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This article is the second in a series about Emotional Contagion. Please read the first article here before proceeding.

The first article in this series, Is Your Happiness (or Sadness) Contagious?, concluded with a startling revelation: Scientists from a variety of disciplines have discovered that emotions are contagious. Yes, we have been “catching” other people’s emotional reactions, and we have been “infecting” them with ours, since we were born. All humans (and some animals) are genetically programmed with this phenomenon, known as “emotional contagion.”

Being able to interpret and react to the emotions of others is essential

Emotional contagion is a force of nature that has been silently involved in the shaping of human lives from the beginning. We have been unaware of its existence until now because the mechanisms involved operate beneath the level of consciousness.

New research around this phenomenon offers exciting new possibilities for us to consider. For example, our knowledge about how emotional contagion works can enable us to become more attuned to other people’s signals. This, in turn, can empower us to consciously use it as a tool to improve our lives.

The Evolution of Emotional Contagion

From an evolutionary perspective, emotional contagion is essential for survival. It began long before the arrival of the human species. Paul Ekman, a pioneering psychologist in the study of emotions and facial expressions, is most famous for his research establishing that nonverbal communication of emotions is a universal phenomenon. Through his study of facial expressions, Ekman substantiated Darwin’s theory that human emotions are an evolved, biological response. Our ancestors passed them on to us through the evolutionary process.

Current evolutionary evidence suggests that emotional contagion divided into two related branches at some point along the evolutionary path. The first is a system that is sometimes referred to as Primitive Emotional Contagion. The second is a more advanced system called Cognitive Contagion or Cognitive Empathy.

Primitive Emotional Contagion Vs. Cognitive Contagion

The primitive branch of emotional contagion consists of a set of processes that are largely automatic and are performed by the “old brain.” The old brain, which continues to serve us today, regulates basic survival functions and emotions. For example, this system allows you to experience sadness with another person even though you don’t explicitly know or work out the reasons why that is.

This is in contrast to the more recent branch that developed due to new capacities inherent in the “new brain,’ the neocortex. Cognitive empathy is distinct from emotional contagion in that it does not depend on mimicry. Rather than “feeling” what the other person is feeling, it requires you to make an explicit set of inferences in order to “know” what the other person is feeling and thinking.

Researchers generally believe that primitive contagion, the process involving mimicry and mirror neurons, is present from a very early stage in human infancy. Cognitive empathy arises later on in development.

Primitive Emotional Contagion

Emotional contagion most likely originated as a mechanism to aid in the survival of species. Imagine a group of animals around a watering hole. When one senses danger, it panics. Then other animals catch on to the fact that something is awry, and soon enough, all of the animals are concerned. As a result of a perceived threat, they may all run and hide. The same is true for a flock of birds taking off all at once because one of them gets startled.

Another primary evolutionary function of mimicry is to aid social survival. According to evolutionary psychologists, mimicry is a kind of social glue that binds people together. Emotional contagion enabled our ancestors to understand each other in a time before verbal communication. It appears to be a basic building block of human interaction — assisting in “mind-reading” (allowing people to understand and share the thoughts and feelings of others), and facilitating the coordination and synchronization of those interactions. In addition to collectively responding to danger, social animals need to coordinate movements, communicate about food and water, and assist others in need.

Just as our own emotions provide valuable information to others, the emotional expressions of those around us gives us a wealth of social information. Social communication is an important part of our daily lives and relationships. Being able to interpret and react to the emotions of others is essential.

After all, communication is more meaningful when you have the feeling that another person understands your feelings. Besides enhancing the quality of conversation among members of the group, it likely improved feelings of intimacy or friendship with other persons in the group.

The “old brain” continues to exist underneath the “new brain” in humans, so “primitive” emotional contagion continues to serve human beings in much the same way as it always has. As opposed to cognitive contagion, emotional contagion allows you to “catch” other people’s emotions. Studies show that emotional contagion most often occurs at a significantly less conscious level. It is based on “old brain” automatic processes and physiological responses.

Cognitive Contagion

Cognitive contagion is different from emotional contagion in that shared cognitions are not transferred via mimicry. Instead, cognitive contagion is passed on through the behavioral and communication cues of others. It is caught through the process of sharing judgments, ideas and thoughts. It requires you to make an explicit set of cognitive inferences to “know” what the other person is feeling and thinking.

There is an increasing consensus among biologists that cognitive empathy arrived with the evolution of maternal care in mammals. A caregiver has to be in touch with young ones and understand when they are in danger or trouble. It is highly likely that parents who responded to their offspring’s needs out-reproduced those who were cold and distant.

A Combination of Signals

Rarely do we see a face or hear a voice in isolation; rather, we take in many signals at once, all of which help us to perceive a single emotional scene. The focus of recent research on emotional expression has been to understand how these multiple signals work together. Social scientists tend to think the process involves perceiving other people’s nonverbal displays as well as their emotional expressions and behavior. To understand ideas, words are key. But to understand feelings, face-to-face nonverbal cues are much more important.

Our definition of emotion, then, will stress the importance of all the elements of the emotional contagion “package” in shaping emotional experience and behavior. Cognitive processes plus cues from emotional contagion can provide immensely valuable insights into others’ thoughts and feelings.

Understanding Empathy: The Key to Your Connection with Others

Our exploration of the way emotional contagion works helps us to understand empathy. Empathy is one of the most important abilities that help people understand each other’s situation, feelings and emotions. Empathy is critical for building bridges between individuals. It allows us to understanding each other’s’ complex emotions, gain a diverse perspective and leverage relationships for collaboration and progress. Because empathy is one of the best indicators of the quality of your relationships, it is the key to your connection with others and creating harmonious relationships.

Why do we need empathy? With an increasingly polarized and divided world, we need empathy more than ever before. Too often we are talking at each other, unable to listen without judgment, and unable to “step into the other person’s shoes” in order to understand their feelings from their perspective. A world without empathy would become chaotic and uncivilized. We probably wouldn’t survive it.

Steps Toward Harnessing the Power of Emotional Contagion

Our inquiry so far has identified three areas in which developing our skills will enable us to harness the power of emotional contagion, and use it as a tool to improve our lives and the lives of others.

  1. We can improve our ability to recognize, understand, express and manage our emotions, and also improve our awareness of how our emotions affect those around us. This is an important first step because the next two steps are dependent upon our capacity to feel and share emotions.
  2. We can work to improve our empathy skills.
  3. We can learn how to use emotional contagion in order to reduce our susceptibility to its negative impact. This can better help us spread positive emotions.

This series of articles on emotional contagion will continue with a discussion and practical tips for ways you can improve your skills in these three areas.

In the meantime you can begin by using these strategies:

  • Observe how you react to people. Take an honest, objective look at how you interact with other people. Notice how you may judge, stereotype, or otherwise put limitations on truly understanding who they are. Try to put yourself in their place. Be more open, receptive and accepting of their perspectives and needs.
  • Notice how you react to stressful situations. Do you become upset every time there’s a delay or something doesn’t happen the way you want? Do you blame others or become angry at them, even when it may not be their fault?
  • Think about how your actions will affect others – before you take those actions. Put yourself in their place. What impact might your decision have on them? How will they feel if you do this? Would you want that experience? If you must take the action, how can you help others deal with the effects?

How do you experience emotional contagion in your life?

Contributed by

Bob Avenson
Senior Faculty - Group Support

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

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