Emotions: can they be contagious?

I wonder if you managed to avoid catching a cold (or colds) this winter?

With the chilly times behind many of us in the northern hemisphere, I count myself among the fortunate few who made it through winter without getting a dose of the sniffles.

(I do realise, of course, that saying this is seriously tempting fate. I’ll probably be cold-ridden by this time next week.)

Be that as it may, we readily accept that physical illnesses can be contagious.

Sickness is often transmitted from one person to another.

But what about our emotions and moods? Can we affect others through the way we think, behave and feel?

And are we in turn affected by the thoughts, behaviour, and feelings of others?

The answer, of course, is yes.

In fact, psychologists refer to this process as “emotional contagion,” and over the years a number of fascinating studies have focused on it.

Looking back at my own advertising career, it was certainly the case that one of my goals was to change the way people felt about my client’s products or services – just as a sales representative does, too.

If you’ve ever been moved by a film, TV show, or piece of music, you’ve experienced emotional contagion yourself.

As you have when you feel a strong response to either good or sad news related to you by a friend.

There’s nothing odd or (mostly) manipulative about this. These types of reactions are a big part of what makes us human, after all.

A number of more structured experiments have built on these mainly anecdotal experiences to demonstrate the phenomenon of emotional contagion.

In a 1985 study, college students were randomly assigned roommates who were either depressed or non-depressed.

Over a three-month period, students who shared a room with someone who was depressed became increasingly depressed themselves.

Of course, it’s highly unlikely that an experiment like this would ever get the green light these days but its results were certainly eye-opening.

Further work was carried out on college roommates (they get all the luck) in 2003 by researchers at Northwestern University and UC Berkeley, showing that those sharing rooms over time became more emotionally similar. This research study also revealed that the same was true of young couples who were dating. The more time they spent together, the more they, too, became emotionally similar.

In 2009, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler published their important book “Connected: The Surprising Power Of Our Social Networks And How They Shape Our Lives,” part of which examined the records of thousands of people in Framingham, Massachusetts, whose physical and mental health had been extensively tracked over a period of 20 years.

These records also contained information about how those in the study were connected to others in the same research project.

Christakis and Fowler were able to produce maps of these connections, also showing each individual’s state of happiness.

The maps clearly demonstrated that unhappy people clustered with other unhappy people in the network, while happy people clustered with other happy people.

So, given the knowledge that we can be susceptible to the moods and emotions of those around us, what can you and I do to avoid “catching” unwanted feelings?

One helpful action is to remind yourself that someone else’s mood is not your mood.

By all means listen properly if others unload themselves on you, but try hard to observe this, rather than getting drowned in someone else’s gloom.

Another handy tactic is to remember that by lifting the spirits of others, you automatically create a happier space for yourself.

Simple steps like these can help keep you inoculated against others’ low spirits.

An emotional shot in the arm, so to speak.

2 thoughts on “Emotions: can they be contagious?

  1. How very interesting, Jon. Something I’d been mulling over myself for some time, but you expressed and explained it so well. It says a lot about moods, and I believe also in the great power of jokes and comedy, of not taking yourself too seriously. In fact, there are people whose very presence will lead to jokes and high spirits. One of them comes home from a long holiday next week. And I immediately thought of the jokes she’ll have up her sleeve when I fetch her from the station!
    Thank you for an excellent piece, Jon. Appreciate it.

  2. I’ve been meaning to comment here, too, after a rather gruelling week in which I visited my ailing parents-in-law and then my -also ailing- mother in the same week. And came home exhausted. They all approach ageing in very different ways – my parents-in-law are of the stiff upper lip generation so admitting that they are in pain or can’t cope is very difficult. My mother, on the other hand, cries and wrings her hands and blames the world for the difficulties that she faces.
    I am realising that I have to steel myself for the long haul and ensure that, while I try and support them, I mustn’t allow their distress to become mine. Otherwise I’m no use to anyone.

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