Most people recognize that they can learn a lot about a person by paying close attention to the person's emotional reactions. Facial expressions, gestures, voice tone, rate of speech—all of these cues help us figure out how a person is feeling. Is he or she angry? Sad? Nervous? Afraid?
Yet, while we're busy focusing in on the emotional states of others, we usually don't pay much attention to something equally, if not more important—our own emotional reactions to these social encounters. Why is this so important? Because emotions are highly contagious, and if you catch a bad bug, the consequences can be life-threatening..
For centuries, researchers have studied the tendency for people to unconsciously and automatically mimic the emotional expressions of others, and in many cases actually feel the same feelings simply by exposure to emotions in social interactions. Studies have found that the mimicry of a frown or a smile or other kinds of emotional expression trigger reactions in our brains that cause us to interpret those expressions as our own feelings. Simply put, as a species, we are innately vulnerable to "catching" other people's emotions.
In the literature, this process in which a person or a group influences the emotions and affective behavior of another person or group through the conscious or unconcious induction of emotions is referred to as emotional contagion (EC). And although study after study has demonstrated what a powerful impact it can have on our relationships—domestic partnerships, friendships, teams, business relationships, and groups of all kinds—interestingly, we often don't realize how much our own emotions are influenced by the emotional states of others.
The important question is in what direction are your emotions being influenced.
Referring to emotions as contagious may connote a negative experience. However, this is not necessarily true. Being "infected" by another person's happiness or enthusiasm can be a very good thing. Researchers have found that when subjects "catch" positive emotions from others, they're more likely to be viewed by others and view themselves as more cooperative and competent. They also perceive themselves as more collegial (see the research of Sigal Barsade). Simply put, when you hang out with happy people, you tend to feel happier, have more energy, and feel less stressed.
Similar results have been found in team sports. When a team is upbeat, positive, and in an overall good mood, this spirit is transferred to individual players. Results also show that when teams are happier, the athletes on the team tend to play better (see the work of Peter Totterdell).
Some research even suggests that indirect relationships, such as those created by social media, can affect your happiness. Researchers Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler discovered that happiness spreads through social networks, much like a virus, which means that you can be infected with the happiness of someone you've never even met, and vice versa. Christakis and Fowler explain: "A person's happiness is related to the happiness of their friends, their friends' friends, and their friends' friends' friends—that is, to people well beyond their social horizon." They also found that happy people tend to be in the center of their social networks and that happiness branches out as they join together with other happy people. They report that each additional happy friend increases your probability of being happy by about 9 percent. As a comparison, they use past research (1984) that found that an extra $5,000 in income only increased the probability of being happy by about 2 percent.
The moral of the story is that catching the "happy" bug from those around you (and maybe even those "virtually" around you) is a contagion that everyone should try to catch. Just being around positive people can be energizing, motivating, and inspiring and is likely to help you work more effectively as partners or as a group.
Of course, the oppostie holds true. EC can occur in the negative direction, adding significant stress and strain in your life. This is particularly true when negative EC creeps into your close relationships. Because marriages, partnerships, family connections, and even close friendships are largely based on emotions, any sadness, fear, or worry on the part of that other person in your life (child, parent, domestic partner, best friend) can have a profound and lasting impact on your overall mood and outlook on life.
Research has found that depression in a spouse frequently leads to depression in the partner. The same holds true for roommates. In addition, children raised by depressed parents are significantly more likely to be diagnosed with depression. In fact, one family members' depression can bring down an entire family system. Other emotions, such as anxiety and fear, can have the same effect.
However, negative EC is not isolated to our closest relationships. One bad (e.g., negative) apple can infect the entire tree regardless of where that tree is planted. Tony Schwartz, author, CEO of The Energy Project, and Harvard Business Review blogger, shared how this kind of unhealthy contagion spread quickly through his company after the hiring of a new executive. Schwartz writes, "Soon after settling in, he [the new hire] began to share his concerns with me. He was doing so, he assured me, only because he loved working for us, and he was looking out for the well being of the company. He reported to me, and at first, I appreciated his input." Schwartz goes on to say that over time, the new hire told him that people were taking advantage of him (Schwartz) and didn't appreciate what they had at the company. He encouraged Schwartz to be tougher.
Schwartz says, "I began to feel more anxious and suspicious, and others on our team seemed more tense. The buoyant, productive atmosphere that had characterized our culture for years, even in tough times, began to seep away." Fortunately, Schwartz eventually realized, through conversations with other employees, the toxic environment that was being created and spread by this one person and ultimately fired him. Yet, Schwartz cautions that he didn't even recognize what was happening until damage had been done to the overall mood of his employees and his company in general. He confided that once he realized what was going on and his own role in it, he felt "angry and abashed. My most important job is to be our company's Chief Energy Officer. In this case, I'd allowed myself to be unduly influenced by a destructive kind of energy, and then I had unconsciously communicated that energy to others."
This example should serve as a strong reminder to leaders that they can have a significant impact on the emotional state of their employees and the overall work environment, regardless of whether those emotions are internally produced or externally generated by a negative influence in the company. Schwartz writes, "Leaders, by virtue of their authority, exert a disproportionate impact on the mood of those they supervise. In this case, I was influenced simply by the strength of this executive's negative feelings. Others in the office were more influenced by me, because I'm their boss. Emotional contagion took hold. As the negativity spread, it drained the energy of our team and the company as a whole."
At this point, you may be thinking, if that's the bad, what's the ugly. The ugly is the consequences. Just as second-hand smoke can have the same or worse effects on the health of nonsmokers, second-hand emotions (if they're the negative kind just described) can have significant, long-lasting effects on the health and well being of those experiencing them. The negativity keeps pounding away at you and ultimately results in significant second-hand stress, which as you might expect, has the same effects on your mind and body as direct stress. The body experiences and interprets it as one in the same.
Caroline Whang, writing for Ladies Home Journal, notes that workers who deal with trauma victims on a regular basis often experience serious physical and emotional symptoms such as muscle tension, fatigue, low energy, insomnia, and depression. She also describes a study of infants out of the National Jewish Medical and Research Center at the University of Colorado that discovered that children whose parents are experiencing significant strain are more likely to develop asthma and autoantibodies that increase their risk for diabetes. Other medical problems, such as heart disease, have also been linked to second-hand stress.
In addition, second-hand depression or second-hand anger can tear apart families, resulting in divorce and the significant stressors that divorce often creates in the lives of estranged partners (and their children, if they have any); or if not divorce, a dysfunctional and draining atmosphere that sucks up all the positive energy and replaces it with stress, unhappiness, and turmoil.
SIMPLE ENOUGH, RIGHT? NOT REALLY
So it seems easy, right? Surround yourself with positive people and avoid those who emit negativity. However, that is easier said than done. First, many experts believe that negative emotions are a lot easier to catch than positive ones. Some believe this is reflective of our evolutionary past wherein being highly attuned to other people's negative emotions (pain, fear, and disgust) was directly linked to survival. Those who could pick up on someone else's pain, fear, and disgust were more likely to survive than those who could not.
Today, fortunately, we don't have to worry about being surprised by a saber-toothed tiger planning its next dinner. Yet, we still need some degree of emotional mimicry and synchrony skills to live in harmony with others and to recognize the emotional environment we're in. For example, in a dangerous situation, or a conflict, or even a sporting competition, reading the emotions of others can be beneficial. The question becomes how do we modulate these instincts so that they don't have a negative impact on our well being.
I think the answer, at least partly, is to become much more aware of our natural instinct to mimic the emotional states of others so that we can use it to our advantage when we can and reduce its impact on our well being when we need to. Am I suggesting that you should never feel empathy for others or try to relate to what they're feeling at a bad time in their life? No. What I'm saying is that you should become highly attuned to the impact that the emotional states of others are having on you and take care of yourself when you need to for your own emotional well being. Awareness is the key.
ARE SOME MORE VULNERABLE THAN OTHERS?
According to researchers Hatfield, Cacioppo, and Rapson, some people are more vulnerable to EC than others. They have found that those who are most vulnerable to "catching" others' emotions are individuals who tend to be attentive and sensitive to the emotions of others. value interrelatedness over independence and uniqueness, and those whose conscious emotional experiences are heavily influenced by peripheral feedback. Researcher R. William Doherty has found that susceptibility to EC is positively associated with affective orientation, emotionality, sensitivity to others, self-esteem, and more strongly associated with emotional than cognitive modes of empathy. He also discovered that introverts are more likely to be affected by others' positive emotions whereas "those more oriented toward external, social reality tend to be more affected by others' negative emotional expressions."
Hatfield also believes that women tend to be more vulnerable to absorbing the stress and negativity of those around them because they are more often socialized to attend to the emotional needs of those around them and to want to please others than are men. And research has found that in certain contexts women are more suspectible to EC for both positive and negative emotions (see Doherty, et al., Emotional Contagion: Gender and Occupational Differences).
If you're wondering how vulnerable you are to catching a bad (or a good) case of emotions, check out my post, The Emotional Contagion Scale, which contains questions developed by Elaine Hatfield and her colleagues to help you gauge how vulnerable you are to EC.
WHO IS MOST CONTAGIOUS?
Researchers also have investigated the characteristics of people who seem to be highly infectious, those who seem to pull others into what Hatfield calls their "emotional orbits." Hatfield says these people tend to experience and convey strong emotions. They also tend to be relatively unaffected, or at least unresponsive to those around them who are showing emotions that are incompatible with their own. On the positive side, these are the people who are "the life of the party," the people who always greet you with a smile and a kind word, the comedians in the room who seem to lift everyone's mood. On the negative side, these are the chronic complainers, the toxicity in the group, the ones who drag everyone down.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
In my next article, 5 Ways to Avoid Catching a Bad Case of Emotions, I discuss strategies to overcome negative EC. But in general, you should start by paying close attention to your feelings in different settings and when you're with different individuals and groups. If you go to work in a good mood, then find yourself tense and stressed a short while after walking in the door, that should serve as a strong signal that you're allowing your workplace to infect you with negative emotions. If you feel tense when with a significant other or a family member, but you find your mood lifting when you're away from that person, there's a clue as well. If you learn to attend to these clues in the various emotional environments you move in and out of during the day, you'll be a step ahead in determining the best strategies to use to get the most out of your relationships at home, at work, and at play.
If you have good examples of "choose your company wisely," feel free to share them below.
© 2012 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved
Sherrie Bourg Carter is the author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (Prometheus Books, 2011).