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Anger

How Immune Are You to Contagious Anger?

Understand the emotional contagion of anger and boost your immunity to it.

Key points

  • Emotional contagion begins in infancy and involves the tendency to experience emotions of others.
  • It's especially important to recognize the emotional contagion of anger as we are living in an angry time.
  • Distinguishing between our own anger and that of others is the primary task for increasing our immunity to contagious anger.

While many of us are concerned about our immunity to viral contagion, it is also a good time to assess your immunity to “emotional contagion,” your tendency to experience the same emotions as others. In effect, emotional states can be transferred to you without your awareness. Emotional contagion is unconscious and begins when we automatically mimic other people’s facial expressions, tone of voice, or body language, as well as to pick up similar neurophysiological and neurological reactions (Hatfield et al., 1994). This tendency begins in infancy.

Such contagion can occur whether based on actual interaction, observation of others on television, film, the internet, or even when reading a text or email. In part, this propensity derives from our inherent empathy for how others feel.

In general, studies have shown that emotional contagion is more likely to occur in reaction to negative feelings, such as anger, fear, and anxiety, than with positive emotions. Anger, more than joy, is contagious. This accounts for the fact that anger spreads faster than joy in social media (Fan, R., et. al., 2018). Emotional contagion is viewed as being evolutionary in origin, an effort to keep us safe (Kelly, 2016). Being hypervigilant to anger, fear or anxiety may alert us to threats.

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Angry man viewing laptop1
Source: 123rf Stock Photo/ f8studio

The need to assess your immunity

As addressed in many of my previous posts, destructive anger can have an intensely powerful impact on your overall well-being, including your mental and physical health, your relationships, and your job or career. So, it is more important than ever to ask yourself how immune you are to contagious anger.

Assessing your immunity to emotional contagion for anger is especially important at this time, one in which we are witnessing an increase in anger, demonstrated in the media, in political discourse, and in our daily lives. Cable news and social media have only magnified the impact of this trend. And, while they may provide communications that are conducive for fanning the flames of destructive anger, doing so simultaneously inhibits the cultivation of healthy anger.

It appears that we are experiencing an anger pandemic, and what can be described as “herd-immunity to self-reflection” when dealing with anger. Facing uncertainty, change, and the anxiety of our time, it seems like there is an expanded chorus of voices supporting the credo that we should “let it all hang out”, always trust our gut, and reject the necessity for civility in discourse. These forces, combined with a growing antagonism toward science, authority, and intellectual focus, foster a disregard for taking time to pause for self-reflection. However, such a pause is essential for learning how to respond, rather than react, to our anger.

Such pauses help us to better understand the true meaning of our anger as it relates to our suffering and basic core desires, including safety, connection, and happiness. The pause allows us to observe the negative emotions that fuel our anger—such as fear, anxiety, powerlessness, frustration, and shame. It allows us to use our reasoning brain to reflect on alternative constructive ways of dealing with our pain.

Anger is a natural part of our humanity. It can energize us to assertively and constructively fulfill our deeply-rooted desires and dreams. By contrast, it’s an emotion that can fuel our most violent nature. And while anger arousal may be triggered by a broad variety of situations, emotional contagion may intensify our anger as well as make it more pervasive.

Emotional contagion of anger from political rhetoric

The arousal of anger has been used as a political strategy for many years in an effort to win at the polls. Traditionally, such anger was mostly directed toward the policies of the opponent. By contrast, in recent years, the arousal of anger has been used to create angrier citizens. Further, we’re living in a time when anger toward the “other” has also increased in an effort to sway public opinion and garner votes. Researchers have found that “exposure to an angry in-party politician significantly increases the amount of anger, disgust, and outrage expressed by the co-rank-and-file partisans.” (Stapleton and Dalton, 2021).

It’s interesting to note that such emotional contagion does not occur without partisans, highlighting that emotional contagion may be strongest when an affinity for the source of anger is already strong. The arousal of such anger has been found to increase the likelihood of voting.

The internet, while a source of good, also plays a powerful role in the exacerbation of the emotional contagion of anger. This is because, with regard to online behavior, anger, more than fear, has a more powerful impact on creating an echo chamber for negativity (Wollebaek, D., 2019).

Other variables impacting emotional contagion with anger

Many variables influence the degree to which we experience emotional contagion. For example, in general, some studies suggest women evidence greater emotional contagion than men (Doherty, et. al., 1995). In fact, one study found this to be true for all emotions except anger, where there was no significant difference (Kevrekidis, 2008).

Another study found that a significant decrease in cognitive functioning at work was related to anger contagion (Petitta, et. al., 2019). By contrast, a study of 300 adult workers found that contagion of joy was associated with fewer cognitive failures.

A study of 1,000 workers in Italy found that the emotional contagion of anger was positively associated with sleep disturbances and health problems (Petitta, et. al., 2021). The researchers suggested that anger related to interactions at work contributed to sleep difficulties and this effect was even stronger for those who experienced elevated levels of production pressure.

Perhaps one of the most prominent examples of emotional contagion occurs in group participation. While examples of this existed long before his time, sociologist Gustave Le Bon studied the impact of group participation on individuals, concluding, "the fact that they have been transformed into a group puts them in possession of a sort of collective mind which makes them feel, think, and act in a manner quite different from that in which each individual of them would feel, think or act were he in a state of isolation” (LeBon in Freud, 1960). While he didn’t focus completely on anger, examples of this tendency are clearly evident in our current era.

The challenge

The primary task to increase our immunity to the contagion of anger is to distinguish between our own anger and that of others. We are not typically attentive to making this distinction. Just as when cultivating healthy anger in general, meeting this challenge calls for creating a pause in our reaction to notice our own thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations.

Take notice of how your emotional states are impacted by those around you—whether at work or in your personal relationships. Specifically, notice your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. Additionally, observe how you feel when you withdraw from them. You might reconsider if you want to spend time with certain people or find ways to shift the focus of discussion.

Do you find yourself angered when watching the news or reading comments on the internet? Perhaps spending less time doing so might help your mood.

It’s important to remember that your moods can also be contagious. As such, be mindful of how being positive can also spread from one person to another. It is for this reason that increasing your immunity to the contagion of anger is an act of self-compassion and, at the same time, reflects compassion for others. Increasing your immunity to the contagion of anger is empowering. It is an expression of self-compassion as well as compassion for others. Your attending to this challenge is one way to have a positive impact on others and yourself, especially during this highly charged and difficult time.

References

Kelly, J, Iannone, N., and McCarty, M. (2016). Emotional contagion of anger is automatic: An evolutionary explanation. British Journal of Social Psychology (2016), 55, 182–191

Stapleton, C. and Dawkins, R. (2021) Catching my anger: How political elites create angrier citizens. Political Research Quarterly, 1-12, DOI: 1 0.1177/110659 292 10269 72

Wollebaek, D., Karlsen, R., Steen-Johnsen, et. al. (2019). Anger, fear, and echo chamber: The emotional basis for online behavior. Journals.sagepub.com/sms, DOI:10.1177/2056305 1 19829859

Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J. T., and Rapson, R. L. (1992). “Primitive emotional contagion,” in Review Of Personality And Social Psychology: Emotions and social behavior, ed M. S. Clark (Newbury Park, CA: Sage), 151–177. Available online at: 10.1017/CBO9781139174138

Fan, R., Xu, K., and Zhao, J. (2018) Higher contagion and weaker ties mean anger spreads faster than joy in social media. Cornell University, arXiv.org>cs>arXiv: 1608.03656v3.

Kevrekidis, P., Skapinakis, P., Damigos, D. et. al. (2008). Catching my anger: How political elites create angrier citizens. Annals of General Psychiatry, Vol. 7, 14---DOI 10.1177/10659 292 10269 72.

Doherty, R., Orimoto, L., and Singelis, T. (1995). Emotional contagion: Gender and occupational differences. Psychology of Women Quarterly, Vol. 19, 3,

Petitta, L., Probst, T., Ghezzi, V., & Barbaranelli, C. (2019) Cognitive failures in response to emotional contagion: Their effects on workplace accidents. Accidents; Analysis and Prevention April, 125: 165-173. DOI: 10.1016/j.aap.2019.01.018

Petitta, L., Probst, T, Ghezzi, V., &. Barbaranelli, C (2021) The impact of emotional contagion on workplace safety: Investigating the roles of sleep, health and production pressure. Current Psychology -https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-021-01616-8

Freud, S. (1960). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. NY, New York: Bantam Book.

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