Everyone knows yawns are catching (even from a photo, even from a dog). But so are moods, and we pick them up without even realizing it.
About 20 years ago, psychotherapist Elaine Hatfield, PhD, discerned something strange in the way she was feeling during counseling. Whenever one particularly cheery-seeming patient would come in for her appointment, Hatfield, a young professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, would inexplicably find herself feeling quite depressed. Other times, in sessions with a pleasant, relaxed young man, she felt an uncharacteristic shyness. She had similar experiences with colleagues. Talking with an arrogant, competitive professor, Hatfield always felt as if she'd said something stupid although she knew she hadn't. During one of these painful exchanges, she began to notice brief expressions of anxiety on his face, a rise in his voice, twitching in his body as he shifted from foot to foot—all signs that he was uncomfortable and looking to prove himself. "This discomfort wasn't going on in me," says Hatfield, "but in him. The same with my patients. I was catching what they were really feeling."
When Hatfield realized she was onto something, she teamed up with colleagues to pinpoint the process. They discovered that, from infancy, all of us imitate facial expressions, postures, and voices of the people around us. Those expressions trigger certain emotions—the same ones experienced by the person we mimic. But the process happens so fast, we're completely unaware of it. Mimicry is a basic biological mechanism that may confer an evolutionary advantage, says Peter Totterdell, PhD, senior research fellow at the University of Sheffield in England. It helps you understand what another person is feeling and thinking—even when she's trying to hide it.
The science of emotional contagion goes back to 400 B.C., when Hippocrates, the founder of medicine, observed that some women seemed to transfer "hysteria" to one another. By the 1700s, researchers began to discover that people mirror the smiles and frowns they see on someone else's face. In the late 1800s, German psychologist Theodor Lipps took the idea a step further, suggesting that this unconscious imitation was the root of empathy. But it's only within the past several decades that scientists have begun to understand the dynamics behind such exchanges, finding that "emotional contagion" affects all human relationships, from marriage to business to professional sports.
Paul Ekman, PhD, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California at San Francisco, supplied one piece of the puzzle when he discovered that facial expressions for seven emotions—anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, contempt, and happiness—are the same around the world. One of the first signs of sadness (and perhaps what Hatfield saw on the face of her depressed patient) is a lift at the inner corners of our eyebrows. A hint of anger is a tiny thinning of the lips. The signs are subtle, Ekman says, "but once you learn to spot them, you can see them as they occur."
In a 2002 study, a Yale University researcher found that emotions don't just hop from one person to another; they also influence group dynamics. Sigal G. Barsade, PhD, now a professor of management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, separated 94 business students into small groups, each with the same hypothetical task of allocating employee bonuses. Barsade secretly planted one student in each group to act out a different emotion: enthusiasm, hostility, serenity, or depression. When the infiltrator was enthusiastic, he smiled often, looked intently into people's eyes, and spoke rapidly. When he feigned depression, he spoke slowly, avoided eye contact, and slouched in his seat.
Barsade measured participants' moods before and after the exercise and found that students who caught the actor's positive emotions were perceived by others and by themselves as more competent and cooperative. The positive groups also believed they were more collegial than those in the bad-mood groups. But when Barsade asked the students what influenced their performance, they attributed it to their skills. "People don't realize they are being influenced by others' emotions," she says.
Totterdell noted similar results when he studied four teams of professional cricket players: The overall good mood of the team lifted spirits of individual players, and athletes on happier teams played better. Unhappy moods transferred less readily, which Totterdell suspects is because gloomy players tended to withdraw emotionally from the team. He also found that players were much more likely to catch one another's emotions when they were involved in a shared effort like fielding than an individual one like batting.
This effect is magnified in marriage—a relationship largely founded on emotions. A glum spouse can torpedo the spirits of his wife, Totterdell says. A study of older couples at the Arlene R. Gordon Research Institute in New York bears this out: One spouse's depression predicted the onset of the other's. And in a study at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, researchers found that the stress borne by medical students resulted in a depression that they transferred to their partners.
Interestingly, negative emotions are usually more infectious than positive ones. Despite the cricket-player study, humans usually react more strongly to pain, fear, sadness, and disgust than to joy and serenity, says John T. Cacioppo, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and coauthor, along with Hatfield and Richard L. Rapson, of Emotional Contagion. One of the functions of sadness, he says, is to solicit help from others. Pain, fear, and disgust are usually linked directly to survival instinct. If, in the presence of predators, prehistoric man had reacted more strongly to food than to danger, he would have been less likely to survive and reproduce. "When both good and bad are very strong, the bad trumps," Cacioppo says. In fact, when he recorded electrical activity in the brain, he found that negative emotions elicited a stronger reaction.
Some people are also particularly vulnerable to catching emotion; others excel at emitting it. Expressive, dramatic personalities send stronger signals, while, not surprisingly, attentive, empathetic observers are more likely to pick up on someone else's emotional display. One new clue to susceptibility comes in the form of yawns. In a 2003 study at the State University of New York at Albany, lead author and biopsychologist Steven Platek, PhD, found that those who caught other people's yawns tended to be more empathetic than those who didn't, although it's not clear why. Research also suggests that women are much better than men at reading, and thus catching, others' emotions. As women, Hatfield says, "we're trained from a young age to be sensitive to what others are feeling. Men usually aren't, but that's changing."
Being an attentive woman doesn't automatically make you susceptible to every passing storm. To determine whether you're a mood catcher, watch for rapid changes in your feelings. If you were in a fine mood but suddenly tense up when you join your husband, that's a clue: He may have brought his irritability with him. Or if every time you talk to a certain colleague you feel an unfamiliar awkwardness, it could be your coworker having the tough time. Once you recognize that you've caught someone else's mood, try distancing yourself. If your husband's doldrums are tamping your joy, look for a chance to retreat. "Be kind and loving for an hour, then take a break," says Hatfield. "Read, go to the movies, or take off with cheerful people." Preempt grumpiness brought on by visits to your in-laws by booking a hotel room. Counter-contagion is another helpful trick: Try offsetting your mate's moodiness with smiles. If his bad mood is chronic, though, Barsade suggests telling him exactly how he makes you feel. You can't cure his depression, but sometimes just knowing he's affecting you can help motivate him to break the pattern. "He may not even be aware of the emotion he's transferring," she says.
Often, creating internal distance can be most effective. "Instead of identifying with someone, take an intellectual perspective," Cacioppo says. "Step back and think about the reasons for that person's distress and the best ways to cope with it." If you come home to a grouchy partner, consider what could have caused it—maybe a flopped presentation or a lapsed deadline. Once you know the cause, you'll have a better idea of what you can do to help, whether it's leaving him alone for a few hours or making yourself available so he can vent. But if you're the type who succumbs to someone else's emotions, do so only temporarily. As doctors do with patients, empathize and then withdraw.
Contagion creates a roller coaster of emotion, but it also offers insight. Human beings are complex, and understanding someone else's feelings can be difficult. Without the innate ability to catch others' emotions, we'd be even more at sea. The trick is to strengthen your ability to withstand (or avoid) the black moods squalling your way and counter them with a smile worth catching.
Dorothy Foltz-Gray has written for Health and Organic Style magazines, among others.