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Source: gpointstudio/Shutterstock

Emotions and moods, such as anxiety and happiness, can spread from person to person. The emotional states of the other people we interact with affect our emotions and moods. This emotional mimicry occurs spontaneously—and unconsciously. For example, evidence shows that the emotions others express on Facebook influence our own moods. Reducing positive words in people’s Facebook newsfeeds appeared to make them sadder, and vice versa. When college freshmen a receive random assignment to live with mildly depressed roommates, they become increasingly depressed themselves over a three-month period.  

Through biological programming, we imitate other people’s emotional displays—facial expressions, bodily gestures—and in doing so, we come to adopt their internal feelings. The biological mechanism is the mirror neuron system in the human brain. Our brain practices doing actions we merely observe in others, as if we were doing them ourselves. A good example of mirror neurons is a baby crying in day care because it hears another baby cry.

Five implications of mirror neurons:

1. Empathy. 

Mirror neurons facilitate empathy—the ability to imagine how others are feeling. It draws us into the life of another’s mind, allowing us a deep understanding of their mental states. For instance, some have described contagious yawning as a primitive reflection of the capacity to empathize with others. When we see another person yawn, we yawn automatically ourselves. A study showed that waitresses who mimicked their customers either verbally or physically received larger tips than waitresses who did not use mimicry. The waitresses either recited back verbatim their customers’ orders or paraphrased the orders. When someone mimics you in a good way, it communicates a kind of pleasure that you get from interacting with the other person.

2. Prosocial behavior.

The imitation of emotional expressions increases social interactions and interpersonal bonding. We create a sense of similarity by imitating each other in various ways. Couples with the greatest similarity have shown the strongest emotional connection. A study found that facial similarity in married couples increased over time and concluded that this similarity arose as a consequence of married couples frequently mimicking each other’s facial expressions.

3. Craving.

When former smokers watch other people smoking, it automatically activates their mirror neurons. This activation of mirror neurons triggers the cues that are more likely to cause a relapse.

4. Inheriting psychological trauma.

Psychologist Ginot comments on the role of the mirror system in the transmission of parents' internal life to children. Children are innately vulnerable to the parent’s emotional state. The child tends to internalize the parents’ emotional attitudes (e.g., fear and depression) as his own without awareness. For example, evidence indicates that parents’ PTSD symptoms were significantly associated with child distress and behavioral problems.

5. Happiness.

Happiness spreads from person to person. Evidence suggests that a person is about 15 percent more likely to be happy if a directly connected person is happy. Happy people tend to be more helpful, less hostile, or merely display an emotion that is contagious. Similarly, an excitement in one’s field can be quite useful in maintaining students’ interest in the subject. Students are unlikely to be interested in a subject unless the teachers display enthusiasm in the importance of the subject. 

In sum, emotional imitation promotes understanding and togetherness that makes us feel closer to each other. However, the emotions (enthusiasm, irritation, frustration) friends express, including through online social networks, influence our own moods. These nonverbal communications unconsciously color our attitudes. To protect yourself from catching other people’s bad moods, choose wisely the company you keep. As Mark Twain put it:

“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.” 

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