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Why Are Emotions Contagious?

When someone smiles at you, you smile back. Why is this?

We all share emotions, and we’re all affected by the emotions others share with us. We spread our emotions through face-to-face conversations, phone calls, emails, Facebook posts, tweets, or emojis.

These all influence the moods of others.

When someone smiles at you, you smile back. This is known as imitation. If someone cries, you experience more or less sadness and/or urge to help. In small children, such contagion is irresistible. Any preschool teacher will confirm times when one crying kid has led to all the kids being in tears.

Why is this? Is there some kind of benefit underlying the emotional contagion between human beings?

According to an article published by Elaine Hatfield, John T. Cacioppo, and Richard L. Rapson, emotional contagion is ”the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person and, consequently, to converge emotionally.”

From an evolutionary perspective, emotional contagion is essential for survival. For example, when threatened by a predator, emotional arousal spreads within a prey group and enables more of the animals to escape from danger. Researchers at the University of Chicago observed that rats became distressed when they saw other rats in distress, and they displayed pain behavior if they saw other rats in pain, suggesting that the most principal form of empathy is well-known to other species. Emotional contagion serves human beings as well; it was helpful to our ancestors, enabling them to understand each other in a time before verbal communication was possible.

Although we tend to believe that, as adults, we’re adept at emotional management and control, even the most stoic among us are susceptible to emotional contagion.

More from Ryan T. Howell Ph.D.
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