Emotional Contagion: Everything You Need to Know

Emotional Contagion. Have you ever been in a bad mood and all of a sudden it seems like everyone around you is in a bad mood, too? Do you feel that your emotions and mood can be “caught” by others? Psychology says emotional contagion is the one responsible for how moods and emotions can affect others. Let this emotional contagion guide help you find out how “contagious” you are!

Emotional Contagion
Emotional Contagion

What is Emotional Contagion?

Emotional Contagion is the ability to influence the emotions and behaviors of others, either directly or indirectly. The etymology of “Contagion” in emotional contagion comes from the conscious and unconscious acts of sharing our emotions with others via verbal or physical expression. Though the word “Contagion” sounds intimidating, emotional contagion is used as a strategy in work settings and relationships. Our brain adapts to an “emotional culture” and it helps us to read other’s emotions to show us how appropriate our responses should be.  Neurologists have found that mirror neurons are responsible for this phenomenon and are a useful learning tool.

Some people are more sensitive to emotional contagion rather than others. Because it can influence thoughts and feelings, the results are changes in mood as well. It is sure to note that there are certain moods and personalities that are more susceptible to being “contagious” than others.

Why is Emotional Contagion important?

Humans are social beings. We are born equipped with the evolutionary capacity of emotional contagion to help synchronize our emotions and express our wants and needs. A simple expression is a newborn baby crying to be fed because it’s the only way they know how to get food from their caretaker. This is a primitive tactic that assists in later recognition and processing of feelings and understanding how to deal with them in an appropriate manner.

Emotional Contagion is also found to be closely linked with empathy. Lack of empathy can be a sign of psychological disorders or cognitive disabilities. Scientists agree that there is an emotional climate and culture that tells us which emotions we should or should not display. And those who lack empathy may not be sensitive to processes of emotional contagion, therefore result in situations where inappropriate emotions or behaviors are expressed.

Emotional Contagion is the result of our own and others’ interpretations of thoughts and feelings. The result is expressed via mimicry and facial expressions. Imagine that you made plans with a friend but they need to cancel and perhaps you didn’t want to go in the first place. You may say, or express, that it’s a pity, but in reality, you feel a sense of relief. This is an example where one’s thoughts and behaviors don’t match. But you wouldn’t want to tell your friend that you didn’t want to go after all and that you’re ultimately relieved, right? A situation like this uses emotional contagion to let us act appropriately and remain successful in our emotional climate. Self-control and afferent feedback processes allow us to execute this correct emotional behavior.

Research shows emotional contagion is detectable in how verbal and nonverbal cues are processed by. Emotional intelligence, specifically recognition, and understanding can help us in identifying how we process emotional cues. Particularly, studies have found that our conscious assessments of other peoples’ feelings are influenced more by what others said—and in contrast, peoples’ own emotions are influenced more by nonverbal cues and opposed what they were really feeling. The act of being emotionally contagious is universal and automatic.

Because certain people and moods can be more contagious or susceptible to emotional contagion, research has also found that the energy in those moods influences can be more powerful than the actual emotion displayed. Emotional Contagion can ultimately affect our moods and the moods of others.

Importance of Emotional Contagion
Importance of Emotional Contagion

Types of Emotional Contagion

We can better understand emotional contagion and how it affects our mood by learning about the two types that exist, implicit and explicit.

Implicit acts of emotional contagion

They are said to be automatic and less conscious. This includes non-verbal cues and through media communication. Texting and social media platforms are the best examples of implicit emotional contagion. A study done through Facebook users showed that the use of specific advertisements and posts by Facebook friends indirectly influence emotion and mood.

The process of afferent feedback is how we receive and translate information to provide appropriate responses to others in any specific situation, particularly with implicit acts of emotional contagion. Implicit acts require more attention ultimately because we are expending energy to process each situation, and reading others’ emotions is not always an easy task. But by doing this, we do a social comparison of our emotions with others to see if they are appropriate for the situation or not.

In fact, the science of emotional contagion shows that negative emotions are perceived stronger and quicker than positive emotions. In addition, higher energy in implicit emotional acts create stronger and quicker responses than lower energy implicit emotional acts. The more negative the emotions are and the higher the energy, the stronger our reactions may be. This is what results in our changes in mood and the feeling of being emotionally “contagious.”

Explicit acts of emotional contagion

They are used when one intend to achieve something with a purpose through manipulation. Relationships and the workplace are perfect examples where explicit acts of Emotional Contagion are perceptive enough to be effective. Affective influences, like enthusiasm by a colleague or a boss, are how ones’ influence can produce wanted results like better work ethic and goal achievement. Explicit acts of Emotional Contagion refers to the emotional labor that is most appropriate for the case and consequently may feel obligated to express, especially in work environments. Drama and acting skills are said to be a form of explicit Emotional Contagion because it is intentional and acts as a representation of internal thoughts and feelings, otherwise known as “affective impression management.”

A Two-Step Process proposed by Dr. Elaine Hatfield states that we first, imitate the people we are surrounded by and second, that there is a change in mood through “faking” the emotion

Emotional Contagion’s Physiology

Mirror Neurons are the physiological and biological reason behind emotional contagion. Here we have all the information on mirror neurons for a more in depth look at how we use them. In humans, the premotor cortex and the parietal area of the brain, hippocampus and limbic system are responsible for the execution and perceiving of emotions. The mirror neurons are fired when goal related actions are seen or performed by others. Research says that emotional contagion triggers a similar neurological activation as a process of directing experiential understanding. The mirror neurons and neural activation act as a functional mechanism to synchronize what is experienced and what is perceived.

Mimicry and facial feedback are the results of emotional contagion. Mimicry is said to be a foundation in the process of emotional contagion. Synchronization and facial motor representation are the result of the process of afferent feedback and mirror neuron firing. The amygdala is responsible for empathy and emotional response and allows us to experience and express emotion. The brain stem and basal areas, located near the amygdala, recreate the physiological state and in turn allow emotion to affect emotional expression.         

Here is a short, informational video that overviews emotional contagion!

Tips to Keep Emotional Contagion at Bay!

Now we know that it can affect our mood and affect the moods of others, even without realizing it. Here we have some tips if you think yours or others’ moods seem to “infect” the way you behave!

Be Present

When you’re in a situation and you feel any sort of emotional peer pressure, take a moment to think, “Is this how I truly feel or is this how I think I should feel?” By simply giving yourself the option that your feelings may not match your thoughts, you can come to understand which feelings are true to you or only true to who you’re with.

Fake it ’till you make it!

Everyone has bad days—but if your mood or someone else’s mood “contaminating” others, smiling and laughing are simple exercises. The muscle recognition of smiling triggers your facial memory and mirror neurons into believing you are happy, and before you know it, your appearance of happiness may be contagious for others also!

Seek Professional Guidance

If you find that your more aware or sensitive to the moods of others, you can always evaluate those relationships and those triggers. Talking with a trained professional can help you in thought pattern recognition and guide you into healthy coping skills and ward off Emotional Contagion.

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