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The Science is in: Emotions are Contagious

What scientific research on emotional contagion in groups can teach us during the pandemic

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Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash
Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Catching a Feeling

This pandemic is more than a virus, it is also a feeling. Or perhaps more accurately a collection of feelings that ebb and flow through us like collective gasps and breaths. Despite isolating in our homes, our emotions resonate beyond the walls that contain us.

I remember the last day I was in the office, sometime in March. A group of my colleagues stood in the hallway in a semicircle. I walked over to hear them discussing their pandemic panic purchases. One co-worker, Erin, had bought bottled water on Amazon. Another, Greg, had run to the local outlet store and bought one of the last rolls of toilet paper. Each was wishing they had been able to buy more. I mentioned that I hadn’t panic bought anything yet. Neither Erin nor Greg dignified that response with a verbal response, they just looked at me with pity.

The conversation quickly switched gears to a more heightened level of panic. We began wondering how much longer our business would stay open. The NBA had closed down. Greg said there were no sports to watch on TV anymore. He wasn’t sure what to do with his evenings, what team would he root for?

As I wandered back into my office, I didn’t feel calm. I felt like I should have bought toilet paper, bottled water, and watched sports on TV while I had the chance, even though I have plenty of TP, don’t follow any sports or use plastic water bottles.

I felt frisson, that emotional cocktail of fear and excitement best described as that feeling you get right as the rollercoaster is dropping over the edge and your stomach drops out.

I hadn’t felt that way a moment before. But after speaking to my office mates I did.

That’s when I began to learn that emotions are as contagious as a virus. We can catch and give feelings.

It is an automatic process that begins as early as six months when infants mimic the emotions of caregivers. A lot happens with mimicry, we mimic a smile of a friend and that influences our own mood, we then start to feel happy. But we are not aware at a conscious level that we “caught” that happy feeling from our friend, we think it is our own.

Wharton Professor of Management, Sigal Barsade, whom I spoke with over the phone, was the first to study the phenomenon of emotional contagion in groups.

Before she became an academic, Barsade was working in a start-up open-office environment with a co-worker who was irritable and highly-negative. One week the co-worker went on vacation, and the whole office vibe suddenly seemed more cheerful. “I literally felt my shoulders lower, and I thought if one person who isn’t even my boss can have that impact… My God, imagine if that person is your boss!”

This emotional network that ripples beneath the surface of all our day-to-day interactions, shaping how we in groups, offices, and teams feel, is the focus of Barsade’s research on emotional contagion.  It is especially relevant now, during a pandemic. 

“One of the points I’ve been making is that it is not that we don’t have a reason to be anxious, it is that you don’t want to be even more miserable than you would have been otherwise. That can happen if you catch the anxiety.”

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

We feel an emotion like fear for anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes. What we might not be aware of is that if we are in a group, we might catch that feeling from someone else. It is important to note this doesn’t just happen in person, it can happen on Zoom calls and infamously on Facebook News Feeds.

“Despite the relative lack of non-verbal feedback, emotional contagion of both positive and negative emotions has been shown to spread via computer-mediated communication,” writes  Barsade, Constantinos G.V. Coutifaris, and Julianna Pillemer in their review article “Emotional Contagion in Organizational Life.”

No matter if it is from a text or a conversation, we are more likely to catch an emotion, according to Barsade, for three main reasons: 1) if we are already close to that emotional state, 2) if we are paying attention to the person emoting, or 3) if we are naturally more susceptible.

If you want to know if you are more emotionally susceptible, just ask yourself do you cry at commercials? For me that’s a check, if there is a cute puppy involved.

Tactics for Emotional Awareness

But that’s not the end of the story, we aren’t all doomed to feel the frenzy of emotions for the duration of this pandemic.

A bright spot is that Barsade has found that different types of feelings – sad, happy, anger, joy – all transfer at the same rate. “I think that’s actually very encouraging in this time period, serene and calm can transfer as much as screaming at people,” says Barsade. “You can put positive contagion into the world.”

“You can put positive contagion into the world.”

Wharton Professor of Management, Sigal Barsade,

There are a few simple steps we can take. The first is just being aware of the phenomena of emotional contagion, says Barsade. That alone can help you differentiate your own feelings from that of others.

Next, focus your attention away from the negative, and put positive emotions out to counteract the negative sources.

Here’s how that might work. Let’s say I could go back to that moment with my co-workers in the hallway. Instead of joining in the coronavirus prepper conversation, I could try to switch the topic to the latest Netflix comedy  special. It is simple, and effective.

Pair these tactics with self-care strategies like meditation, yoga, exercise, and activities you enjoy to boost your overall emotional state of wellbeing. Doing so will make it harder for you to catch emotions like anxiety, fear and panic.

Photo by madison lavern on Unsplash

“We found that if your natural personality matches the emotion that is being ‘contaged,’ you will be more likely to have that particular emotion,” explained Barsade. You can still catch an emotion that isn’t a match to your personality, but it won’t be felt as strongly. Essentially, if a person is in a happy state it is a further “emotional walk” to a state of say sadness or panic, and thus they are less likely to catch those feelings and even if they are the effect is likely to be minimal.

“Sometimes the boring answers of ‘take care of yourself’ make sense. It’s not always the magic psychological fix that one hopes for,” says Barsade, “but it is very, very powerful.”

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