In the 1990s, psychologists at the University of Hawaii noticed that when interacting with clinical patients, that they too, had the tendency to ‘catch’ their emotions. They would mimic the facial expressions expressed by their clients, resulting in them feeling the same emotions and moods as that of their patients. You can probably relate to a similar experience when you are interacting with others. You speak to a friend, or family member who relates a difficult situation, and end up feeling as if you were experiencing it yourself. This occurs because mimicking others’ emotional expressions is a mostly subconscious, automatic way of empathizing with others. Psychologists refer to this process as ‘emotional contagion’ – the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person’s, and, consequently, to converge emotionally . Simply put, emotions are like a virus – they can spread from one person to the other because of our tendency to mimic the non-verbal, emotion cues we see in others.
Emotional contagion subconsciously nudges our mostly automatic mimicry tendencies so that we get as close as possible to experiencing another’s emotional states. Psychologist Elaine Hatfield, who first proposed the theory, explains that empathy can be explained by the three underlying emotional contagion processes of mimicry (copying another’s emotional expressions), feedback (our facial expressions influencing how we feel), and eventually, contagion (sharing the experiences of emotion with the person we are interacting with) .
Studies have even shown that it may not be necessary for us to interact face-to-face with another person for emotional contagion to occur. In a well-publicized, albeit controversial study, researchers manipulated Facebook users’ news feeds, so that they would either see more positive news on their feeds, or more negative ones when they logged on. The results from a sample of close to 700,000 respondents, collected over a 20-year period showed that emotional contagion does occur in a non-face-to-face, online setting. Manipulating news feeds to portray more positive news led users to post more positive news themselves. When news feeds took on a more negative tone, users posted less upbeat updates and fewer positive news themselves . It seems that all that is needed to emotional contagion to occur is the mere observation of how others’ are feeling. Like computer viruses, it emotions too, spread virtually – through online social networks.
Emotional contagion – both the pleasant, and unpleasant emotions we catch from others, are central to facilitating social interactions. Our innate mimicry tendencies helps smooth social interactions and empathize with others, but it can also cause us to take on too much of others’ emotions. Here are some tips on how you might exert a bit more control over this mostly automatic process:
• Identify who’s affecting your emotions. Some individuals are great for a boost of positivity, others seem dour and pessimistic all the time. You can’t avoid unpleasant emotional contagion from your relationships all the time, but you can at least build the networks and relationships that help you balance out your less pleasant interactions.
• Recognize and acknowledge your susceptibility to others emotions. Do people tell you that you are you a good listener? Are you sensitive to, and observant towards others emotions? Individuals vary in their susceptibility to emotional contagion. Recognizing how much you can take on others’ emotions is a good way to be aware of how much you can empathize before it takes a toll on you.
• Schedule downtime for self-care. Even if you don’t work in a profession that requires you to engage with others’ emotions, it helps to take time out to take care of your own emotions. Practicing self-care, perhaps by engaging in hobbies you intrinsically enjoy can be a way to replenish your emotional resources.