Emotional contagion, the phenomenon where we subconsciously catch feelings from those around us, plays a huge role in how we relate to each other daily and impacts our mental well-being. Even if we’re not aware of it happening, emotional contagion can profoundly affect our mood and mindset from one moment to the next.
Looking at how emotions spread through subtle social signals and unconscious brain mechanisms shows just how connected our minds really are. Studying emotional contagion gives us insight into human relationships and the intricate dance between inner experiences.
The subtle ways emotions spread
Emotional contagion can occur through non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, body language, or tone of voice. Researchers have found that humans, and even some animals, have a natural tendency to mimic these emotional displays, leading to a shared emotional experience.
Studies have demonstrated that this phenomenon is not just limited to in-person interactions but can also occur virtually, through social media or digital communication. For instance, a 2014 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness.
The researchers analysed over a billion tweets from 2009 to 2012 to examine how emotions spread online. They found that rainy weather increased the probability of tweeting sad words by 1.16% and decreased the probability of tweeting happy words by 1.19%. This demonstrates how external factors can influence our emotions, which then spread to others, creating a viral contagion effect.
Another study published in Motivation and Emotion in 2011 recorded participants’ facial expressions while they browsed a social media site. The researchers found that when participants saw happy posts by others, they were more likely to smile themselves. This unconscious mirroring of emotions shows how we instinctively pick up on and reflect the feelings we are exposed to.
Why we catch each other’s feelings?
What makes us susceptible to absorbing the emotions around us, often without realising it? Scientists believe there are evolutionary explanations for this tendency.
Imitating others’ emotional expressions served an adaptive purpose, allowing early humans to communicate, bond, and empathise within their groups. Catching a smile, for example, conveyed warmth and belonging. Adopting fearful expressions helped alert others to potential threats.
This mirroring behaviour laid the foundations for emotional contagion. Today, neuroscience reveals that observing someone else’s emotions activates similar neural patterns in our own brains, priming us to experience those same feelings.
fMRI studies show that when we see images of people expressing emotions, it stimulates our amygdala, insula, and related brain regions that process emotions. This automatic neural simulation helps explain how even just perceiving others’ feelings can stir those emotions in ourselves.
Emotional contagion has significant implications for mental health. On one hand, it can contribute to a positive environment where happiness and enthusiasm are shared. Laughter or excitement can spread rapidly through positive emotional contagion.
But contagion can also lead to the proliferation of negative emotions like stress or anxiety. A 2016 study from the journal Psychological Science highlights how exposure to an anxious person can increase one’s own anxiety, potentially leading to heightened stress levels over time.
This phenomenon is particularly relevant in workplaces or family environments, where one person’s mood can significantly impact the group’s overall dynamics. A 2017 study published in Motivation and Emotion examined emotional contagion between teammates. They found that participants performed better on cooperative tasks when interacting with happy teammates compared to angry ones. This demonstrates how others’ emotions, when caught through contagion, can influence individual performance.
The impacts extend to larger social networks as well. Emotions spread readily through social media, as the PNAS study revealed. When negative emotions go viral online, they can have mental health consequences across interconnected groups. A 2021 study in Nature Communications modelled how emotions flow through social networks and shape depression susceptibility.
Cultivating positive contagion
Understanding and managing emotional contagion is key to enhancing our mental wellbeing. This involves developing emotional intelligence, which includes awareness of our own emotions and the ability to perceive and influence the emotions of others. Practising mindfulness and being conscious of the emotional tone we set in our interactions can mitigate the unintended spread of negative emotions.
It’s also important to cultivate environments that promote positive emotional contagion. This can be achieved by encouraging open communication, fostering empathy, and creating spaces where positive emotions are freely expressed and shared.
Research shows that leaders can shape group emotions through their own displays. A 2015 study published in The Leadership Quarterly looked at emotional contagion from leaders to team members. They found that leader optimism benefited group cohesion, satisfaction, and performance. This highlights the importance of leaders modelling constructive emotions.
Shifting group dynamics requires influencing emotional contagion at scale. Organisations can build more positive cultures by designing activities, policies, and incentives that motivate people, stimulate creativity, and foster meaningful connections.
Protecting your emotional space
While harnessing contagion’s positive effects, it’s also crucial to set boundaries and protect our emotional space when needed. Studies reveal several strategies:
- Limiting exposure to negative people or situations that drain your energy
- Visualising an “emotional shield” to maintain your positivity
- Practising self-care and prioritising activities that boost your mood
- Not taking on others’ emotions or letting them shape your self-perception
A 2015 study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology looked at “coping contagion”, where people adopt others’ coping strategies. It found that avoiding over-identifying with others’ emotions helped maintain emotional stability. Preserving some separation is key to resilience.
The subtle power we each hold
Emotional contagion, while often subconscious, has profound effects on our mental health and social interactions. By understanding and managing this phenomenon, we can create healthier environments for ourselves and those around us. Whether in personal or professional settings, being mindful of the emotional tone we contribute to and are exposed to is key to fostering positive mental wellbeing.
The emotions we radiate and encounter each day seep into our psyches and ripple outward. Our minds are connected in subtle ways, for better or worse. With self-awareness and empathy, we can harness contagion’s power to uplift each other and spread more light in times of darkness. The bonds we share remain vital to our wellbeing, and emotions constitute the invisible threads that tie our lives together. Perhaps the greatest takeaway is recognising the responsibility we each have for collective joy or pain and our ability to steer things for the better.
Jonathan Green, PhD is a psychologist and freelancer writer with a passion for exploring the nuances of human emotions and their impact on relationships.