Feelings in the Air

Ever feel perked up after hanging out with a friend who's positively glowing with happiness? Or ever feel in the bluesy when your partner is mildly depressed? There's a name for that: emotional contagion.

Imitation: Not the Sincerest Form of Empathy

Emotional contagion can get in the way of real empathy.

The Italian team celebrate victory over England.

The simplest response associated with empathy is emotional contagion – literally catching an emotion from someone else. But the relationship between emotional contagion and empathy is not always positive. It may be that mirror neurons cause us to mimic another’s facial expression, posture and even movement - and that leads to the experience of the same emotion. As they say, if you keep smiling long enough you will feel happier. Whenever two or more people are displaying emotion it is likely that some degree of emotional transfer is going on and in situations producing strong emotions the contagion can be intense.

Take sport, for example. Tjerk Moll et al examined footage from 151 World Cups and European Championships focussing on the behaviour of players who had just scored during a penalty shootout. Players who openly celebrated their success apparently transferred their elation to their team-mates who were more likely to go on to win the match than more restrained successful penalty shooters. Furthermore, after the more jubilant successful shooter, the opposing team were more likely to miss the next kick. Makes you think about the advantages of playing a home game with the bulk of the crowd cheering around you. It’s likely that this kind of contagion has supported group efforts of all kinds over the ages from sports, to hunting and warfare. Happy cricketers share their joy and play better cricket and there is no doubting the indomitable rugby team spirit fuelled by the famously intimidating Maori Haka. Many kinds of groups are bound by rituals that stir intense emotions such as a well-loved hymn or a national anthem. Sadly, the greater the emotional contagion between group members the less empathy there seems to be for outsiders.

But when it comes to sharing the down times women are the gold medallists rather than men. Eran Magan and Paul Konasewich tested the emotional state of men and women after spending 8 minutes with a troubled friend. The women’s emotional states changed to reflect the troubled friend – but the men’s did not. Not surprisingly this can have difficult consequences and emotional contagion is a major reason for the burnout and depression associated with female dominated professions such as social work.

We’re also apparently very good at catching fear. This must have been an essential capacity for our ancestors, constantly at risk from large predators but there are many situations where fear is best kept to ourselves. Like many fears, dental fear can be passed from parent to child and America Lara et al found that the influence of fathers was important in mediating the transfer of dental fear from mother to child. It certainly works that way in our house – I send my daughter to the dentist with her father.

You’d think, from all this, that more emotional contagion would mean more empathy, right? Aren’t you more likely to empathise with someone when you can feel as they are feeling? Well, not necessarily. Joel Milner et al studied the response of two categories of mothers to infants crying. The two categories compared mothers at high risk of abusing their child with those at low risk. The empathy of mothers at low risk increased when the baby cried while the empathy of high risk mothers was unchanged. High risk mothers, however, felt more distressed, hostile and unhappy when the baby cried while the feelings of low risk mothers did not change in this way. High-risk mothers experienced less empathy but more emotional contagion than low risk mothers. So empathy is not only more than just emotional contagion – it may be something quite different altogether.

Check out these PT blogs for more on Emotional Contagion and Mirror Neurons.


Feelings in the Air