Contagious Emotions

March 14, 2016

A few months ago I had a bad day at the office, starting out with an altercation in the parking lot with the security guard (resulting in a $200 fine) and then a political play by a fellow colleague that I didn’t expect.

I was a mess for the rest of the day, all that night, and the next few days. It suddenly occurred to me that I might just as well have been sick with the flu – as if I had picked up a nasty virus. And that was my mini-eureka moment: if we can catch the common cold from other people, maybe we can catch toxic emotions from other people. A type of emotional infection.

Can emotions be toxic? Ever felt so nervous that you felt sick in your gut? Maybe emotions have a larger impact on us then we give them credit for.

Fear, anxiety, an unrealistic urge for omnipotent control (micro-managing), helplessness, disgust, uncertainty, anger, and slander can all be toxic. And perhaps more worrying is these toxic emotions can be transferred unconsciously.

We like to think of ourselves as emotionally intelligent – but unfortunately all of us have an inbuilt flaw: emotion is contagious and we can be infected unconsciously. In the fascinating book Emotional Contagion (1994), Elaine Hatfield tells the story of how for years she was infected unconsciously with anxiety from another colleague. Every time she met with him she came away feeling as if she had said something stupid or had bored him. But during one particularly heated discussion she realised that she was only paying attention to how she felt; her own feelings instead of his.

So she stopped focusing on herself and began to analyse his state. It occurred to her that even though he was successful, popular and intimidating, at the core he was acutely anxious. The signs were subtle: brief twitches, a slightly elevated pitch in his voice, shifting weight from one foot to another. The next time they met, instead of worrying about her own emotional state, she focused on sending reassuring signals to her anxious friend. It worked; they both settled down.

This incident shows how sensitive we are to the pervasiveness of others’ emotions. Even though we may think we are emotionally intelligent – and perhaps some of us are emotionally aware – when it comes to contagious emotions that we pick up unconsciously (like a virus or the common cold) we are in the dark.

Arne Öhman, a psychologist at the Karolinska Institute (responsible for deciding the recipients of the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine), has developed countless experiments focusing on the influence of emotion, especially fear. After all, fear can be useful. In a dangerous environment, fear can help keep us alive.

Scientists have identified four types of fear: (1) fear of death, (2) fear of animals, (3) agoraphobic fears – distress caused by confined spaces, or large crowds, or places where there is no escape such as bridges, tunnels or trains – and (4) social fear.

Social fear manifests in social interactions where there is a fear of criticism, conflict, rejection, or aggression. Social fear is a genuine fear, but is it useful? Arne Öhman’s experiments measured people’s heart rate, skin temperature, and various other physiological responses while showing pictures of snakes and angry faces. But the images were disguised. The snakes and angry faces were only shown for 30 milliseconds before pictures of flowers appeared. In other words, the snake was too quick to see.

The results were fascinating – even though the subjects couldn’t see the snakes and the angry faces, they felt them. And their body was quick at preparing to defend themselves. Their heart rates went up and they showed increased skin conductance responses. It was as if their body was preparing for fight or flight without asking for permission.

Joseph LeDoux, director of the Emotional Brain Institute at New York University, says “our brain is basically an unconscious machine.” This machine is capable of processing much more than we give it credit for, as exemplified in fear of a threat to our safety: the speed of emotional processing seems to bypass conscious thought. This has been described as an “inescapable emotional response” or an “automatic mechanism” independent of cognition. In other words, our intuition. Arne Öhman believes that a considerable amount of emotional activity is constantly (and automatically) monitoring the world around us, independent from our conscious thought.

But should we trust this emotional activity? Should we trust our gut feeling? Or perhaps an even better question is: how much of an influence do our emotions have on our every day decisions?

The answer is found in the work of Antonio Damasio, a Portuguese born professor of Neuroscience who speaks with a calm demeanour and wears circular spectacles (in the same vintage style as John Lennon). He has accumulated a wealth of knowledge on the subject of consciousness and developed an influential theory known as the Somatic Marker hypothesis. It is based on the remarkable survival story of Phineas Gage who was working on Vermont’s railroad expansion in 1848. An accident involving dynamite sent an iron rod through Gage’s left cheek and out through the top of his skull. The strike seemed deadly, but he survived. Months later, the attending physician was recorded as saying, ‘I dressed him, God healed him.’

Even though Gage survived, he walked away with a new personality: a destructive demeanour that was not consistent with the successful (and friendly) Gage prior to the accident. He was no longer himself, despite his miraculous survival. He began to make unreasonable decisions which made him unemployable, he tried working on horse farms but was prone to quit or was fired for lack of effort. He died from an epileptic convulsion thirteen years after the accident, at the age of thirty-eight.

Today, his skull (and the tamping iron that caused the injury) are on permanent display at the Warren Anatomical Museum of Harvard University.

Gage’s story suggests there is a section of the brain that is responsible for deciphering emotion and social interaction. Just as there are certain sections that are responsible for language and motor skills. Our ability to function in social settings (such as the work environment), as well as our ability to take pride in our work, act ethically, and obey social conventions, all seem to occur in the section of our brain known as the Ventromedial region in the pre-frontal cortex. Like Gage, many patients who have suffered damage in this area seem to be hindered in their daily decision making and social interaction. There lives seems to fall apart because of poor decisions.

Damasio’s conclusion: decisions were no longer informed by emotion. Impaired decision making was the result of the legion that disrupted neural pathways between the pre-frontal cortex and the amygdala (the region of the brain responsible for decision-making and emotional responses). Emotional feedback plays a crucial role in decision making.

Therefore, if some emotions are contagious and emotions play a crucial role in our decision making, the people we surround ourselves with do have an influence on us. Our colleagues, or team-mates, or family members emotional state does affect us. We know this because we can receive an e-mail or have a conversation with someone and be in a bad mood for the rest of the day.

Like that day a few months ago, I let the security guard and my colleague get under my skin. I allowed them to infect me with their own anxiety and insecurities. “Toughen up” I can hear my grandfather shouting at me, and don’t get me wrong the world doesn’t owe us any favours. But if we are working with others on a daily basis, toxic emotions can start to fester. The solution:  we need to build up our own immunity and  realise the power we have at infecting others with our toxic emotions.

And now for the good news, if we can infect other people with our emotions, why not choose to make a person’s day, instead of ruining it.


“Whatever we plant in our subconscious mind and nourish with repetition and emotion will one day become reality.” – Earl Nightingale


Notes & References

1. Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J. T, & Rapson, R. L. (1994). Emotional Contagion. New York: Cambridge University Press.
2. Öhman, A., Flykt, A., & Esteves, F. (2001). Emotion drives attention: detecting the snake in the grass. Journal of experimental psychology: general, 130(3), 466.
3. Scientists have identified four types of fear – see: Arrindell, W. A., Pickersgill, M. J., Merckelbach, H., Ardon, A. M., & Cornet, F. C. (1991). Phobic dimensions: III. Factor analytic approaches to the study of common phobic fears; an updated review of findings obtained with adult subjects. Advances in behaviour research and therapy, 13(2), 73-130.
4. Joseph LeDoux
5. Ohman, A., & Wiens, S. (2001). To think and to feel: nonconscious emotional activation and consciousness. Ed. Kaszniak, A. Emotions, Qualia and Consciousness. World Scientific, Singapore, 235-246.
6. Damasio, A. R. (2006). Descartes’ Error. New York: Random House.

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