Each year we work to avoid catching the latest flu virus or seasonal cold, but there is another epidemic and no one is immune — it's called emotional contagion.
Emotional contagion is a term psychologists use when emotions “spread” from person to person, influencing the moods and behaviors of others. We’ve all felt this shift. Ever had a day when you’re feeling good at work until your grumbling boss comes in, complaining and criticizing? Soon, you’re doing it too. On the flip-side, perhaps you’ve felt your sad, anxious mood lift when your spouse comes home happy and upbeat.
“The more you identify with a person, the more likely you are to catch the emotion,” says John Cacioppo, Ph.D., director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago and an expert on emotional contagion. “Much of this occurs and we are completely oblivious to it.”
Why emotional contagion happens
Contagion of all kinds is prevalent throughout our lives, says Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., a social psychologist and author of Succeed: Proven Strategies to Help Us Achieve Our Goals. There is evidence, for example, that people are inspired to pursue a goal when they see others accomplishing goals. We are also influenced toward healthier behaviors by our healthy friends and family members.
But emotional contagion is more subtle. Though we like to think we are aware of our emotions and even in control of them, our feelings can be dramatically affected, on a subconscious level, by those we are close to and by total strangers, Cacioppo says.
It happens, in part, because sharing emotions is a way of connecting with others. We tend to mimic and match moods, facial expressions and behavior to reach an emotional agreement, say Cacioppo and Halvorson. If we see someone grieving, we aren’t going to bounce in with good cheer. Instead, we shelve our good feelings to match the emotional environment in a show of support.
“Emotional contagion is very functional and has a good purpose — it makes our interactions smoother, it helps us understand one another better and it can be very motivating,” Halvorson says. “It’s really good stuff, but then you have all this collateral damage that happens.”
Consider the current economic climate. Even if you’ve not been directly impacted by the recession, it’s tough not to feel bad when surrounded by stressed-out people talking about job losses, home foreclosures and diminished retirement funds. We catch those negative feelings and carry them with us throughout our day, inadvertently passing them on to whomever we meet, Cacioppo says.
This happens routinely, with any situation, and that can cause big trouble for our relationships. If, for example, you’re unaware that you’ve contracted your boss’s bad mood, you’re more likely to misdirect those bad feelings at home toward your partner by complaining, blaming and criticizing.
But, with awareness and the knowledge that emotions spread, you can identify the root of the emotion and recognize it as a collateral feeling that you were infected with during the day. Then, you can refrain from passing it on.
Boosting the mood
Sometimes, though, sharing those negative feelings isn’t all bad, Halvorson says. In fact, it can be downright motivating. Political movements often begin when an individual “spreads” his feelings of injustice to others who can then work together to invoke positive change.
And, positive emotions can inspire and uplift entire populations. Have you ever been in the classroom of a happy, energized teacher or worked with a manager who believed anything was possible? It’s hard not to catch the spirit.
Just as we catch those happy feelings, we need to think about what we’re casting out.
“You have to be aware of the effect your moods are having on one another,” Halvorson says, “as both the recipient and as the person sharing your moods with others.”
This doesn’t mean you need to fake happy feelings if you’re down. It’s important and healthy to share sincere emotions. But, how we react to our emotions will influence how others feel.
“Our feelings are there because we need the cues and the information,” Cacioppo says. “But, we are not good at recognizing where our emotions come from. We don’t need to kill the emotions or eliminate them to have a better understanding. If we understand how our emotions cue us differently, then we can make different decisions.”
Developing emotional awareness