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How We Affect Each Other

We have to try hard to avoid feeling each other.

How do we know the meaning of phrases like, “the mood of the nation,” “the feel of the community,” or, “you can sense the excitement in the air”? These are metaphors that make no literal sense. Yet we understand perfectly what they mean, thanks to our intuitive awareness of emotion contagion.

The principle of emotion contagion holds that the emotions of two or more people converge and are passed from person to person in larger groups. Although we tend to think of them as purely internal phenomena, emotions are more contagious than any known virus and are transmitted subliminally to everyone in proximity.

You’re probably aware of how the emotional states of family members affect you⁠—it’s impossible to be happy when they’re down and almost impossible to ignore their “attitudes,” without some degree of defensive resentment or numbness. But emotion contagion works even when there is little or no affiliation. Even in a crowd of strangers, emotion contagion makes us feel what the rest of the group feels. Experiments show that we’re more likely to get impatient at a bus stop if other people are acting impatiently. But we’re more likely to wait calmly, if others seem resigned to the fact that the bus is late. And it’s why the “electricity in the air” gets you excited at a sporting event or political rally, even if you were not particularly interested in the outcome and just went to be with a friend.

To understand the power of emotion contagion, you only have to consider its survival advantage. Sharing group emotions gives us multiple eyes, ears, and noses with which to sense danger and opportunity. Hence, it’s common to all social animals⁠—packs, herds, prides, and, in the case of early humans, tribes. When one member of the group becomes aggressive, frightened, or interested, the others do, too.

Witnessing the fear or distress of another person in a group can easily invoke the same emotional state within us. Unless we're consciously resisting, happy people at a party make us happy, caring people make us care, the interested attract our interest, and the bored bore us. We avoid those who carry “chips on their shoulders” and those who “bring us down” or “make us anxious.”

Like anything that affects emotional states, contagion greatly influences thinking. Opinion pollsters know that they get one set of responses to questions they ask of people in groups and another when they ask the same questions of individuals in private. It’s not that folks are lying when in a group or that they change their minds when they’re alone. It’s more accurate to say that, at least on some issues, they have different public and private minds, due to the influence of emotion contagion.

The principle of contagion also accounts for “group think.” People are apt to conform to the majority at a meeting or to act collectively against their own better judgment. The high-risk behavior of teen gangs, for instance, occurs as emotion contagion spurs each kid to move beyond his or her personal inhibitions, sometimes far beyond, into dangerous, cruel, or criminal behavior. Similarly, corporate and governmental scandals reveal how otherwise good people can get swept up in a frenzy that overrides their personal morality. Emotion contagion produces solidarity parades, protest marches and, on the ugly side, “mob justice,” lynching, riots, and looting. On a less dramatic level, it gives us constantly changing fashions, cultural fads, and standards of political correctness.

Negative Emotions are More Contagious

Did you ever wonder why people are more likely to notice things that stir negative emotion than those that might invoke a positive response? I’m not talking about the “negative people” who constantly look for the possibility of a dark cloud somewhere amid silver linings. Everyone gives disproportional weight to the negative. Consider how much you think about positive experiences compared to negative. Which consumes more time and energy running through your mind?

Emotions have “negative bias.” Negative emotions get priority processing in the brain, because they’re more important for immediate survival. They give us the instant adrenaline jolt we need to avoid snakes in the grass and fend off saber tooth tigers, at the cost of noticing the beauty of our surroundings. Negative bias is why loss causes pain disproportionately to the joy of equivalent gain. Having a nice meal is enjoyable but, in most cases, incomparable to the distress of missing a meal altogether. Finding $10,000 will be pleasant for a day or so; losing $10,000 can ruin a month. More poignantly, having a child is a joyous occasion (at least until fatigue sets in); losing a child takes a lifetime of recovery.

Ironically, positive emotions are more important to long-term well-being. You’ll live longer and be healthier and happier if you experience considerably more positive emotions than negative ones. Life is better for those who are able to appreciate the beauty of the rolling meadow and the sun dappling the edges of surrounding trees, as long as they are able to notice the snake in the grass, too. We have to survive the moment to appreciate the world around us.

The negative bias of emotions profoundly affects emotion contagion. Even low-grade defensive/aggressive states like resentment spread relentlessly from person to person. If someone comes into work resentful, by lunchtime, everyone around him or her is resentful. Aggressive drivers make other drivers aggressive. A hostile teenager ruins the family dinner; an impatient spouse makes TV-viewing tense and unpleasant.

If you’re around a resentful, angry, sarcastic, narcissistic, petty, vindictive person, you are likely to respond in kind, at least in your head. Unless you put up a conscious effort to stay in the Adult brain, they will make you almost as negative as they are.

That much may not be surprising. The more alarming point is that you’re just as likely to respond in that same negative way to the next person you encounter, unless he or she makes a special effort to be gracious to you. But if your well being depends on other people making special efforts to be nice to you, in no time at all, you’ll become powerless over how you feel and, as a result, behave more impulsively. You’ll become a reactaholic, with the experience of your life controlled by reactivity to emotional pollution in your environment.

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