Sharing the same emotions

31.01.2021

We have all experienced at some point the sensation of sharing the same emotion as the people around us.

We are going to try to better understand why this psychological mechanism known as emotional contagion is due , what is its evolutionary usefulness and how it affects us in our day to day life. We will also explore some of the experiments that have been done in this regard to learn about this phenomenon.

What is emotional contagion?

Emotional contagion is a psychological quality by which individuals tend to share the same emotions that people around us are experiencing . This phenomenon is not only limited to the emotions themselves, but to the behaviors derived from them, so we could also observe how certain behaviors also spread easily between people.

In addition, emotional contagion is a mechanism that, although it stands out especially in humans, is not limited exclusively to this species. Some tests have shown that in other animals, such as some types of primate, but also others much more genetically distant from us, such as dogs, they can sometimes use emotional contagion as a means of transmitting emotions.

This phenomenon is of crucial importance for our social relationships, as it is an automatic method of tuning in to the feelings of other people . It is important to keep in mind that emotional contagion can occur both consciously and unconsciously. Therefore, we can experience this tuning in emotions by mere observation of another person, but it is not the only way.

It is also possible to experience this attunement in a more conscious way, in which the other individual exposes what he feels to try to transmit it to his neighbor, who collects it and integrates it as his own emotion as a result of this mechanism, thus favoring emotional contagion. managed.

History of the concept of emotional contagion

Emotional contagion is a concept raised for the first time in 1993, following a study by Elaine Hatfield and her colleagues John Cacioppo and Richard Rapson . This group of psychologists used this expression to refer to an observed psychological phenomenon that consisted of the human tendency to synchronize behaviors with the person with whom they are communicating.

In this sense, they found that the people studied seemed to adopt a body posture similar to that of their interlocutor, used a similar tone of voice and even adjusted their expressions to those of others. But the most important thing is that all this resulted in a harmony in the emotions of both, which led them to use the expression of emotional contagion.

These authors tried to explain this phenomenon through a two-phase sequence. At first, it seems that timing has more to do with the behavioral part. For example, a person can perform a certain gesture, such as smiling, and the most immediate effect on the interlocutor will be to replicate that behavior.

But after that first behavioral matching, comes emotional convergence , since our own behavior, in this case non-verbal language, would also be guiding emotion. It has been shown that the act of performing the gestures associated with a certain emotional state predisposes us to experience that state. For example, smiling makes it easier for us to feel happy.

Therefore, it seems that one of the bases of emotional contagion is precisely that previous behavioral contagion that seems to trigger the reaction of our feelings once we have tuned our behavior with that of the other person who is communicating with us.

Differences between emotional contagion and empathy

Surely the reader will have already anticipated that emotional contagion seems to have a great similarity with the concept of empathy, which also implies a synchronicity in feelings between people. Indeed, they have similar qualities in many respects, but in reality they are two different phenomena.

To be able to distinguish them, one must resort to the characteristic of the autonomy of emotion . Autonomy is a condition that occurs in empathy, but not in emotional contagion. This quality would refer to the ability of the person who is experiencing this phenomenon to distinguish their own experience of emotion and that of the other person.

Therefore, when we experience empathy, what we are doing is putting ourselves in the place of the other person, knowing the extent of their emotions and therefore being aware of what is happening inside. On the contrary, emotional contagion is an automatic process in which, as we have already seen, an automatic synchronization with the behavior and emotions of another individual happens in us.

Experiment on Facebook

In 2012, the social network Facebook carried out a very controversial experiment, in which the effect of emotional contagion came to light. What they did was manipulate in a very subtle way the publications that several hundred thousand of their users saw on their walls. The objective was for a part of these users to be exposed to a specific type of content, while the other group would see the opposite .

Where did they make the difference? In the emotional tint of these publications. Therefore, they manipulated the algorithm so that half of this group of users was more exposed to the posts they usually saw, but only positive, omitting the negative ones. With the other half, the opposite was done, favoring the viewing of emotionally negative publications and trying to avoid those that were more positive.

What did Facebook want to verify with this experiment? Basically, that emotional contagion exists and that it not only works in person, but the phenomenon is just as powerful when it occurs digitally . They verified that their hypothesis was correct by analyzing the publications that these users made after being subjected to a biased viewing, without their knowledge.

In this way, the people who saw content of a positive nature showed a greater tendency to make publications along the same lines, while the expected happened with the other group. Those who were exposed to emotionally negative content, through a process of emotional contagion, in this case digital, subsequently published content with an equally negative tint.

The controversy arose as a result of knowing that, in some way, Facebook was trying to deliberately manipulate the emotional state of some users and also their behaviors, as it was shown that they created one or other publications according to the direction in which they were I would have pushed, without them knowing.

Of course, the failure to inform users that they were being part of a study was also flagrantly unethical. Although the company hid itself from the fact that by accepting the rules prior to the creation of the account, all people should be aware that this type of studies could be carried out, the truth is that they should have informed in an explicit way, asking consent to all participants.

Likewise, this experiment aroused many concerns regarding the danger that such powerful companies and with so many users as Facebook could take advantage of emotional contagion to modify people's thoughts and even obtain a commercial and even political profit from it.

Meta-analysis with rodents

We already anticipated at first that human beings are not the only animals that use emotional contagion. Next, we will analyze a meta-analysis that was carried out in 2020 to know this effect in different studies with rats and mice, to know the similarities and differences between both species in that sense.

The main conclusions reached by this meta-analysis were, first, that both mice and rats were able to demonstrate the use of emotional contagion, at a similar level. It was also found that this effect occurred whether the other individual was known to the subject or if it was the first time he had interacted with him .

One of the main differences found came from the variable of previous experience. In the case of rats, if they had previously experienced the sensation of fear due to a certain stimulus, they were more likely to show emotional contagion or to do so with greater intensity. However, this effect was not found in the mouse samples.

The last of the great conclusions of this meta-analysis had to do with the social proof factor . When this variable was involved, different levels of emotional contagion were found, both in mice and rats.

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