Before we get into how emotional contagion contributes to social and political upheaval, let’s define emotional contagion. Other people’s emotions can rub off on you; emotions may feel like they move around and can be picked up by those around you.
This could happen, for example, if a coworker overheard a heated discussion involving hurt feelings in a nearby cubicle. They were able to detect emotions. Even if they didn’t know the people or the subject matter well, it could affect this coworker’s mood. This is known as emotional contagion. This occurs more frequently than we realise: in groups, families, and within and between organisations and political factions. This effect can also be seen in video, audio, and social media.
According to Rempala (2013), gion was stimulated in part by the discovery of mirror neurons. Neurons are the cells that conduct nerve impulses through our bodies via the axons and dendrites that extend from the neuron’s body, transmitting impulses to neighbouring neurons. The body contains a large number of neurons. Brain activity similar to that of mirror neurons has been observed in various areas of the human brain. A mirror neuron system is a collection of specialised neurons that “mirror” the actions and behaviours of others (Rajmohan and Mohandas, 2007). The physiology involved is significant because it implies that it is a real thing that happens to us in our bodies and brains and is not just a figment of our imagination.
This means that we easily pick up on and absorb other people’s emotions and then feel them in ourselves as if they were “natural,” even though they are only “mirrored” from someone else. They are not derived directly from an interaction or experience that we all have in our natural environment, such as talking with someone or watching a movie. They instead come from absorbing someone else’s emotions when that person is close to us and interacts with the natural environment. If someone we are with is on the phone with a family member, we may pick up on their emotions.
It is easy to feel as if we have absorbed someone else’s strong feelings, so we use that language to make it easier, even though we haven’t. They are mirrored, just as our reflection in a mirror isn’t really us; it’s just a reflection of us. That experience can be upsetting if we believe we have been infected to the point of absorbing someone else’s feelings, which is where the term “contagion” comes from. It appears to come from within us, but it does not; rather, it is recreated within us by mirror neurons. This is your immunisation: to recognise that they aren’t truly yours. You can, however, let them in if you want. We frequently absorb the emotions of others unconsciously, as we may allow ourselves to do so subconsciously.
We can avoid absorbing the emotions of others through contagion if we consciously recognise it happening at the start. We can stop the absorption so that we don’t feel it inside ourselves by telling ourselves what is going on. For example, if a coworker notices that emotions from a nearby contentious conversation (in which she is not involved) are altering her mood, she could say to herself at the time, “This feeling is not mine,” followed by a more assertive, “I don’t want it,” or similar words. She could also say silently to the sensation, “Get away,” as if she were speaking to an unwanted insect that had landed on her. It may feel strange or awkward to talk silently to a feeling, but we all do it, and it has some power over our feelings. You are refusing to accept the sensation. It is not yours; it is merely a reflection of someone else’s, and you dislike it and refuse to allow it to be absorbed within you.