Emotional Contagion — Why You Must Be Careful Who You Surround Yourself With

Jim Rohn famously said that we are “the average of the five people we spend the most time with.” It’s an incredibly powerful and sobering thought. It makes us reflect — who are the people around us and how do they influence us?

What most people don’t appreciate is the extent to which people influence you emotionally. This spans across all areas of your life, including intimate relationships, friendships, colleagues, and family. Who we surround ourselves with impacts us beyond habits and behaviors — it can physically affect the way we feel. As we are going to see later, this isn’t restrained to in-person relationships and has even been observed through online social media.

Think about it, have you ever hung around someone whose enthusiasm was infectious and inspiring? What about a person who always complains about everything? Did you feel yourself starting to become agitated and compelled to moan without any real reason? How about a relationship with someone lazy but lovable, or the mood of your WhatsApp group chat completely disintegrating within seconds?

The phenomenon is called “Emotional Contagion” and nearly thirty years of research have proved its validity. Catching emotions is a real concern, especially if you love to build relationships and help others. This article is dedicated to showing you how Emotional Contagion works, where it may be affecting you, and what you can do to protect yourself.

The Science Of Emotional Contagion

As defined by Elaine Hatfield, a pioneering researcher within Relationship Science, Emotional Contagion is:

“The tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person’s and consequently, to converge emotionally.” — Hatfield 1993

A groundbreaking study conducted in 1992 by a Guacomo Rizzolatti discovered brain cells that responded equally when we perform an action and when we witness someone else perform that same action. In other words, seeing someone sad could fire off those same cells and create the same sensation within us.

Within Neuroscience, those cells are now referred to as ‘Mirror Neurons’ and they have provided the foundation of studying emotional transfer ever since.

According to this study, the process of emotional contagion leverages these neurons through three stages:

  1. Mimicry — People tend to automatically mimic the facial expressions, vocal expressions, postures, and instrumental behaviors of those around them (firing off mirror neurons)
  2. Feedback — people feel a pale reflection of others’ emotions as a consequence of such feedback.
  3. Contagion — The result is that people tend to catch one another’s emotions.

When we break down the circumstances above, it becomes apparent how important Rapport and Intensity of emotion are for facilitating this process. The more rapport we have with someone, the more likely we are to mimic their behavior and thus start to feel their emotions. Likewise, the stronger the emotion, the more impact the transfer will have on us.

For example, you may find it hard to fight back tears when a close friend has been crying, even though the context doesn’t apply to you. That’s an example of rapport, mimicry, and subsequently emotional contagion.

As we move forward to look at the scenarios that could be relevant in your life, I want you to consider that awareness is the first step. In many cases, we are unconsciously assimilating emotions. Bringing them to our attention is a critical step in being able to prevent unwanted transference.

Let’s look at some areas of life that can be affected by the unconscious spread of emotion.

Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

Your Relationship

If you are in a romantic relationship, perform an honest appraisal. What do you both bring to each other from an emotional standpoint? What are the strongest emotions prevalent in your interactions, and who is the originator of them? Remember when it comes to Emotional Contagion, the stronger feeling wins.

You may be very fond of your partner, despite the fact they are inherently prone negative, unmotivated, or pessimistic. The question you need to answer honestly is whether your partner’s emotional state is infecting you frequently.

We often want to give our partners a chance to change, even though we know it’s unlikely. It’s time to start raising the standard of who you choose to spend your intimate life with, and that means potentially making difficult decisions.

Many of us are attracted by the idea of fixing people, particularly in relationships. Rather than hoping for your partner to change, why not consider finding someone who affects you in an emotionally beneficial way? What if you could find someone whose passion, positivity and ambition drive you to be the best you can be?

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Your Friendships

If you’re someone who loves to help others or maintain deep friendships, it’s even more critical that you protect yourself and be willing to make tough decisions on who you spend time with.

Let’s be clear — friends rightfully expect to share problems. There is no need to shy away from hearing your close friends difficulties or hiding from any display of humanity. This isn’t about living an emotionless life — it’s about protecting yourself and controlling how you feel.

What we need to avoid is spending time with people who don’t want to help themselves. I think we can all relate to having that one friend who repeatedly complains about how shit their life is, asks for advice, but does nothing to change their situation. You provide suggestions as to what they can do to move forward, but they bat them away with a barrage of excuses without ever trying. They may genuinely be extremely sad or de-motivated, yet at the same time unwilling to do anything about it.

At this point you have three choices:

  1. Raise your energy and positivity to an overwhelmingly infectious level
  2. Make a conscious decision to surround yourself with more positive people
  3. Allow them to pollute your emotions.

Most people will tend towards option three without knowing it. Humans suffer from loss-aversion — we hate to lose anything we have invested in, regardless if it’s value is minimal. The only person you’re hurting is yourself. What’s worse is that you aren’t even helping your friend. It’s a no-win scenario.

Sometimes you need to respect yourself and have more say in who you allow into your life. Follow either Option One or Two, and take back control of your emotional state. If you decide to raise your energy, you’ll find people are attracted to you, and your environment transforms dramatically. If you choose to surround yourself with positive people, you’ll assimilate all that euphoric energy. Those are win-win situations in case you didn’t notice.

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

Beyond In-Person Interactions — Social Media

If you thought this was limited to in-person interactions, think again. One of the largest platforms that could be affecting you is social media. Facebook conducted an incredibly controversial study in 2014 to investigate “Massive-scale Emotional Contagion through social networks.”

User’s News Feeds were manipulated to show either positive or negative content. The researchers then measured the percentage of positive and negative words in the relevant users status updates. The results showed that the content of the News Feed influenced users updates.

Here is an excerpt of the findings:

These results suggest that the emotions expressed by friends, via online social networks, influence our own moods, constituting, to our knowledge, the first experimental evidence for massive-scale emotional contagion via social networks (3, 7, 8), and providing support for previously contested claims that emotions spread via contagion through a network.

The study goes on to note two critical observations:

  1. The News Feed is not directed at any individual, and thus contagion is possible without direct interaction
  2. Textual content alone appears to be a sufficient channel — as opposed to the prior beliefs that non-verbal mimicry was required

Regardless of whether we understand the mechanisms behind these findings, what matters most is it provides more compelling evidence of how our emotions are being manipulated by external means, indirectly, and via text.

How much time do you spend browsing social media? Which friends are posting frequently? What’s the overall nature of the content you are consuming?

In a time of such global crisis and worldwide political turmoil, from Trump to Brexit, our feeds are increasingly full of anger, hatred, anxiety, and conflict. Take the time to perform an honest appraisal of what you are consuming as a whole. Are there pages or perhaps even people that you should be unsubscribing from? Conversely, could you be looking for more positive or humorous content to elevate your mood continually?

Final Thoughts

Emotional Contagion is real, and it’s affecting your life whether you like it or not. The first step is to acknowledge its existence and where it may be prevalent for you. The next step is to decide what you are going to do about it.

If you’re a person who finds it hard to control your emotions, it may very well be that you need to review the people in your life. It could also mean evaluating your consumption of social media.

Remember, it’s not selfish to set yourself high standards and put your needs first. Don’t ever be shy to review your relationships and friendships. This is your life, and you get to decide how you live it. Be a person who takes responsibility and chooses to surround themselves with positivity, ambition, passion, and love.

The choice is yours.

Make it happen.