There is no doubt that humans are incredibly social and emotional creatures. As highly interconnected species, our emotions influence each other in ways we may not be aware of. For example, a social neuroscience study revealed that we are more likely to experience actual pain when witnessing someone else experiencing physical or emotional pain¹. "Group emotional contagion" described this transfer of moods among people in a group. It's something that most of us have experienced before².
According to the neuroscience of empathy, "Whether it's watching a friend get a paper cut or staring at a photo of a child refugee, observing someone else's suffering can evoke a deep sense of distress and sadness — almost as if it's happening to us³." The experiences of others can activate our emotions, causing us to feel the same way.
For negative emotions, emotional contagion can undoubtedly be infectious⁴. However, negative emotions are not the only ones that spread. Positive emotions like joy and excitement are also contagious⁵. Positive emotional contagion leads to "improved cooperation, decreased conflict, and increased perceived task performance³."
How much you express your emotions is a factor is how contagious they will be. The University of Chicago's Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience pioneer John T. Cacioppo says that you are more likely to notice and mimic an expression the more intense it is. Even without your knowledge, your facial muscle fibers will activate at a lowe level and trigger the same feeling in your brain.
However, expressive emotions aren't the only ones that pass among people. According to a study in the Motivation and Emotion Journal, emotions below the surface, like motivation, are also contagious⁶. Just being around other people that are exceptionally intrinsically motivated will help to boost your attitude and performance. A study from Northwestern University showed that an employee's production increased by 15% if the person was sitting within 25 feet of a high performer⁷.
The extensive research on emotional contagion suggests that we experience the emotions we perceive in others. According to Social Brain Lab expert Christian Keysers, "very rapidly, we got this unifying notion that when you witness the states of others you replicate these states in yourself as if you were in their shoes, which is why we call these activities' activities' vicarious states."
Emotions do not only spread in person. Technology now facilitates virtual emotional contagion as well. A study by Nicholas Christakis from Harvard Univiety and James Fowler of the University of California found, "social networks have clusters of happy people and unhappy people within them that reach out to third degrees of separation⁸. It thus seems to be the case, online as well as offline, that when you smile, the world smiles with you."
As humans, we mirror the others around us. Those around us influence how we feel, and we exert the same influence on those in our lives. The impact that we have on each other's minds is undeniable and has important implications.
The world is full of negativity and de-motivating attitudes. To set yourself up for good vibes, you must be conscious of the people you surround yourself with. Choosing overall positive people to be around is a great "natural medicine" that will help uplift your mood as well⁵. Take an in-depth look at the people you surround yourself with, and assess if they may be contributing to your negative emotions.
Control your body language⁵. Remember, body language and facial expressions are non-verbal cues of emotion, and they trigger emotional contagion. According to the Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, "during social interactions, people tend to automatically align with, or mimic their interactor's facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, and other bodily states⁹." Be mindful of your expressions and posture. Do your best to consciously display your positive emotions and remain neutral and relaxed when you are with someone else who is exhibiting negative emotions like anger.
Monitor your emotional contagion. According to the University of Michigan State, you can work on your emotional contagion skill¹⁰. Pay attention to the emotions you display to others and focus on the times when you pick up emotions from other people.
Spread positivity. Since you know just how contagious all emotions are, you can make an effort to spread positive emotions. Show kindness and hopefulness, even in dim situations. Express optimism and gratitude frequently, and encourage others to do the same¹¹.
Being aware of the power of emotional contagion can help you mitigate it. If you realize that negative emotions from others are infiltrating your own, then take a step back. Try your best to meet those negative emotions with positivity and understanding. By realizing the effects of emotional contagion, you can be more mindful of how you impact others. You can avoid some of the pitfalls of absorbing others'others' emotions. Actively practicing spreading good vibes is an excellent way to boost your emotional and social wellness.
(1) Decety, J; Ickes, W (2009) Social neuroscience.The social neuroscience of empathy
(2) Barsade, SG (December 2002) The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion and its Influence on Group Behavior
(3) Armstrong, K (December 2017) ‘I Feel Your Pain’: The Neuroscience of Empathy
(4) Barsade, S (March 2020) The Contagion We Can Control
(5) Colino, S (January 2016) Are You Catching Other People's Emotions?
(6) Friedman, R (August 2012) Mimicry, Motivation, and How Company Culture Gets Built One Face at a Time
(7) Stone, E (May 2017) Sitting Near a High-Performer Can Make You Better at Your Job
(8) Christakis, N; Fowler, J (December 2008) Social Networks and Happiness
(9) Prochazkova, E; Kretab, M (September 2017) Connecting minds and sharing emotions through mimicry: A neurocognitive model of emotional contagion
(10) Schulz, J (August 2017) Emotions are contagious: Learn what science and research has to say about it
(11) Lyubomirsky, S; Dickerhoof, R; Boehm, JK; Sheldon, KM (April 2011) Becoming happier takes both a will and a proper way: An experimental longitudinal intervention to boost well-being