Social media could be becoming increasingly angry because expressing outrage online garners more likes than other interactions, a new study has suggested.
A team of scientists from Yale University found out that "likes" and "shares" on social media could be "teaching" people to be angrier, because users learn expressions of moral outrage get rewarded with an increased number of “likes” and “shares”.
The research, published in journal Science Advances, assessed how the behaviour of social media users changed over time, analysing a total of 12.7 million tweets from over 7,300 Twitter users.
According to their observations, researchers found that the incentives social media platforms offer really do alter the way people post.
Users who received more “likes” and “retweets” when they expressed outrage in a tweet were more likely to to keep the trend going by expressing the same emotion in their follow-up tweets.
“Social media’s incentives are changing the tone of our political conversations online,” said Dr William Brady, a postdoctoral researcher in the Yale department of psychology and first author of the study.
“This is the first evidence that some people learn to express more outrage over time because they are rewarded by the basic design of social media."
So why do angry posts receive more likes?
According to Dr Audrey Tang, psychologist and author of The Leader’s Guide to Resilience (Pearson, £14.99) people could be posting rant-y posts in order to feel heard.
"Misery loves company, and sometimes when we’re in a bad mood we just want to be heard. So we put our rant out there and when it is 'liked', we feel validated," she explains.
"Julian Baggini, in his book 'Complaints' says that complaining (or ranting) is a social norm and some of us actually enjoy doing it – at least to each other – especially when it is about someone else,"
Dr Tang continues. "It can make us feel part of something, which again can help us feel validated."
Related to that, Dr Tang says, is how often we feel unheard.
"You do not need to have experienced deeply traumatic events to feel a sense of rejection, much less have it impact on your life," she explains.
"If we, as children, were always told 'cheer up', 'stop it', or we never had our feelings acknowledged, we can grow up with a need for acknowledgement, without really having learned the tools to provide this for ourselves."
As such, Dr Tang says some people will try different ways to receive what they are craving and – objectively – one successful way is to say something negative about others, or go on a bit of a rant.
Another possible reason is that we simply pay more attention to a negative post because our brain is hard-wired for negativity.
"The negativity bias occurs because we often learn more from negative events, and we are also able to keep ourselves safer when we are aware of the dangers," explains Dr Tang.
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More simply the popularity of posts expressing anger or outrage could be attributed to our hormones.
"The psychology behind why more rant-y posts are popular is because the brain releases dopamines when you experience pleasure," explains Aaron Surtees, a psychologist and hypnotherapist from City Hypnosis.
"More “likes" are exactly the same as "social rewards”, so people subconsciously want to put out content that gets a reaction."
Priory psychotherapist Pamela Roberts, tells Yahoo UK she has noticed an increasing number of people coming to her with anxiety and fear that can translate into blame and anger, and sometimes this can be expressed via social media.
"The anger expressed can be at levels that are truly maximised, and well in excess of that warranted by the situation," she explains.
“When a person’s mental wellbeing is affected, there is more depression and sense of helplessness, and some of the services ordinarily available to support them are stretched, including charities. It is much harder to obtain funding to keep services in the community going. People can feel no one is listening to them, and use social media for this."
How to stop the social media rage
Thankfully if you've noticed your social media posts becoming increasingly rant-y, there is something you can do about it.
Limit online time
"A starting point is managing your time online using social media – turn your phone to greyscale (in order to make it seem more drab), only have one tab open at a time," suggests Roberts.
"Have a digital detox - plan for a week perhaps, and organise to be occupied. You will notice the withdrawals, they will occur, but so too will the mental health benefits.”
Know your aims
For Dr Touroni the key could be making sure you know what you are trying to achieve when you post something on social media. "If you are complaining, then focus on what outcome you want to attain, and let that shape your comment," she suggests.
If you're jumping on a twitter-storm bandwagon, or pitching into a topic you don't necessarily fully understand, resolve to research before you post.
Think before you post
Additionally Surtees recommends practicing coping techniques if you're feeling inspired to post something that could be triggering for others.
"By practising mindfulness techniques and self hypnosis we can overcome a range of issues and feelings that might be affecting our daily life," he says.
"We can essentially re-programme the subconscious mind to feel in control of our mind and body so when you open your app on Instagram or another social media app you will not be triggered into feelings of anger or anxiety."
Practice self-calming techniques
He suggests practising self hypnosis once a day when you wake up in the morning by breathing slowly, softly and meditating for a few minutes every day.
"Make sure you breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth and concentrate on this alone. Focus on being in the present," he adds. .
"As you sit still breathing in and out slowly, imagine the feeling that is concerning you as a cloud in your mind and with your breathing pull it down into your heart, into your chest and then into your stomach. Then focus on pushing it back around into your arms.
"Once in your arms, use your breathing to pull the cloud down to your hands and then push the cloud out of your hands as though you are pushing the feelings away and letting go of the feeling. Your mind will feel calmer and you will have more clarity."
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