institutions with the ethical fortitude to refrain from feeding our national sense of despair for their own ends.

Emotional contagion is not always bad. Sometimes we need to get collectively angry, and when emotional contagion generates positive emotions, it can spur us to be creative and collaborative in achieving the hope that is America. But when it seeks to generate anger merely to criticize, condemn, and push ends for which no compromise is sought and no valid claims of others are acceptable, it propagates hate and despair. At that point, it is a virus whose only vaccine is the human reason already inside us. Sadly, it often seems, we are in need of a booster shot.