Last Updated on July 15, 2021
Here’s my newsletter issue on Emotional Contagion published today. It’s not my best writing but it’s one of my favorite mental models so I rushed it out this week. (It’s been sitting in draft for over a year so it’s definitely time to channel “done > perfect”.)
What is emotional contagion?
Emotions can be “caught” from other people. This may make sense intuitively – maybe you notice you are drawn to happy people or avoidant of people when they are angry.
We tend to unconsciously mimic those around us. We mimic facial expressions, vocal expressions, and postures of those around us. This causes us to “catch” others emotions as a consequence.
How does this happen?
Scientists have captured the attunement of emotions in the laboratory by measuring the physiology — such as heart rate — of two people in conversation. As the interaction begins, their bodies operate at different rhythms. But after 15 minutes, the physiological profiles of their bodies look remarkably similar.
Scientists describe the open loop as “interpersonal limbic regulation”; one person transmits signals that can alter hormone levels, cardiovascular functions, sleep rhythms, even immune functions, inside the body of another. …in all aspects of social life, our physiologies intermingle. Our limbic system’s open-loop design lets other people change our very physiology and hence, our emotions.
Emotions can even be caught without a single word being uttered:
Psychologists found that even completely nonverbal expressiveness can affect other people. For example, when three strangers sit facing one another in silence for a minute or two, the most emotionally expressive of the three transmits his or her mood to the other two — without a single word being spoken.
The open loop limbic system
Scientists describe the open loop as “interpersonal limbic regulation”; one person transmits signals that can alter hormone levels, cardiovascular functions, sleep rhythms, even immune functions, inside the body of another. That’s how couples are able to trigger surges of oxytocin in each other’s brains, creating a pleasant, affectionate feeling. But in all aspects of social life, our physiologies intermingle. Our limbic system’s open-loop design lets other people change our very physiology and hence, our emotions.Understanding the Science of Moods at Work
The book Primal Leadership: Unleashing The Power Of Emotional Intelligence is an amazing read, here are some excerpts that explain the concept of emotional contagion really well.
“group members inevitably “catch” feelings from one another. …[Researchers] found that in 70 work teams across diverse industries, people in meetings together ended up sharing moods — both good and bad — within two hours. One study asked teams of nurses and accountants to monitor their moods over weeks; researchers discovered that their emotions tracked together, and they were largely independent of each team’s shared hassles. Groups, therefore, like individuals, ride emotional roller coasters, sharing everything from jealousy to angst to euphoria. (A good mood, incidentally, spreads most swiftly by the judicious use of humor.)”Primal Leadership: Unleashing The Power Of Emotional Intelligence
On the bright side, Goleman wrote that a “study by the Yale University School of Business Administration found that in work groups, cheerfulness and warmth spread the fastest, while irritability is less contagious”.