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This article is the first in a series about Emotional Contagion.

When you see someone sneezing and coughing, you automatically recognize to keep away to avoid his or her germs. Is this the same case when you spot someone who is crabby and complaining? Studies suggest that you also may want to stay away from them because moods can spread just as easily as germs.

One person’s emotions can trigger similar emotions and behaviors in other people

Have you ever noticed that you feel happy around happy people? This may be true even if you may not have been feeling that way when you encountered them. Do you ever feel twinges of sadness around sad or depressed people, or anxious around anxious people?

We all tend to respond to others in this way because of a phenomenon known as Emotional Contagion. Emotional Contagion describes the process of how one person’s emotions and behaviors directly trigger similar emotions and behaviors in other people.

Emotional Contagion: How It Works

Convincing evidence supports the fact that emotions such as sadness, fear and anger, as well as positive emotions like enthusiasm and joy, are easily passed from person to person. This “catching” of the other person’s emotion usually occurs without either person realizing it. Even though we use words to explicitly convey information to each other, there is a parallel, subtler interaction taking place on a different level. The listener is “tuning in” to the speaker’s feelings.

Emotional Contagion researchers have identified a three-step process explaining how this transfer of feelings from one person to another person works.

Automatic Mimicry

The first step involves “automatic mimicry.” Emotional Contagion depends on an incredibly basic, even primitive, instinct. During a conversation with another person, we naturally tend to mimic and synchronize the movements of our companion’s facial expressions, vocal productions, postures and movements.

You wouldn’t be aware that your body is reacting in this way because the movements are so subtle. Biofeedback EMG machines, however,  can detect these subtle physical changes. EMG studies have discovered and demonstrated that automatic mimicry consists of unconscious micro movements in the muscle fibers of your face and body. They  are activated in a matter of milliseconds in response to your interactions with another person. Different muscle patterns, such as movements of parts of the eyebrows or the lips, have been identified that correspond to various emotions. If you were having a conversation while you were hooked up to an EMG, you might be surprised to find out that you have been mimicking the muscle-movement emotional profile of the person you are talking to.

Bodily Feedback

The second step pertains to “bodily feedback.” Neuroimaging studies reveal that those incremental muscle movements trigger the actual feeling in the brain. This happens by causing a specific group of brain cells, called “mirror neurons,” to fire. The mirror neurons activate the areas of the brain associated with the emotion of the speaker, thus conjuring up the emotion as if you were experiencing it naturally.

Combining the studies using EMG and neuroimaging, the evidence is plentiful to support the contention that people tend to feel emotions consistent with the facial, vocal, and postural expressions they adopt from the person to whom they are speaking.

Contagion Stage

The third step is the “contagion stage.” As individuals continue to share their experiences, their emotions and behaviors become synchronized. Thus, when you encounter a co-worker on a bad day, you may unknowingly pick up your colleague’s nonverbal behaviors and begin morphing into an unhappy state as the day goes by.

Of course, emotional contagion is not all bad. You can also adopt a colleague’s good mood, which can help you feel better and enhance your bond with that person. The transfer of emotions can become amplified if individuals are in frequent contact with one another and/or have a deeper level of intimacy in their relationship.

The scientific investigation of Emotional Contagion has shown that people do in fact frequently “catch” one another’s emotions. So, the answer to the question we began with is yes, emotions are contagious.

But this inquiry has led us to a much deeper area to explore.

Can Emotional Contagion Be a Tool to Spread More Happiness?

We can’t avoid  emotional contagion even if we want to because it is a universal human trait that is hardwired into our genes (and some other animals). It is constantly involved in determining our emotional reactions and behavior, for better or for worse.

If we learn more about Emotional Contagion and how it works, would it be possible that we could learn how to use it as a tool, like learning the piano, to improve our lives?

And, since this appears to be a two-way interaction in that our emotions get spread to those around us, by learning how to use this tool, would that enable us to spread more positive feelings to our loved ones and others around us?

If you would like to continue to follow where this inquiry is taking us, tune in to the next issue of Ornish Living.

In the meantime, pay attention to your interactions with others.

  • Notice how you feel when you are with different people and in different situations. Notice when you might be “catching” something.
  • Also, notice when you might be “spreading” something.
  • Keep some notes to help you stay conscious. Let’s work together and invite Emotional Contagion to emerge from the shadows.

How have you be affected by someone else’s mood?

Contributed by

Bob Avenson
Senior Faculty - Group Support

Friendship is when people know all about you but like you anyway.

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