Your wife’s facing a deadline for a major work project. She’s worried and the whole house is on edge, even though it shouldn’t be, logically. First, she’s killing it with the project and she’s fretting over nothing. Secondly, the stress should stop with her. You’re not on deadline. Neither are your kids. Nonetheless, the tension permeates the entire family. Why? Credit a little phenomenon known as emotional contagion.
Under the theory of emotional contagion, moods and emotions spread from person to person in the same manner as germs. Expressions of happiness, anger, sadness and other emotional states trigger an automatic mechanism in our brains, causing us to feel the expressed emotion. While degrees of emotional contagion vary from person to person, social science data shows that the effect strengthens over time.
So, “Happy spouse, happy house” isn’t just a trite piece of marital advice. It can also be a literal truth, with emotional contagion growing into emotional convergence.
“We only found it to be a good thing, predicting a stronger bond and longer-lasting relationship,” Berkeley Haas School of Business professor Cameron Anderson says. “Being on the ‘same page’ means feeling validated, affirmed, acting more in concert with each other, and understanding each other better.”
Pioneering social psychologist Elaine Hatfield proposed that moods are transmitted virally in her 1993 book Emotional Contagion. Noting how people unconsciously mimic their conversation partners’ vocal patterns and body language, Hatfield theorized a three-step of emotional contagion: mimicry, feedback, and synchronized emotions.
You know how baby’s smile when you smile at them? That response doesn’t disappear as we age. Smiles and frowns make our cheek muscles twitch. That’s why someone yawns in a crowded room, it’s like a domino toppling over a succession of exhausted faces.
This initial mimicry stage occurs instantly and precisely, with the person infected by the mood responding in real time to small changes in expression, like blushing or increased rate of blinking.
The next stage is feedback, where the brain responds to the involuntary muscle movement by firing off a corresponding emotional sensation. In other words, if you start smiling, your brain revs up production of feel-good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin. Once you’re feeling what the other person is feeling, the table’s set for the third and final stage of shared experiences and synchronized emotions.
Just as how some people seem to catch colds all the time while others easily fend off the sniffles, vulnerability to infection from emotions vary from person to person. In a brain scan study, people with higher rates of empathy displayed neural activity distinct from less empathic ones. The results indicate that empathy is an ability that allows people to easily read and mimic other’s mental state.
In relationships, one person may have more susceptibility to catching emotions than the other.
“Relationships often have an asymmetry in power, in that one partner has more influence than the other,” Anderson says. “It is the more powerful partner that drives the emotional convergence process — meaning they change less over time in their emotional responses.”
In relationships with this empathy power dynamic, the less powerful partner winds up doing more of what Anderson calls ‘emotional work’ for convergence to occur. “They change their own emotions to match the more powerful partner’s emotions over time,” he says.
Since Hatfield introduced the concept in the ‘90s, psychological, neurological and other fields of research have supported her theory and explored its implications. It seems that emotional contagion doesn’t happen the same way with every person or every emotion. Anger, for example, can make us initially angry but ultimately afraid. While studies as far back as the 1970s show that depressive moods can spread in as quickly as 20 minutes via phone calls, a controversial 2014 Facebook study where researchers flooded social media users’ news feed with upsetting content indicated that moods can be caught via social media as well.
In the 2003 paper Emotional Convergence Between People Over Time, Anderson studied roommates and couples in relationships and found that romantic and platonic couples living in close proximity experienced emotional convergence.
“Dating partners and college roommates became more similar in their emotional responses over the course of a year,” he says. “Relationship partners with less power made more of the change necessary for convergence to occur.”
Not surprisingly, finding common emotional ground strengthened relationships, with emotionally similar partners growing more cohesive and less likely to break up. Reflecting on that conclusion, he suggested that couples might experience an unexpected benefit from sharing long periods of togetherness and isolation under COVID-19 quarantine.
“My hunch is that the more time people spend together, the more emotional convergence occurs,” he says. “There would be more opportunity to observe each other’s emotions, and the benefits of emotional similarity might be that much more pronounced.
That’s not to say that all couples will benefit from all the pandemic-borne togetherness.
“The flip side of this is that the downsides of emotional dissimilarity would be that much more pronounced with more time together,” Anderson says. “Think of a relationship wherein one person tends to be ‘flat’ emotionally and the other tends to be bubbly all the time. After spending months in close quarters together, you can imagine how this disconnect would lead to problems.”