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Emotional Contagion

Image of a girl wearing a surgical mask. Raleigh Psychotherapy, counseling, Emotional Contagion, Katherine Broadway

Last week, I stumbled onto a magazine in a waiting room that gave me an “A-ha!” moment. The article helped me crystallize a concept that's quite intuitive, but that we don't often discuss. So today, we're taking a break from the series on parts so I can share this with you.

The concept is so simple that we take it for granted and often over look it: the idea that your emotions are contagious. Think about the last time you had a great day, and came home to a partner who was sad and depressed. What happened to your mood? Or what about the last time your boss was in a bad mood and managed to drag you down to that level as well. Or your workplace when everyone has “a case of the Mondays”.

Feelings are Catching

In case you want to look it up, the article is called “Emotional Contagion” and it is in the August 2019 issue of Psychology Today. In a nutshell, Elaine Hatfield of the University of Hawaii co-authored a paper which concluded that people frequently catch each other’s emotions. The stronger the emotion, the more emphatically expressed, the more likely it will be transmitted to another. She also found something called counter-contagion. Instead of matching someone else's feeling, we substituted a different feeling. This is particularly true with anger. The anger is definitely caught, then quickly replaced by fear for the purpose of self protection in the second person. Even thought it is a different emotion, it is induced by another’s emotions.

The salient point of this article is that feelings are contagious. It makes sense.

Laughter is contagious, as is the distressed cry of a newborn in a hospital nursery. We also have seen how groups of people have come together peacefully only to turn into violent mobs after a few angry participants stir the pot.

I saw this happen in my own circles as well. I was talking to a young man whose wife worked in a critical, demanding and unreasonable environment. He came home everyday to her anger and complaints, which would end in sullen depression. He found that if he wanted to talk about the challenges or joys of his day, he would be met with monotone responses and a blank face. He found that he was losing any expectations of fun and togetherness. He, too, became angry and depressed. When his wife got a new job, things changed overnight. She was suddenly energetic and wanted to talk, be active and go places. At first, he was confused but finally he caught the new energy and excitement.

How does this happen?

1.The cortical pathways for copying are activated.

Copying is the way we develop as babies. We mimic what we see in the adults around us. We are able to observe group behavior and fit in. The most contagious behaviors are those expressed by those closest to you. Being able to mimic those around you is how you become a member of your family and your groups thereby ensuring survival.

2.The dopamine system is activated.

This sets you down the path to expect to receive a reward. Once again insuring survival, by fitting into the norms of your group.

3. If you displease your group, the brain’s pain centers are activated causing the response, “I can’t stand this.”

Freud found that the avoidance of pain is a far greater motivating factor than pleasure. When this part of the brain fires, one desperately wants to get back into the good graces of those who are important to you.

To see this play out, let's take the example of James and Glenn, who are both friends and coworkers. James often comes to work tired and grumpy, while Glenn is usually in a good mood. When Glenn encounters James in his bad mood, Glenn's brain begins to warn him, “Be careful. Don't act happy - it will displease him.” Glenn's pain centers tell him that he has somehow displeased James, and if he will just be quiet James will feel better. There is a short dopamine injection in anticipation that James will cheer up. When he doesn't, that quickly fades. Glenn soon finds that he loses his energy and feels depressed. Unknowingly, Glenn is copying his friend's mood. He is unaware that he has been sabotaged by his survival system.

I've given you a lot to think about here, and I have another level to this "a-ha" moment. Next week, we will build on this idea by examining how physical proximity to someone can also affect our moods and behaviors, and what you can do to protect that good mood you started out with this morning.

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