Emotions, like viruses, can be contagious. In this episode, Craig discusses emotional contagion and its effects, and offers some advice on how to use emotional contagion to make the world a little better.
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Episode on mindfulness: https://www.livewellandflourish.com/living-well-through-mindfulness/
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In this episode of Live Well and Flourish, I talk about emotional contagion, which is the tendency for emotions of one person to affect the emotions of others.
Welcome to Live Well and Flourish, where I help you understand what it means to live a flourishing life. I'm your host, Craig Van Slyke. If you're ready to think beyond material and external success, if you're ready to take control of who you are and the kind of life you live, if you're ready to flourish, this is the podcast for you.
When we lived in Flagstaff, I would take the pups, Maggie and Dallas, out for walks early every morning. Maggie first, then Dallas. One morning as Maggie and I returned to the house, there was a big orange cat sitting in our driveway. As we approached, Maggie started growling at the cat, unsurprisingly. (By the way, I had Maggie on a leash and wasn’t going to let her get the cat. Maggie actually likes cats, but doesn’t like strangers, unless they have treats of course.) Here’s how I imagined Maggie and the cat exchanged telepathic remarks:
Maggie: Growl. Hey cat, you’d better run.
Maggie: Meh? Meh? What does that even mean?
Cat: That means you I’m not afraid of you little dog.
Maggie: Little dog?? Little dog?? A Chihuahua is a little dog. I AM NOT a little dog!
Cat: Well, nonetheless, you don’t scare me.
Maggie: Nonetheless, what kind of word is that? You cats think you’re so smart. Nonetheless indeed. Argh … now you’ve got me sounding all uppity. I’m gonna get you. Daddy! Lemme go, I need to teach that cat a lesson.
Cat: HISSSS! Back off dog, or you’ll get my pointy paws in your snoot.
I don’t know why the cat sounds like a southern sheriff, but that’s the way it sounded in my head. Anyway, at this point, Maggie yipped and ran behind my legs, although she pretty quickly recovered and began pulling towards the cat again. I took her inside and got Dallas for his walk.
The encounter really was pretty amazing. Maggie got aggressive toward the cat, and the cat reacted in kind. (It was also pretty funny when the cat hissed and Maggie yipped and jumped back. Funny to me, I suppose … Maggie was not amused.) It was quite a sight. This was one big cat, and when he puffed up he looked about the same size as Maggie, which as I said, is kind of funny. Maggie’s all Border Collie. She has two speeds, full on and off. So she’s pretty excitable when she sees another animal, and, being a Border Collie, she’s territorial, so her reaction to the cat wasn’t surprising. By the way, I did not let her get all that close to the cat; I didn’t want either one to get hurt. But here’s the important point: Maggie’s aggression was met with aggression.
Unlike Maggie, Dallas was very laid back. Unfortunately we lost Dallas a few years ago. He was protective (being a Collie), but mostly he was a mellow pup. Frankly, I was pretty curious to see how the cat and Dallas would react to each other. I expected Dallas to bark and go for the cat, and for the cat, seeing a big dog, to turn tail and run. Neither happened. Dallas saw the cat, kind of wandered over, nothing aggressive at all. The cat didn’t hiss, didn’t run, didn’t even puff up. The two of them sniffed each other for a few seconds and then Dallas turned away and started sniffing around for other interesting smells. The cat walked over to me to get some petting. All of this happened less than a minute after Maggie and the cat got into it. The cat, who seemed to feed off of Maggie’s excitement and aggression equally fed off of Dallas’ mellowness. The entire incident illustrated the Proverb “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
Feeding off of others’ emotions is actually a thing, it’s a well-established phenomenon; psychologists call it emotional contagion. (I know, I know … haven’t we heard enough about contagion over the last couple of years? Bear with me.) Emotional contagion is the transfer of emotions among individuals. Emotional contagion is rooted in the human tendency to mimic others. We often unconsciously mimic others’ facial expressions, vocal expressions, language, posture, and other things, which can lead to us actually experiencing the emotions the other person is feeling.
You’ve probably experienced emotional contagion. A mild disagreement starts to escalate, the other person starts to get mad, which makes you mad, which makes the other person madder and so on. Pretty soon you’re in a spiral of increasingly negative emotions. Or maybe you’ve experienced the opposite. You’re interacting with someone who starts to get excited (in a bad way), you stay calm, which helps calm the other person down. This is an important point. Emotional contagion works both ways.
You may have also seen this online. I am kind of fascinated by exchanges in online forums such as comment areas, Reddit, and Twitter. Anger to anger, snarkiness to snarkiness, you can see emotional contagion play out in these threads. In real life, emotional contagion effects are even stronger because face-to-face encounters provide more cues: facial expressions, body posture, and vocal tone, volume ,and pace, for example.
The way the whole thing works is quite interesting. Emotions spread through two mechanisms, one that is subconscious and automatic and another that is a more conscious process of comparison. The subconscious, automatic means isn’t very far off from what Maggie, Dallas and the cat experienced. We don’t set out to let others’ emotions infect us, they just do. We often mimic one another’s vocal tones, facial expressions and speech patterns. You smile, they smile. You lower your voice, they lower their voices. The really neat thing about this (or the really bad thing about it) is that this mimicry leads to actually experiencing the related emotion. Your smile not only makes the other person smile, it also makes her feel happier. Unfortunately, this works for negative emotional expressions as well. You raise your voice, he raises his voice.
Emotional contagion isn’t all automatic, we also more consciously compare our moods and emotions with others. The other person’s emotions act as a social cue to tell you how you should be feeling. Of course, sometimes you’ll find the other person’s emotions inappropriate. You don’t have to adopt the same emotional stance. This is the key to using emotional contagion to good advantage.
Before moving on I need to let you know there is some especially bad news associated with emotional contagion. Negative emotions, such as anger, are more contagious than positive emotions. This probably has something to do with us being hardwired to be especially sensitive to potential threats in our environment. Anger, for example, might represent a threat, while someone smiling does not, so we’re more tuned in to negative emotions.
Now that we understand how emotional contagion works, let’s talk about short-term and longer-term ways to use emotional contagion for good. (We are going to focus on using our powers for good, not for evil. After all, you can’t spell good without “dog” even though you do have to mix up the letters and add an “o”. Maggie would claim that you can’t spell evil without “cat”, but her spelling skills are limited. Her smelling skills are much better, but I digress significantly so back to the point.)
There are two keys to taking advantage of emotional contagion. The first is the ability to regulate your own emotions. I’ll give you some tips on emotional regulation later, but for now let’s just say that the root of being able to control your emotions is awareness. Before you can regulate your emotions, you must be aware of them. The second key is the ability to recognize others’ emotions. Sometimes this is pretty easy; if someone is yelling angrily, he’s probably angry. Often, however, emotions are harder to detect. In these cases, you’ll need to pay attention to posture, facial expressions, vocal pitch and pace, among other cues.
To illustrate how to use emotional contagion for good, suppose you’re in a meeting that starts to get heated. Someone gets angry. Some other participants start to react angrily, others start to withdraw from the discussion. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been in more than a few of these sorts of meetings. If you slam your fist on the table to get everyone’s attention, you’ll add more emotional fuel to the fire, making the situation worse. (You might also hurt your hand; don’t ask me how I know this.) Taking control more calmly turns the heat down. Your calm is likely to calm others, slowly putting out the fiery emotions and getting back to productive business. Trust me on this; I’ve reacted both ways. Staying calm is much more productive and pleasant. Do it often enough and you’ll gain a reputation for staying calm and focused, even in highly charged situations.
In the long run, you can also use emotional contagion to set the overall mood of your workplace or other social group (including your family). Discipline yourself to become more optimistic and upbeat. Yes, this takes time, dedication and practice, but you can become a more upbeat person. Do so and over time, you’ll see others start to take on similar moods and emotions. Your upbeatness (or is it upbeativity?) needs to be authentic, though. You can’t fake it, you must actually become more upbeat and optimistic. If your mood comes off as fake, people won’t catch your positive mood. In fact, a fake mood is likely to backfire and degrade the emotional climate of your group.
Controlling your emotions isn’t always easy, but for virtually all of us, it’s possible. In the next episode of Live Well and Flourish, I’ll talk about emotional regulation and give you some specific ways that you can build your emotional regulation muscles. As I said, controlling your emotions isn’t easy, but emotional regulation is an area where your investment in time and effort will pay big dividends, for you and for those around you.
So, what can you do this week to leverage emotional contagion for good? I have some ideas.
First, in emotionally-charged situations, get out of autopilot mode. Emotional contagion is largely an automatic, unconscious process. So, the cure to negative emotional contagion is to halt the automatic process and take intentional, conscious control. I’ll admit that sometimes this isn’t easy, but give it a try. If you’re in an encounter in which someone is getting angry, frustrated or otherwise upset, pause and consider your emotional response and how it can either heat up or cool down the situation. Practice this enough over time, and pausing before reacting will be your automatic response. Remember that control is a huge part of flourishing. Protecting yourself from the negative effects of emotional contagion is essentially taking control, which will help you flourish. For more on getting out of autopilot mode, check out my episode on mindfulness, which is available at livewellandflourish.com.
That brings up my second suggestion. Take advantage of mental breaks when emotional contagion is a threat to your happiness. We’ve all heard the advice to count to ten before reacting. You know why this is such widespread (if a bit trite) advice? Because it works. Emotional contagion can escalate a negative situation very quickly as emotion fuels emotion in a downward spiral. So, it’s critical to do something to stop the spiral. A simple pause to consider your reaction and its effects can be surprisingly effective in diffusing a situation. Remember, though, you can only break the spiral when you recognize emotional contagion, so you need to be mindful in order to take control.
Finally, a bit of pondering can be helpful. When you’ve experienced an emotionally-charged situation, later in the day take some time to reflect on the encounter and how emotional contagion played a role, for good or for bad. Consider how you might have taken advantage of emotional contagion to nudge the encounter towards a good outcome.
I know I said “finally” but I want to give you a bonus suggestion. This week, reflect on how your emotions might be affecting those you love and care about. Are your moods and emotions elevating your loved ones, or harming them? Be more aware of your moods and emotions so that you can use emotional contagion to help your loved ones, and you, flourish.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Kahlil Gibran, “Your living is determined not so much by what life brings you as the attitude you bring to life; not so much by what happens to you as by the way your mind looks at what happens.”
Until next time, be well my friends.
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