STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We know many illnesses are contagious. Emotions are contagious, too, including anger. As part of our extended look at anger, NPR's Allison Aubrey reports on a strategy to stop it spreading.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Even if you're not aware of it, at some point today, it's likely that your emotions will influence someone around you. Scientist Nicholas Christakis says this can happen during the most basic exchanges, say on your commute to work.
NICHOLAS CHRISTAKIS: If someone smiles at you, you know, you smile back at them. That's kind of a very fleeting contagion of emotion from one person to another.
AUBREY: But does the spread of a smile go beyond the superficial? I mean, do the people around us really help to shape how happy, sad or angry we feel? This is a question that Christakis, who's a professor at Yale University, became interested in way back.
CHRISTAKIS: Could there be emotional contagion that's spread not just in a fleeting moment from one person to another but in a more sustained way?
AUBREY: To figure this out, he and his colleagues did a cool study. They documented the social interactions of about 5,000 people in one town in Massachusetts.
CHRISTAKIS: We were able to map out the face-to-face interactions that thousands of people had across 32 years.
AUBREY: They could show who was connected to who, from spouses and neighbors and friends to those who were just friends of friends. And they also tracked the emotional status of each of these 5,000 people, capturing their ups and downs with periodic surveys.
CHRISTAKIS: And we were able to show that as one person became happy or sad, it rippled through the network and affected not just the people to whom they were directly connected but also the people to whom they were indirectly connected. So that as you became happy, it made your friends and their friends more likely to be happy and so forth.
AUBREY: And it's not just positive emotions that cascade. Unhappiness and anger can also spread. Here's researcher Jeff Hancock of Stanford University.
JEFF HANCOCK: Negative emotions like anger are more contagious. People pay more attention to them.
AUBREY: This is part of what he found when he did a big study with Facebook. It included nearly 700,000 users whose newsfeeds were altered as part of the study. Some people began to see more negative posts while others began to see more positive posts.
HANCOCK: When good things were happening in your newsfeed, you also tended to write more positively and less negatively. And the effect was a little bit stronger for things like anger and sadness.
AUBREY: Now lots of us have seen this play out in our own social media feeds, especially on Twitter. Late night TV host Jimmy Kimmel pokes fun at angry tweets by having celebrities and professional athletes read aloud the mean things that have been tweeted about them.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE!")
DRAYMOND GREEN: (Reading) Draymond Green's jump shot is almost as ugly as his face - almost.
ANDRE DRUMMOND: (Reading) Stevie Wonder shoots free throws better than Andre Drummond. Now that's straight disrespectful. Come on, now.
STEPH CURRY: (Reading) Imagine the damage Steph Curry would be doing in the NBA if he didn't have such a girly name.
AUBREY: Ouch. We may laugh at these. But when you're on the receiving end, it can really be hurtful. And it also increases the likelihood that you will lash out in return. The research shows there may be a little troll in all of us, meaning if you read nasty messages and you're in a bad mood, you're much more likely to copy that behavior. Jeff Hancock says one thing that drives this is that when you're behind a screen, the rules of face-to-face interactions don't exist.
HANCOCK: There's fewer cues. So I don't see you, and that makes a little harder to view you as a person. I might not see how my actions towards you affect you.
AUBREY: This is what happened to a Twitter user named Michael Beatty. He lives in Alabama. He's 65, and he served in the military during the Vietnam War. Earlier this year, he got really ticked off when he read a tweet written by comedian Patton Oswalt. It was a negative tweet about President Trump. And Beatty says it touched a nerve.
MICHAEL BEATTY: So I did a knee-jerk reaction. And I sent him two tweets back.
AUBREY: They were snarky and sarcastic, and Beatty says he regretted them almost immediately.
BEATTY: My return to him was, now I understand why I enjoyed seeing your character in "Blade: Trinity" die so horribly.
AUBREY: It would've been so easy for Patton Oswalt to just ignore these tweets, but he did not. Instead, the actor scrolled through Beatty's posts and began to learn more about him. He found out that Beatty had some serious health problems. And after a long hospital stay, he was in debt. So instead of firing back, Patton Oswalt gave Beatty $2,000 to help him pay his bills. And he asked his followers on Twitter to show their support, too.
BEATTY: I thought I was dreaming and that couldn't happen in real life.
AUBREY: Beatty heard from lots of Oswalt's followers. Some donated money. Others sent well-wishes. Beatty says he was overwhelmed.
BEATTY: It was a cascade effect.
AUBREY: One act of kindness led to the next.
BEATTY: I realized that knee-jerk reactions to things - not the way to go and that getting me to stop and think about things - think about, how have I acted; how have I been; what kind of person have I been?
AUBREY: Instead of dishing out sarcasm and personal attacks, Beatty changed his ways. He says it was as if a switch was flipped. And Stanford's Jeff Hancock says the story reminds us of what we probably already know.
HANCOCK: There's lots of scientific evidence that when you are kind or express gratitude, you get all kinds of psychological benefits. It's good for us to be kind, and the story even tells us that. Beatty - you know, he says, I was in a really bad place.
AUBREY: And he was angry, but the empathy shown towards him made him want to be kind. He began to think...
BEATTY: People one on one are caring, generous, helpful. Politics doesn't enter into it. People are good.
AUBREY: He felt his anger fade away, and this showed up in lots of small ways. For instance, he used to have some serious road rage. But now...
BEATTY: That has gone away. I find myself now - if I know someone wants to get over, I'll slow down. I'll wave them in.
AUBREY: So the next time you're tempted to respond to an angry post, maybe take a step back, remember this story and remember that anger just leads to more anger. A simple act of kindness can help stop the spread. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF EL TEN ELEVEN'S "MARRIAGE IS THE NEW GOING STEADY")
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