Emotional Contagion: Connecting by Catching Feelings

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Have you ever had the experience of being in a neutral or bad mood, and then encountering a friend with a big smile on her face and an upbeat attitude, and then noticing an emotional shift occur inside of you?

Or being greeted by a happy cashier, say, while you’re in a bad mood and have a frown on your face, and noticing that the cashier’s smile suddenly fades and he seems less upbeat than he did a moment before?

If so, it isn’t your imagination; these are examples of how humans are hardwired for attunement with one another. You might think of this exchange of emotions between two people when they encounter each other face-to-face as the most basic unit of connection underlying the complex factors that affect your social health.

Your face is like a sneeze

Scientists who study the transmission of emotions from one person to another have found that a primitive, unconscious mechanism—much like a reflex—exists when a person encounters a face displaying an emotion.

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When research subjects are shown a picture of an emotionally expressive face, like the one to the right, first the observer’s face mimics the one they’re viewing, and then physiological processes occur that produce the corresponding emotion in the person. This reaction occurs in the blink of an eye (in as little as half a second) and the strength of the facial expression dictates the strength of the emotion that the observer feels.

In addition to this unconscious, automatic system, there is another form of "emotional contagion" (yes, that's what it's called) that happens with your active involvement.

This system comes into play more often when there is some degree of uncertainty in a situation, and you actively look for cues to help you determine what emotional state is appropriate for it. An example might be sitting down for a job interview and actively scanning for signs of the interviewer’s mood, in an attempt to find a degree of attunement with her.

Much of the research into this conscious emotional contagion has been conducted by marketing researchers in retail settings. A person entering a store for the first time is in a somewhat ambiguous situation, and these researchers are interested in understanding how positive or negative emotions are transmitted from employees to customers.

Obviously, retailers like this kind of research because it helps them better manipulate your emotional experience as a customer, and keep you coming back. (That might sound ominous, but then again, if you must buy something, would you rather feel good or bad as you hand over your money?) However, we can also use it to shed light on the process of attunement and the cultivation of connection with others from scratch.

A more discriminating palate

It turns out that your conscious emotional contagion mechanism has a BS detector built in. In studies that vary the degree of authenticity of emotion that sales clerks display, ranging from genuine happiness to superficial smiling, researchers find that the desired transmission of good feelings occurs only fleetingly when an employee is simply pasting on a smile but isn't really happy to see you.

In a manner not dissimilar from Method acting, service providers who actually conjure the desired emotions within themselves first produce more believable and effective results.

Sociologist Arlie Hochschild dubbed the effort to be authentic in an emotional display “emotional labor.” In her book on emotion management she provides many examples of it, such as flight attendants being taught to imagine that difficult passengers are afraid of flying, so they feel sympathetic toward them instead of irritated.

Connection takes two

Until recently, it was thought that authenticity was the end of the story: that a sufficiently heartfelt display of positive emotion was enough to produce a satisfactory encounter with someone, but that isn’t the case.

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In their experiments in mock retail settings, scientists have found that no matter the authenticity of the emotional display (happiness in this case), the customer doesn’t leave the store feeling good unless rapport is established.

That is, once authentic emotions are being exchanged and both people become aware of and build upon that connection through their interactions, only then is the door to a satisfying encounter opened. Without that direct connection between the two people, the mechanism falls apart. So, the chain of events would look like this:

authentic display of emotion  -->  perception of emotion as authentic  -->  rapport  -->  satisfaction

What it means for you

We know enough of the negative impact of social isolation and the positive influence on both parties of supportiveand attuned relationships, beginning in infancy, that there is no question that deep connection with other people is necessary for a human to thrive. As we’ve seen here, we even begin to merge emotionally with others automatically at the mere sight of emotions on another’s face.

When you’re interacting with someone you already know well, there is little ambiguity in the situation and you probably trust the authenticity of their emotional display. Therefore, you’re likely to quickly and unconsciously find common emotional ground with your friend.

Stronger emotional displays tend to evoke stronger emotions in the other person, so the one displaying the stronger emotion—whether positive or negative—is going to move the other in the same direction. This might explain your experience if you’ve ever been feeling “blah” and found yourself feeling buoyed by the appearance of a chipper, smiling friend.

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But when you’re establishing a new relationship with someone, there is a more deliberate exchange of emotional information taking place—as much nonverbally as verbally—through which you’re trying to minimize ambiguity and maximize comfort. Central to this process is the ability to actually connect, and not just monitor incoming and outgoing emotional displays.

When you encounter a new person, it’s like two fax machines trying to connect. There is an initial, tentative exchange of beeping, chirping, and static as both sides try to size up the situation and the other person but then, through the static, a connection is made.

Sometimes, that initial static of ambiguity lasts for too long, and the connection never occurs because of smaller, ego-driven concerns, like how you might be perceived by the other person if you reveal more of yourself. That’s where you need to make some effort.

You’re already predisposed to connect beneath the surface with others, but the sizing up and connecting with your authentic self are conscious processes in these situations, so it’s up to you to incline yourself toward an honest representation of your internal experience if you want to make it happen.