Emotional Contagion is infectious – emotional states are transmitted from person to person at astonishing speeds.
As a performance hypnotist I know that one volunteer giggling uncontrollably can, and in a matter of seconds, infect the entire group, rendering the induction sterile.
Infectious giggling I thought I had left behind at school, although I can still remember occasions when classes were disrupted beyond saving by a perfectly timed insertion of schoolboy humour. In less than a second, the entire class would be straining not to laugh, desperately trying to keep a straight face while simultaneously praying for the moment to pass or a quick end to the lesson. The problem was, the more you tried not to laugh, the more you wanted to. Ah… those were the days! It’s the old ‘try not to think of pink elephants’ paradox.
As if we didn’t suspect this already, experts at Reading University have confirmed that people can ‘catch’ each other’s emotions and feelings, which spread like a ripple effect [or more like wildfire] to those around us. Mirroring others behaviour is a natural part of the human condition, and this applies as much to laughter as much as it does to enthusiasm, stress, and even depression or eating disorders – and particularly so in teenagers. In fact contagion affects the whole gamut of human emotions. It can even spread from humans to animals, especially pets, dogs being particularly empathic.
A group of academics at Reading studied the behaviour of pupils at two schools over a three-year period, namely Queen Anne’s School in Berkshire and Westminster City School in London, both first class establishments. Queen Anne’s, an independent day and boarding school for girls, is involved in a pioneering neuroscience project designed to analyse student behaviour. The school even runs its own Brain Can Do project.
Queen Anne’s ‘life and learning’ programme is aimed at year 10-13 students and involves teachers and parents as well as experts from business, technology and academia. The head teacher, Julia Harrinton, has arranged for staff and pupils to have access to technology such as MRI scans when the University of Reading study begins in earnest. Mrs Harrington believes the experiment could help teachers identify who was responsible for causing disruption in the classroom – as if experienced teachers wouldn’t know this already – ours did! Nonetheless, it’s set to be an interesting study and I await the results with the same excitement as I did when we all awaited the unmasking of the culprit who hoisted the English master’s bicycle up the flagpole during morning assembly when I was fourteen.
But all this is just an introduction to the more serious issue of emotional contagion, which is really just Mass Hysteria Light.
In a carefully observed study, psychologists have discovered that the body posture of people working around you can improve your concentration and focus. Now this really is important news because it has ramifications for the way we study, the way we work, and the way we interact with others.
In another study carried out earlier this year, a team of psychologists from St. Louis University claimed that stress could be ‘caught’ from strangers. They also claim that it could lead to ‘heroic’ behaviour in others.
The study involved a group of volunteers who were asked to perform either a public speaking exercise or a mental arithmetic challenge while others observed. Researchers measured the level of cortisol and stress-related salivary enzymes in the stressed speakers and compared those results to those of the observers. They found the stress response in the observers was proportional to that of their paired speakers. Parents have the same reaction when they watch their children perform in the school play or perform their piano piece in public for the first time, so this is nothing really new, but it does explain the biology behind the emotion.
So stress can be communicated and can be passed on by factors which include tone of voice, facial expressions, posture and, if you’re close enough, odour.
Again, this all makes perfect sense because, drawing on my personal experience as a professional musician, especially of my time with the Max Jaffa Orchestra, when each member of the band had a dedicated ‘solo night’ which came around once every three weeks (once every week for me) I can vouch for the fact that other members of the orchestra were sincerely rooting for you. As soloist – I had to play two showy pieces every Saturday night – I was acutely aware of the support of other (and more experienced) members of the band on my behalf. The same was true when the situation was reversed and I unconsciously lent my support to others, except for the oboist who was something of a cow, but that’s another story.
But moving on… the study also suggests that if you are about to start a piece of work that requires a lot of concentration, it might be better to surround yourself with other people who are hard at it themselves. And again, any visit to a university or reference library will confirm this. For some people, the sound of occasional coughs and pens falling to the floor can also provide the perfect backdrop to getting some of their best work done. This might well be true, because I am typing this from my notes whilst sat in the Emirates Business lounge at Manchester Airport, the nearest thing to academia in my life at the moment! Other passengers are quietly getting on with their business and because we are not surrounded by those less fortunate than ourselves in cattle class, there is a very professional atmosphere, helped along by the leather chairs, the displays of up-market magazines, five-star buffet and free champagne.
Anyway, my point is that the researchers have only just now got around to discovering why this happens and why it appears that other people’s concentration is also contagious. The level of effort being exerted by people nearby can have an influence on the way you perform. Again, this is especially true of performance and especially true of large-scale performance where perfection and emotion work hand in hand. Think symphony orchestra or air-traffic control centre.
This could explain why many people prefer doing work in coffee shops, pubs, in fact anywhere where we are in the company of others, though they be strangers, there for the same reasons. They tend to be busy places where the background noise of other people working, including the staff, is part of the overall experience.
Worthy of a mention here is that a study carried out in 2012 by scientists at the University of Illinois found that ambient noise could also help to enhance people’s creativity.
The latest study of unconscious group behaviour is being led by Kobe Desender, a psychologist working at the Vrije Universiteit of Brussels, Belgium. Desender thinks the posture of one person can automatically and unconsciously influence people nearby. This is true – was this not why we were all encouraged to sit up straight and pay attention at school? It is well known that military displays that include marching and other synchronised activity can affect individuals at an emotional level, even to the point that they may sometimes wish to be part of it. Military tattoos were always a way of encouraging people to enlist, particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
However, Desender and his team are not exactly sure why it has an influence but they speculate it is to do with the more tense body posture adopted when someone puts more effort into a task. There may of course be other factors, such as a change in scent as people concentrate more that could be signalling a shift in attention levels.
Reporting their findings in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, the researchers said the results, based on tests on 19 pairs of participants, provide a compelling demonstration that the exertion of effort is contagious. All of the participants were observed to see how similarly they performed tasks while in sight of each other and also while separated.
Pairs of participants took turns playing a computer game, which was ‘tweaked’ to make it more difficult for either the first or second player. The researchers found that the harder the players concentrated, the more the other player concentrated and this in turn led to better scores. However, if the game was made easier, so much so the first player didn’t need to put very much effort into it, the less the second player concentrated, resulting in a lower score. This suggests that low effort will also be copied.
Again, I can see an almost perfect correlation between this experiment and a sloppy orchestra. Professional musicians levels of concentration are of the very highest – next time you watch the Proms, take a close look at the players – they are all sat up straight and their body posture just screams concentration. The result is obviously a better performance. The same is equally true of team events in sports.
So, working in the vicinity of highly motivated people may well get better results – it might be better to work in the library or in a quiet corner of the café, rather that work from home, with its myriad different distractions.
The impact of sitting next to star performers in offices is so large, that just changing seating arrangements to group the right types of co-workers together can boost business productivity by more than 15%.
Conversely, toxic workers – the ones who end up being fired for misbehaviour – tend to drag down people around them. In fact both effects are so disruptive, researchers say that disruptive workers should be dispatched as quickly as possible.
Researchers from Harvard Business School examined the role an individual employee’s attitude can have on office productivity. Other studies that have already looked at how office culture can affect performance, but the Harvard study analysed two years of data on more than 2,000 employees of a large technology company with several locations in the US and Europe.
The Harvard study looked at information such as when they were hired and fired, the reasons for their termination, where they sat and how they performed. They measured how long it took workers to complete tasks, how often they were unable to complete a task without a colleague’s help and how happy their bosses were with the final result.
‘Spill-over’ from their performance on neighbouring colleagues was also examined. The results revealed the substantial impact that both ‘stars’ and toxic influences can have in the office.
Any negative performance from workers can spill over to fellow workers and negative spill-over effects happen almost immediately. However, the effects vanish within a month once the toxic worker has been removed. Sitting complementary colleagues together can boost this positive effect.
The researchers also found that putting someone who works quickly but produces average results with someone who works more slowly but produces higher quality results leads to benefits for both. But when such pairs were separated, the benefits disappeared.
The findings suggest the effect was due to inspiring harder work, rather than learning new skills. It also explains why toxic workers have the opposite effect and why this also disappears once the worker in question leaves.
The team found that a worker’s performance affects that of their neighbours by approximately 10% and that an average performer seated next to one who is twice as productive results in their co-workers increasing their productivity by around 10%.
It’s also possible to pick up moods from friends just by being around them. New research from the University of Warwick analysed data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, a US government project set up to study the moods and friendship networks of school-age teenagers.
They found that moods and symptoms of depression often spread, although not depression itself. The results, published in the Journal Royal Society Open Science suggest that mood can spread across social media friendship networks.
The research could help inform public health policy and thus the design of interventions to combat depression in teenagers. This is especially important because more and more teenagers are self-harming and contemplating suicide.
Part of the responsibility for this lies with social media – teenagers are uniquely suggestible and more susceptible to trends. However, the phenomenon is not limited to teenagers and adults are sometimes just as susceptible.
The research team closely examined individual components of mood, such as appetite, tiredness and sleep, spreading through friendship networks. They found evidence to suggest mood may spread from person to person via a process known as social contagion.
Their findings show that mood does spread over friendship networks, as do different symptoms of depression such as helplessness and loss of interest, but they also found that the effect of friends’ depressive moods was not strong enough to push other friends into depression.
They also found that having more friends who suffer worse moods can lead to a higher probability that an individual will not only experience low mood but also a decreased probability of improvement. However, the opposite is true of teenagers who were members of a more positive social circle.
Previous studies have found social support and friendship helps improve mood disorders in adolescents. Recent experiments suggest that an individual’s emotional state can be affected by exposure to the emotional expressions of their social contacts. Support from friends can be of enormous value to those suffering from depression and can certainly help by spreading positive – rather than negative – mood.
Sub-threshold levels of depressive symptoms in adolescents is an issue of great current concern as they are believed to be not only very common, but a significant cause of reduced quality of life and lead to greater risk of depression later in life.
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