Have you ever been in a group of people giggling? One person starts laughing at something that no one else seems to have noticed, and soon everyone is cracking up. Or maybe you’ve had your softness completely rough since Eeyore in your group. It’s as if our emotions are harmonizing, coming together at one height, low or high. It’s something most of us have noticed, at least from time to time.
Scientists have noticed it too. It has quite a body of psychological research on top of that, and much of it connects the experience to feelings of empathy and sympathy. But it’s a surprisingly complex phenomenon that can involve physiological and psychological manifestations. It can happen even among strangers and over long distances.
So why do we capture our moods?
Social animals with emotions
in Affective neuroscience: The foundations of human and animal emotions, neuroscientist and psychobiologist Jaak Panksepp argues that the human brain has evolved to support social behavior and social cohesion. We are social animals, and for social animals, the ability to tune in to other people’s moods is a survival advantage. This can be behind contagious emotions.
In an article in Psyche, Jack Andrews, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, suggested another possible reason for contagious emotions. He speculates that among the many potential benefits of picking up on another person’s emotions is that we often use other people’s responses to social situations to help us decide the best emotional response to take.
This can be especially helpful when fear is the moving emotion. You don’t want to be the only person in the group who doesn’t understand the fact that you need to step away from the dude in the hockey mask brandishing a chainsaw.
The dark side of emotions
Of course, there is a dark side. Emotions like depression and anger can also be contagious. If you spend a little time on social media, you will know that there is a lot of anger going around right now. You might even say we’re in the midst of an anger epidemic. Contagious anger is serious these days issue for individuals and society (albeit an advantage for the social media barons who have discovered this anger keeps us engaged).
But even “catching” a toxic emotion like anger can potentially have some survival advantage. If someone is angry with you and that person poses a threat, the ability to muster enough anger to defend yourself can be helpful, even life-saving.
Andrews, who specializes in adolescent mental health, noted that teenagers are more prone to pick up on emotions than adults. He says this may be due in part to the fact that young people have more trouble regulating their moods, which makes them more vulnerable to the influence of others – especially their peers.
However, this is not always a bad thing. Andrews cites 2015 study which found that children with happy friends had a lower risk of depression, or if they were already depressed, they had a better chance of recovery. So it looks like the good may outweigh the bad. The same is true for adults: positive emotions, such as laughter, are likely to be more contagious than the negative ones.
These days, when negative emotions seem to be spreading like the coronavirus, it’s nice to know that we can help each other by spreading a little joy and laughter—a sort of vaccine.