Professor Collaborates with Recent Ph.D. Grad to Publish Research Analyzing Pro-Social Messages

Dr. Katherine Dale and Dr. Danyang Zhao recently had their research paper accepted into the communication journal Computers in Human Behavior: Volume Ninety-One published online through Science Direct. The paper, entitled “Pro-social messages and transcendence: A content analysis of Facebook reactions to Mark Zuckerberg’s donation pledge” is a project that Dr. Zhao has been working on since last year. “This is an exploratory project that works as a humble start to examining some of the constructs in positive psychology such as self-transcendent emotions and character strengths such as hope, gratitude, appreciation of beauty and excellence in the intersection of social media and self-transcendent emotions,” Dr. Zhao says. “In terms of the take-away for us social media users, exposure to social media content that evokes our positive emotions such as elevation, joy, gratitude, and hope on social media can be beneficial to us psychologically.”

Dr. Zhao (pictured on the left) graduated from Florida State University this past August with her Ph.D. in Communication Research and Theory with a focus on Media Psychology. Dr. Dale (pictured on the right) is an assistant professor in the School of Communication with research interests in media psychology and content analysis.

The project came to life while Dr. Zhao was scrolling through Facebook and happened upon the news of Mark Zuckerberg’s Pledge to donate 99% of his Facebook shares to charity in an effort to advance human potential and promote equality. “I immediately went to Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook wall and saw an overwhelming amount of Facebook users posting comments, liking, and sharing his announcement. So I messaged my co-author Dr. Katherine Dale, an expert on content analysis, and persuaded her to work with me to conduct a content analysis of posts and comments that mentioned or responded to this event.”

Dr. Dale says “This project builds on work that we did as part of a research grant from the John Templeton Foundation. While examining other forms of inspirational content, Danyang became interested in the positive responses to the Zuckerberg donation announcement. It was a natural extension of our research on self-transcendent emotions because this post had many of the same characteristics of inspirational content we were seeing elsewhere. This project served as a sort of ‘case study’ of a naturally occurring online event, which allowed us to explore the way real people responded to the announcement.”

“During the first semester when I worked as a research assistant for a grant project on inspirational media led by principle investigator Dr. Arthur Raney, we analyzed a lot of the media content (including TV, movie, YouTube videos, and social media posts) that are considered inspirational in order to answer the questions along the lines of what are the features, elements of the content that possibly made the media content inspirational,” Dr. Zhao explains. “Working on this project sparked my curiosity about how social media users react to inspirational content on social media and how they express in public their emotions on a social media platform. Because you know, there are a variety of ways one can express their emotions on social media, for example, through posts, comments, content sharing, memes, and emojis. Emotions on social media can be powerful and contagious. Then one day I came across Zuckerberg’s announcement to donate a majority of his Facebook shares to charity. Based on the literature, prosocial acts like this are typical elicitors of self-transcendent emotions such as elevation and gratitude. Another relevant psychological process is other-oriented hope, a future-oriented thinking reflecting one’s interest in others’ welfare (Howell & Larsen, 2015). There has been very limited literature on other-oriented hope, however, I had been curious about how it may or may not emerge in response to a large-scale prosocial act.

“I hope our research will spark some scholarly interests and conversations on these topics so that we can advance our knowledge in these areas,” Dr. Zhao continues. “According to the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions by Dr. Barbara Fredrickson (Fredrickson, 1998, 2001), positive emotions broaden our minds, build our personal and social resources, motivates prosociality, and foster emotional wellbeing. It means that positive emotions may lead to our psychological wellbeing, prosociality, better community, and ultimately, human flourishing. This means that we can be benefited by sharing, posting, and reading more content that has the potential to evoke these self-transcendent emotions on social media. However, it doesn’t mean that we should avoid expressions of negative emotions altogether. We are humans, and expressions of negative emotions such as sadness and anger are considered as healthy by many emotion scholars and psychologists. So, I think it is more about how to manage our emotions in the world of social media. The more we know about the type of social media content and the psychology associated with the content, the better we can manage our emotions and mood efficiently when we use social media.”

Dr. Dale feels that the takeaway message is something that we should all keep in mind while interacting on social media. “One thing that I hope people take away from this research is that while there can be negative effects to social media use, social media posts can also elevate and inspire us under the right circumstances.”