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Emotional Contagion

Emotional Contagion
January 25
10:42 2020

Emotional Contagion

By: Dr. Abigail Joseph

It is intriguing to observe cultural differences. Those of you who follow me on Facebook would know that I enjoy travelling to Mexico. Full disclosure – it’s the culture and the social discipline I crave and appreciate the most. Studying in Cuba, I learnt the culture of waiting in line to go into a store and developed the habit of asking who was last in a crowd where there seemed to be no line. We made lines to enter the bus, and no one was shoved and people were respectful. Now before I continue, I am in no way bashing my own country. I’m just simply stating some of the things I enjoy when I travel. There were restaurants that we weren’t allowed to go sleeveless, and banks that did not allow shorts nor flip flops. Yup, show up like that and you would not be allowed in. We also used to have to leave our cellphones in a basket. Cultural exchanges really open your eyes to many aspects of life. I especially enjoy crossing the border because the difference in our behaviour is clearly noted. We form lines quietly, we throw garbage where it belongs, we respect traffic and we do not back chat Mexican officials. Seriously, the change in behaviour fascinates me. It proves that we are capable of change and doing the right thing but we choose not to because of the social influences of our country.

Belize is particularly on a downward spiral with regards to our reaction to negative stimuli. Violence and crime are rampant and popular in the most passive regions of our nation. It seems as if negative emotions are contagious and we are experiencing an epidemic. Every night on the news are complaints of gang rivalry, rogue police officers, corrupt political parties, mysterious planes “landing,” plenty of missing persons, murders, daytime shootings, and the lot goes on. Just last week the news spoke about a parent punching a teacher in the face, a tomb and coffin broken into and the dead exposed and a man remanded to prison for bludgeoning a toddler to death. We have parents cursing out teachers because their children failed. We have parents encouraging bullying in schools by verbally telling their children to inflict harm or simply by teaching them through their lack of respect for the teacher that it is ok to do the same. We fail to realize that children learn by mimicking our actions. More and more we observe that people are feeling entitled to their states of anger and not to the consequence of their actions.

Anger is considered an emotional contagion that spreads within the brain by 4 mechanisms. Firstly, we engage cortical pathways that produce mimicry. This concept is explained by understanding that we reason it being better/safer to be a part of a group rather than singled out. Copying is one way that we “fit” in. Behaviors that are most contagious are those that are emotionally engaging, especially by those that are considered relevant to you. The second mechanism of emotional contagion is found in the brain’s dopamine system. This is where the brain functions in anticipation of a reward. This concept will allow you to align with factors that are socially important for your survival. This means that if you anticipate that you will be rewarded for bad behavior, or responding unkind or to someone with anger and violence, then your brain will most likely attach that behavioral trait. The interesting thing about this behavior is found in the third mechanism. Where if we are hindered from our reward system, there are actual pain centers of the brain that are activated. This ensures that you stay on the path of anger. The fourth mechanism is trauma. The limbic system and the amygdala become hyper reactive in persons that have gone through trauma and abuse. This causes them to be less in control and accelerates violent behavior. It also makes them more likely to get angry and quick to react.

A study from Tilburg University in 2018 tested emotional contagion on social media. Despite later being criticized by their invasive methods they were able to prove that viewers readily caught emotions. Adam Kramer, a Facebook data scientist tested the emotional contagion by manipulating 680,000 news feeds on the platform. In a nutshell, he exposed some to negative posts, some to positive posts and some with a mixed diet. The study showed that “people exposed to fewer positive words made fewer positive posts themselves, whereas those exposed to fewer negative words made fewer negative posts. You feel your feed.”

However, the same can be said about real life experiences. Psychologists use the example of when a child misbehaves. If your partner downplays his or her response, you find it necessary to compensate for your partner’s lack of emotional response by amplifying your own. Social Psychologist Ron Friedman from the University of Rochester expresses that putting people in a room with a highly motivated person improves their motivation and performance. In like manner, when a participant is paired with a less motivated person they experience a drop in motivation and performance even if they avoid verbal communication and are completing separate tasks.

But how can being near someone affect our feelings, motivation and behavior?? Well, humans are social animals. We are constantly regulating each other’s nervous systems. It is possible for you to text someone halfway around the world and without seeing your face or hearing your voice you can affect their breathing, their heart rate, and the amount that they sweat. Emotional contagion is an “autopilot phenomenon.” Choosing your company wisely is one way of protecting yourself from catching negative feelings. Being assertive and taking control of your emotions are key. Aim to be more curious rather than certain of what people are feeling. Dr. Barrett a clinical psychologist expresses that our brain is on a metaphorical budget. It is easy to catch a bad mood when we are in deficit. She encourages us that we should eat properly, get enough rest and exercise regularly.

“Never take anything personally, People have their issues and they have nothing to do with you. Do not encourage or even engage with bad behavior online, or anything that doesn’t ‘feel right.’ Bad behavior breeds bad behavior: If you send out calm, positive signals, you are less likely to attract negative people.”

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