Have you ever…
… walked into a meeting room and immediately sensed that something was not right?
Or left an event totally upbeat because of the speaker’s enthusiasm?
Or felt pissed off at one of your friends because her bad mood spoiled it for everyone?
Chances are high you did.
What you experience in such a situation (and many others) is called emotional contagion, and it’s one of those intangible mechanisms centered around emotions and their function. It is a scientific term describing how people’s moods can literally spread to others around them. As a matter of fact, emotional contagion is not restricted to humans: other social animals also display this behavior.
There is an ongoing debate about what actually causes emotional contagion and why.
Hatfield et al. suggest that emotional contagion has to do with specific cells in your brain called “mirror neurons”. It works like this: a person around you feels a certain (internal) emotion and displays corresponding (external) behavior and body language. Your brain analyses these external clues: the other person’s voice, facial expressions and other nonverbal cues and mimics them, causing you to mirror the other person’s voice and expressions. But it doesn’t stop there: your “mirror neurons” then reconstruct the emotion that best fits this external behavior, making your emotion converge with the other person’s emotion. Although some people are much better in this than others, it is a phenomenon that happens subconsciously.
A longitudinal study of 4,739 individuals followed for 20 years in real life social networks revealed that a person is 15% more likely to be happy if a directly connected friend is happy, 9.8% more likely if a friend of a friend is happy, and 5.6% if a friend of a friend of a friend is happy.
This study not only shows the correlation between an individual’s happiness and that of their friends (happy people seek out happy people), but has a few good arguments for actual causation (happy people cause others to be happy).
But it gets weirder (or creepier, if you will).
Emotions go digital
Voice, facial expressions and other nonverbal body language turn out not to be the only clues our brains use to pick up on emotions of others. The written word can do it too. Emotional contagion seems to be working in the virtual world as well.
In 2012, Facebook and Cornell University conducted a week-long massive experiment on a random sample of 689,000 Facebook users. The website manipulated the news feeds of their “sample” to determine whether or not the presence or absence of emotional words affected their feelings and subsequent posts. As it turned out: positive posts elicit more positive posts; negative posts lead to other negative posts.
The ethics of this study surely are highly debatable (the experiment also considered whether this emotional provocation influenced what Facebook users chose to “like”), and a love affair between scientists and the private sector is highly suspicious to begin with, but the experiment did show how contagious human emotions really are and infers that emotional contagion indeed can be instrumental to happiness.
Making deliberate use of emotional contagion may sound cynical and manipulative, but aside from the – perhaps – Machiavellian nature of the Facebook experiment, using emotional contagion can actually be very positive and beneficial to a person and their direct social environment. And everyone can do it.
You can do it too!
Emotional contagion is not hierarchical: the “sending” part of emotional contagion is not reserved for people in power and the “receiving” part is not restricted to subordinates or powerless consumers. It might even be the other way around. A study carried out by Johnson on emotional contagion and leadership shows leaders to be more susceptible to emotional contagion than followers.
Executives, team leaders and team members alike can use their mood to create a more positive workspace.
Parents can use positive emotions on their children and affect their behavior accordingly.
Friends can cheer up their night out by neutralizing or – even better – elevating the bad mood of that one friend that is spoiling the evening.
After all, emotional contagion was first observed in the interaction between only two people, and although recent studies suggest it even works on a massive scale in the virtual world (which can make it seem creepy), it has never stopped working on the old fashioned interpersonal micro scale of course.
Every human being is empowered to employ their emotions to influence others. And this implies that everyone – executive, parent, team member, friend, spouse, team leader alike – can use their own mood to make the lives of the people around them a little happier.
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