Emotional Contagion (noun)- the tendency to feel and express emotions similar to and influenced by those of others; also, the phenomenon of one person’s negative thoughts or anxiety affecting another’s mood
When it comes to human health and wellness, we are truly living in the most interesting of times. The medical community is now capable of prolonging human life, keeping us healthy, active, and vital in ways unimaginable as recently as 50 years ago. We have access to a wealth of information on how to improve the functions of our minds, bodies, and spirit right at our fingertips. Diseases that once killed millions have been eradicated and more cures are being discovered every day. Despite what you may think about war and violence, we are statistically living in the safest time in all of human history. So why do so many of us neglect our physical and emotional health, feel frightened and unsafe, and live our lives waiting for the next disaster? The answer very well may be found in human social psychology.
Human beings are, by design, social animals. We are this way because millions of years ago our ancestors needed to bond together in tightly knit communities in order to survive. Humans are simply too frail and ill equipped to survive solo. For thousands of years, our species has survived because of conforming to group norms, ideas, and beliefs. This need to conform, fit in, and imitate others is primitive on some levels and, in many cases, automatic. Many of us like to think that we are “our own person,” unique and nonconforming individuals. Sometimes we are, but most who feel that way actually are not. They’ve just found some subgroup that they identify with and imitate. People, ideas, and lifestyles that are truly unique and different are frequently mocked, ridiculed, and shunned by the society at large, being labeled as immoral, perverse, or just plain weird.
Emotional Contagion is the tendency of two or more individuals to emotionally converge, sometimes creating an emotion that neither one would have ever felt alone. The word contagion is defined as the “spreading of a harmful idea or practice by the close contact of one person to another.” Modern man has never had more capacity for perceived close contact with others due to the instant access of the Internet and social media. On many levels, we know this, referring to ideas that spread quickly as “going viral,” in the same manner that the Black Plague once raced through Europe. Most of which goes viral is harmless, innocent, and cute – puppies, kittens, and babies, acting in endearing ways that put a smile on our faces. A lot of other stuff that goes viral is poor journalism, biased news, and fear provoking information that many of us end up perseverating over, taking on a lot of fear and anxiety that we not only can’t do anything about, but in many cases comes from information that is simply not true. (See also http://mindbodycoach.org/going-unplugged-age-distraction/ and http://mindbodycoach.org/craze-rage-enjoy-anger-despite/ )
I’m sure that more than a few of those reading this will initially respond with a “not me” attitude. Keep in mind that this synchronization of emotions can occur on a conscious or unconscious level and is not always negative. American social psychologist Elaine Hatfield has devoted much of her working life studying, measuring, and quantifying Emotional Contagion. She describes it as a two-step process:
1. We imitate people. If someone smiles at you, for example, you smile back.
2. Changes in mood through faking it. Through the act of smiling you become happy, if you frown you feel bad. Mimicking the actions of others creates the emotional connection between people that leads to the taking on of the others emotions. (See also http://mindbodycoach.org/fake-till-make/ )
All humans are susceptible to emotional contagion. Some organizations-athletic teams, schools, religions, and corporations-consciously, or at least semi-consciously manipulate others in this manner. The results can be either positive or negative, depending upon a variety of variables. It’s not always bad, sometimes creating pro-social values and inspiring pro-social activities from a larger group. On the other hand, it’s also the emotional state that led to the Salem Witch Trials, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Holocaust. It’s important to recognize this, become aware of Emotional Contagion when it is occurring within you, and make a more conscious decision of how far you want to go with the emotion that it evokes.
Social psychologist R. William Doherty of the University of Hawaii has developed what he calls The Emotional Contagion Scale, which he published in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior in 1997. It is reprinted here, see how susceptible you are too Emotional Contagion:
The Emotional Contagion Scale
This is a scale that measures a variety of feelings and behaviors in various situations. There are no right or wrong answers, so try very hard to be completely honest in your answers. Read each question and indicate the answer which best applies to you.
Use the following key:
5. Always = Always true for me.
4. Often = Often true for me.
3. Usually = Usually true for me.
2. Rarely = Rarely true for me.
1. Never = Never true for me.
1. If someone I’m talking with begins to cry, I get teary-eyed.
2. Being with a happy person picks me up when I’m feeling down.
3. When someone smiles warmly at me, I smile back and feel warm inside.
4. I get filled with sorrow when people talk about the death of their loved ones.
5. I clench my jaws and my shoulders get tight when I see the angry faces on the news.
6. When I look into the eyes of the one I love, my mind is filled with thoughts of romance.
7. It irritates me to be around angry people.
8. Watching the fearful faces of victims on the news makes me try to imagine how they might be feeling.
9. I melt when the one I love holds me close.
10. I tense when overhearing an angry quarrel.
11. Being around happy people fills my mind with happy thoughts.
12. I sense my body responding when the one I love touches me.
13. I notice myself getting tense when I’m around people who are stressed out.
14. I cry at sad movies.
15. Listening to the shrill screams of a terrified child in a dentist’s waiting room makes me feel nervous.
Note: The higher the score, the more susceptible to emotional contagion a person would be said to be. Happiness items = 2, 3, & 11. Love items = 6, 9, & 12. Fear items = 8, 13, & 15. Anger items = 5, 7, & 10. Sadness items = 1, 4, & 14. Total score = all items.
Source: Doherty, R. W. (1997). The Emotional contagion scale: A measure of individual differences. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 21, pp. 131-154.
An awareness of your own susceptibility to this phenomenon allows you to make a more intelligent decision when it comes to dispensing your emotional energy. Being aware of where you spend this energy is an important part of your life experience and your emotional, physical, and spiritual wellness. You will be more aware of what thoughts and emotions are truly your own. Take a moment to fill out the Emotional Contagion Scale and see where you stand. Become more aware of what baggage and whose baggage you decide to carry. Lightening this load is bound to lead to less stress, anxiety, and a more fulfilling life for you and those around you.
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