Emotional Contagion: The Scientific Reason Why Bad Moods Are Catching
The Debrief: The comforting thing is even when we feel lonely, we're never actually alone.
Illustration by Ellie Blackwell
Have you ever been with a friend who’s going through a bad patch and you've found yourself taking on some of what they're saying? Perhaps your shoulders start to sag, you develop a frown or you feel slightly sadder. Or the opposite: you're with a particularly happy friend and, inexplicably, you find yourself feeling slightly more relaxed and positive? It sounds like I’m describing some kind of magic trick, a social experiment, but this is actually a thing that happens to humans and it has a name: emotional contagion.
Although it sounds like it, this isn’t a story line from an apocalyptic zombie film. Emotional contagion is a biological process that most humans (we’ll discuss this later) experience. At it’s most basic, it's when a person (or persons) ‘catch’ an emotion from another – just like a cold – through mimicking their facial expressions, body language or even their voice. It’s a subconcious, automatic process, something that you’ve probably not even noticed (until now) but it means you take on and experience the emotion of another person. Emotional contagion is, in other words, a form of empathy; it's the way in which we understand another person’s feelings.
Empathy is hugely important; it’s how we connect with people and form social bonds. Imagine expressing distress to a friend whilst they sat there grinning. That would be weird wouldn’t it? In fact, you'd probably feel pretty pissed off because we want comfort and validation from the people around us.
From birth, we ‘practice’ emotional contagion: mimicking our mothers (and vice versa) as a way to ensure we forge a strong bond, and, I assume, stay ‘safe’ and ‘protected’. Without emotional contagion, bonds will either not form, or they’ll be much weaker. ‘This virtuous cycle between mimicry and reward, is believed to be something like a “social glue” - it helps bond individuals together,' Dr Bhismadev Chakrabarti, Associate Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Reading, explains. 'So if we are talking and I find that you are showing emotion contagion to me, so if you’re spontaneously mimicking me, then I will find you effectively more rewarding and I will mimic you more. So a virtuous cycle builds up like that.'
There are of course things that effect the extent of emotional contagion. One of these is how ‘rewarding’ we deem the person to be. ‘Friendship is really kind of a fluffy psychological way of talking about a fundamental neurobiological process of reward,’ Dr Chakrabarti explains. Therefore you’re far more likely to engage in it with your best friend compared to a stranger, because you perceive them as having a higher ‘reward’ which creates the aformentioned ‘virtuous cycle’ –it’s self perpetuating because it maintains the social bond.
We’re also more likely engage in it if we deem the person to be more similar to us. ‘Usually whenever we have self similarity we often show greater mimicry,’ Dr Chakrabarti explains. There seems to be one exception though: gender. ‘If there is courtship behaviour there is often more emotional mimicry that’s shown as a way to kind of "win" the favours of the other sex,’ Dr Chakrabarti tells me. ’If I find the woman that I’m talking to attractive, neurobiologically there is a greater reward signal that’s coming from her rather than a man so in that case, going back to the general contagion reward story, I’m likely to show greater imitation or greater contagion to the woman.’
There is actually another type of empathy though, a more conscious one called cognitive empathy. This is where a person makes a conscious effort to unpick the signals they’re receiving and make a judgement on how they should react to the present situation. ‘It’s a chain of inferences I’m making in order to understand what that person’s current state is, this example of cognitive empathy does not require me to mimic or show emotional contagion to you,’ Dr Chakrabarti explains. Interestingly, a characteristic of psychopaths and sociopaths is a lack or absence of empathy, so whilst this means they probably don’t experience emotional contagion, they tend to be very good at this ‘learned’ type of empathy so, outwardly, they may appear empathetic.
Emotional contagion is said to have been first noted in 400 BC when Hippocrates noted the spread of ‘hysteria’ in women. Well know historical cases of hysteria (like the Salem Witch Trials) can be explained through emotional contagion and one paper by Elaine Hatfield and others gives a modern day context such as screaming fans at a Justin Bieber concerts. Alan C. Kerckhoff and Kurt W. Back (1968) observed the spread of a mysterious disease’ in 1960s Montana, which scientists eventually concluded was hysteria – they noted things like women were most susceptible to the ‘disease’ if they were having marital problems, were responsible for supporting their families, felt trapped, and were overworked and exhausted.
This phenonmenon of the transference of feelings and emotions in social groups have also been shown by research by Dr Christakis and Dr Fowler. They found that happiness does occur in clusters, and also across more than immediate ties (they observed a 'three degree separation'), proving that social networks are also hugely important to a person’s emotional state. They proposed that this served an evolutionary purpose, that feelings of positive relations enhance and encourage stronger social relations and bonds. This makes sense when you consider than humans are naturally sociable and are more likely to survive as a group . They gave other reasons for this spread of emotions too such as happy people like to share their ‘good fortune’ and that it may have ‘Psychoneuroimmunological mechanisms’ through which having happy people around you would serve a biological benefit.
Amazingly, obesity was even found to spread through social groups: when one participant became obese their friends were 57% more likely to and a person’s risk of obesity went up about 10% even if a friend of a friend of a friend gained weight. On top of this a friend smoking ups your chance by 36% whilst someone 'three-degrees' away from you would have an increased chance of 11%. When you think about it, this actually isn't all that surprising: seeing those around you display certain behaviour makes it normalised, so you're probably more likely to do it yourself. There's also the fact that you’re more likely to be friends with like-minded people and therefore more likely to experience emotional contagion because they’re similar to you.
It’s not clear whether emotional contagion in groups or one on one is greater but, if we consider Dr Chakrabarti’s view on it coming down to reward, it would depend on the person and how big the importance of that group is to them. ‘If I think that supporting my football club is the best thing, it’s the most important thing in my life, then I’m possibly more likely to show greater emotional contagion to the emotional expressions of other fans in a stadium whereas if I’m a laid back supporter then I’m less likely,’ he explains.
There has been relatively little research into the role of social media and emotional contagion, but most notable is the 2012 study conducted by Facebook which manipulated the newsfeed of 689,003 users for a week, and found that when they had less positive expressions in their news feed, they produced fewer positive posts, whilst the opposite was also true. They described this as ‘experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks’. There was a massive backlash when the study was published in 2014 because of the ethical implications of users not being informed of the study. Despite this, it seems to be evidence that physical and actual verbal contact between people isn't always necessary for us to be influenced by another person's emotions.
A study involving Twitter last year found that, whilst people did produce more positive tweets if they were exposed to more positive tweets and vice versa, positive emotions were more ‘contagious’ than negative. This is interesting because negative feelings have often been portrayed as more infection. Dr John T. Cacioppo, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, for example argues that this is because sadness is a way of eliciting help from others. It could also be part of a survivial instinct because it could be more useful to be aware of the possible negatives of a situation. Perhaps the difference in social media, however, is that most people probably want to portray a positive persona: negativity isn't nice.
Now that so much of our lives revolve around social media, it’s important to think about how this concept plays out on there, and clearly more studies are necessary. Ironically, social media gives us a platform to voice our own opinions, but they don't seem to be as original as we might all think because we're so aheavily influenced by others. This isn’t that surprising; the existence of ‘trends’ – be it in fashion or news – is evidence that collectively we have similar thoughts and feelings. Of course we are all able to react to those as indivudals, but ultimately we have a ‘group’ mentality and it's in our nature to form social bonds and we do that through similarities. Studies have typically identified emotional contagion through subtle facial expressions, body language and voice, so it’s interesting to note how even without physical proximity, our behaviour is being altered. Of course emotional contagion can work negatively by spreading bad feelings, but this can also be countered by a person sharing their 'happy' thoughts.
Does this mean we're all merging into one? Let’s hope not; our indivduality is what makes us unique. But it's definitely comforting to know that if you're feeling a certain way, it's likely your friend will be too and ultimately, we're never alone, even when we're lonely.
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