Appreciating Emotional Contagion

Sad african american teen girl hand over face

In this highly emotional year and a half, in some ways our emotions have ruled our world, overriding our more logical, unemotional thinking that takes place in our cortex. For fans of the original Star Trek, we have been less like Mr. Spock and more like the very emotional Scotty or Dr. McCoy. 

When we are highly emotional, we are less able to have good judgment, leaving us very impulsive with regard to the things we say and do. We can even surprise ourselves when we get overly emotional, possibly experiencing outbursts of anger or deep guilt and shame because of something we have said or done in a moment of passion. We can be much more likely to experience sadness, despair, fear and anxiety, especially when we are around people who have these emotions. 

Most of us are familiar with the phenomenon that when a person yawns in front of us, we then find ourselves yawning back. Have you noticed if you feed a baby, as you put the spoon into the baby’s mouth, you open your own mouth? These are both examples of emotional contagion. 

Wikipedia tells us: “The phrase ‘emotional contagion’ embodies the idea that humans synchronize their own emotions with the emotions expressed by those around them, whether consciously or unconsciously…. In a 1993 paper, Psychologists Elaine Hatfield, John Cacioppo, and Richard Rapson define it as ‘the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person’s and, consequently, to converge emotionally. ‘”   

Color scale with arrow from red to green and the scale of emotions.

Hatfield, et al., theorize emotional contagion as a two-step process: Firstly, we imitate people, e.g., if someone smiles at you, you smile back. Secondly, our own emotional experiences change based on the non-verbal signals of emotion that we give off. For example, smiling makes one feel happier and frowning making one feel worse. Mimicry seems to be one foundation of emotional movement between people. 

There is some very cool scientific information that explains why we experience emotional contagion: the discovery of mirror neurons. Apparently, we have specialized neurons in our brains whose only task is to mirror the neurons from another person’s brain. Cozolino, in The Neuroscience of Human Relationships states that “our brains are automatically primed to mirror others.” 

It is kind of ironic that we have been wearing masks to prevent the spread of Covid. Masks make us less contagious for others and less likely to be infected by others. What a metaphor our masks are for our experiences of emotional contagion – what we receive from others emotionally that causes us to experience the same emotions and what we transmit to others emotionally, causing them to experience what we are experiencing. 

By being aware of the power of emotional contagion, we can practice a kind of mindfulness. This can help us be responsible about what we might be passing along emotionally to someone else, especially our children. It also makes us aware of what we might be receiving from someone else. We can use our minds to decide that we are not going to allow someone else’s emotions to create the same emotions in us. 

Self care - white chalk handwriting on a blackboard with a cup of coffee, lifestyle and healthcare concept

Even though things are winding down as the world reopens, the remnants of our heightened emotionality will be with us for a long time. Managing emotional contagion can be one way we do not allow the pandemic to do any more destruction within us or in our children. 

Invitation for Reflection 

  1. Have you noticed an increase in your emotionality during this pandemic? In addition, have you noticed times when others mirror your emotions or you mirror theirs?  
  2.  How important is it to take greater charge of your brain’s mirror neurons and your tendency to experience emotional contagion? 
  3.  How might you use emotional contagion to inspire others to be more positive, joyful and hopeful? 
  4.  Who can you hang out with who has emotions that are more positive, joyful and hopeful in order to “catch” some of their emotions? 

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute