One time when in Chicago I went to an improv theater performance. I’d had a busy week, and it was fairly late at night. I was tired and not that excited to be there. In fact, I’d been thinking of not going at all.
As the room began to fill up before the performance started, I noticed that almost everyone there seemed happy and excited. There was a buzz in the room. I found myself waking up, and feeling happy and excited too.
Research has long shown that emotions are contagious. James Fowler (2008) wrote about the spread of happiness over twenty years in one community. There were happy and unhappy groups of people in the network. Happiness extended up to three degrees of separation. People who were surrounded by happy people were more likely to become happy in the future. The statistical analysis showed that this was not just because happy people tended to interact with other happy people, but because people were more likely to become happy when they were around happy people. Even physical distance was important: those who had a happy friend within a mile were 25 percent more likely to become happy themselves. Those with a happy next-door neighbor had a 34 percent greater probability of becoming happier.
And it’s not only happiness that’s contagious. A 1985 study by M. J. Howes showed that people without depression who roomed with someone who suffered from even mild depression would themselves become depressed over time.
In the Fowler study, the effects of emotional contagion were seen in people who knew each other over time and were in physical proximity. What about the emotional contagion of strangers? Or people in a video?
Amy Cuddy of the Harvard Business School researches how taking certain postures can cause neurochemical changes in the brain. If you’re feeling sad, you frown, hang your head, and contract your body. What you may not realize is that the opposite is also true. Even if you’re not sad, if you frown, hang your head, and contract your body, then your body will release neurochemicals that actually make you feel sad. The same is true for other bodily postures and feelings. For example, opening the body with your arms and legs leads to feeling confident and powerful.
One theory about why emotions are contagious is that people tend to mimic the bodily postures of those around them, or of those they see in a video. This, in turn, makes them start to feel the feelings of the people around them, even strangers or people in a video.
We now know that people are affected by the emotional states of other people even in a matter of seconds. Facial expressions are particularly contagious, even through watching a video.
P.S. The improv theater was T.J. and Dave. And afterwards I knew why there was so much buzz in the room -- they were amazing.