Emotional contagion: how do we convey our emotions to others?

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Robert Maurer


Emotional contagion: how do we convey our emotions to others?

Last update: Augusts 02, 2017

Have you ever smiled at your interlocutor and that he returned the smile? Have you noticed what happens when you sit next to someone who is sad and tells you what happened to them? How do the fans feel when their team scores a goal? The answer to these questions lies in a phenomenon known as emotional contagion. Let's see what it is.

Every time we interact with one or more people, the mechanisms of emotional contagion are activated. When we are with our partner, with a group of friends or at work, our relationships are affected by the way we address others.

In this way and in accordance with Daniel Goleman's theory, each of us is largely responsible for the feelings of the people with whom we interact every day, both positively and negatively. However… which mechanisms have this task?

Emotions get infected

The way the bus driver or our partner greets us when we start the day can make us feel ignored, resentful or, conversely, valued. Emotions, even if they are invisible, are infected as if they were a virus, and they do this through an underground exchange in each of our relationships, and we perceive them as negative or positive.

The transmission of emotions is a primitive and unconscious process that acts as synchrony and part of our survival. Through the different mechanisms, people perform an emotional dance to tune into their facial expressions. It all starts with a smile, an angry expression or a few tears. It is enough to see someone express an emotion for the same mood to infect us.

However, genetically speaking, we are all predisposed to take part in this contagion, there are people who have a greater ability to convey emotions or to infect them to others. Hypersensitive people who are like emotional sponges able to absorb any emotional apex that occurs in their surrounding environment, or the HSPs (Highly Sensitive People). There is, however, also the other side of the coin, that is, people unable to feel emotions, such as psychopaths. Nonetheless, who are responsible for this emotional contagion?

The role of mirror neurons in emotional contagion

In the brain there is a group of neurons which, according to Daniel Goleman, they function as a "neuronal wifi" to connect us with other brains and which reflect in us what we observe in others. They are mirror neurons. Thanks to them, for example, we get excited when we watch a movie or worry when someone gets hurt.

When mirror neurons fire up, they activate the same brain circuits that are active in the person we observe. For this, we can feel an emotion like ours, even if we don't feel it firsthand. Thanks to them and to different areas of the brain, such as the insula's lobe, phenomena such as emotional contagion are explained.

It is common to wonder who is the person that marks the emotional tone of a group. According to some studies, it will be the most expressively emotional member if it is a similar group. Well, if it is a work or school context, in which there are differences in power, the strongest person will define the emotional state of the rest of the group. 

Empathy vs emotional contagion

Many people, when talking about the phenomenon of emotional contagion, associate it with empathy; however, even if they have some points in common and sometimes one uses the other, they are not the same thing.

Empathizing means putting yourself in the other person's shoes, taking into account their perspective on life and their feelings. It is an art that not everyone is capable of applying to their relationships with others, but which would be useful if it were used more often. This putting yourself in the shoes of others does not imply depriving yourself of your feelings and emotions. Simply take into account that there are others and try to understand them.

However, the emotional contagion leads to making the emotions of others one's own and not being able to get rid of them, suffering the consequences.

To understand the difference, we can think that empathy is like immersing oneself in water and emotional contagion, on the other hand, corresponds to drinking a glass of water. In the first case we do it to know and understand the behavior of this fluid, in the second, to make it part of us.

Well, this difference does not imply that at a given moment one does not need the other, because to be able to empathize, small doses of emotional contagion are necessary, but without being the victim of an emotional abduction. This does not mean that the emotional contagion is negative, but it deprives us of autonomy and is welcome with positive emotions! Who doesn't like to see a person laughing out loud and infecting us with his hilarity?

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