Emotional contagion. It’s the way emotions trigger similar emotions in people around them. It’s the reason that everyone around you suddenly gets grumpy when you come into work late and irritated. It’s also the reason that when one dog barks, every other dog in the vicinity barks wildly, too. I’m barking! He’s barking! We’re all barking! We have a tendency to mimic the facial expressions and emotional states of those around us. And it happens quickly. It’s been called instinctual. Humans do this along with other primates and dogs.
Most of the time, this sort of mimicry takes place unconsciously. Someone smiles at me. I smile back. We both feel good. On a grander scale, I watch the new Star Wars trailer, and it gives me goose bumps 9 times per viewing because it is powerful stuff and it’s fun to go along for the emotional ride. I see their heroism, their passion, and I remember every other Star Wars movie I’ve loved. I recognize the music, and boom, I’m mimicking what I see and hear on the screen. It’s powerful because artists and experts know how to manipulate my emotions to get the response they want. This is emotional contagion working at its best, ‘infecting’ people with enthusiasm and happiness.
But emotional contagion has a dark side, and unfortunately, the dark side is potent. It turns out we also have a negativity bias, which makes us notice any negative thought, emotion, or event more than a positive one. It doesn’t mean that negative events are more significant necessarily, but it means that we tend to focus on them, and that can make us more susceptible to catching someone else’s depression, fear, anxiety or anger.
So, we can make the world happier one soul at a time, but the jerk who posts a racist comment on Facebook instantly makes 400 people angry.
My Facebook feed used to be filled with food, puppies and vacation pictures, but ever since the election, it has changed into a rage feeding monster. Someone or some organization posts an inflammatory video and zooooooom, here we all go, barking like mad dogs along a suburban road. Trolling. Name calling. Anger. Rage. Fact flinging.
The truth is that some stories on Facebook were created to gain eyeballs and gather dollar signs. I want to remind my fellow Facebookers, that if something seems inflammatory, it is. It was created to start an emotional contagion, and negative emotions encourage lightening fast emotional response, just what some marketers want.
So, these days, in an effort to undermine the negative emotional contagion and strengthen a positive one, I do my best to notice how provocative pieces were crafted for impact. I give my attention to the calm voice in the crowd, the voice of reason with a respectful tone. I admire the person who talks to his neighbor across the fence about a divisive issue. I adore the person who discusses politics with curiosity and without animosity.
We can all do a better job regulating our own moods in response to inflammatory comments. I’m not advocating for hiding one’s head in the sand, for turning away. No. We need engaged citizenry. We need people to say no. But there’s a way to do it that doesn’t incite more emotional chaos in its wake. It’s too easy to put people down, make statements in anger, and call people names. Undermining, hurting, or hating others should not be tolerated. But, we owe it to the world to be the best us we can be. I applaud all of you out there who manage your own emotions, speak out against what you see as wrong, and do it in a respectful way.
A calm world begins with us. A compassionate world begins with us. A rational world begins with us.