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What is emotional contagion?

Dr. Marsha Lucas
Psychology
Hook people up to some electrodes designed to measure their facial responses, then subliminally flash facial expressions on a computer screen they're watching. Even when the images flash so quickly that they're below the threshold of conscious awareness, the subjects' facial muscles will match the expressions on the screen. Simple mimicry? Apparently not -- because if you ask subjects afterward to rate how they feel, the ones whom you've subliminally exposed to smiling faces say they feel good. And the ones to whom you've shown the frowning faces feel worse.

Congratulations! You've just entered the first level of empathy.

Emotional contagion's a useful thing, really it is. Take, for example, a herd of zebras. One of them notices a lion -- that zebra's emotional state of arousal and alarm spreads throughout the herd like lightning. None of the zebras pause, stand pensively with hoof to temple, and muse, "Gee, I wonder if Phil's got a gas bubble or if we're all about to be eaten?" One zebra feels it, and very quickly they all feel it, automatically activating their evasive maneuvers before becoming lunch.

Imagine your human self walking around at a festive gathering of other humans. From across the room, you see a group of other humans you know and trust, and you see them laughing. You smile, and maybe you even feel yourself tickled in your belly, too. Tag! You've been emotionally contaminated!

Or you're in a pretty good mood when your partner comes home from work. She has a tight look on her face, her jaw is clenched, and her briefcase gets plunked a little too firmly on the floor. Your facial muscles shift immediately and there's a tightness in your stomach. Tag again!

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.