In Stress and Coping

Why are our moods contagious?

In 1962, the reality television show Candid Camera offered a remarkable glimpse into a psychological phenomenon that helps explain how emotions spread. They did it through a now famous comedy stunt called “Face the Rear”.

It’s a common experience for family members or groups of friends: One person’s mood can bring the whole group’s energy down— or up. But why are we so easily influenced?

Elaine Hatfield, a psychological researcher from the University of Hawaii argues that “when we watch other people, for some reason, we’re wired up to get in sync with them on so many things that it’s kind of boggles your mind. … And they calculate that it’s so fast that you couldn’t possibly do it consciously — it’s got to be going through the brainstem.”

Some of the ways we sync with the people around us are more obvious — how we imitate people’s postures and speaking patterns. But others are quiet. Like, how if you’re talking to a friend, over time you may strat blinkinh in time with one another. Or if you watch someone stutter, the tiny muscles on your mouth can start to twitch. And when you’re sitting around a conference table in a meeting? People often start imitating each other’s breathing patterns as well, with everyone breathing as one.

The scientists found out that emotions leak out a person’s face in these very measurable, consistent ways called micro-expressions.

Micro-expressions are fleeting, involuntary expressions of feelings that last a fraction of a second. Our automatic mimicry of these micro-expressions can actually produce the corresponding emotion inside of us. Many studies have shown that one of the ways that emotions are produced is from the outside, in.

So, even though we all walk through the world thinking of ourselves as individuals, Rapson and Hatfield think that is an illusion.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re closely connected to one another, and we contract the feelings and thoughts of the people around us, almost like a virus.

So, the next time you’re in a group and someone’s bad vibes are pulling you down? The best remedy might just be to walk away and go find someone who will contaminate you into a better mood.

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