Emotions are Contagious

December 15, 2010 § 4 Comments

“Laugh and the world laughs with you, Weep and you weep alone,” begins Emma Wheeler Wilcox’s poem Solitude. She wrote it in 1883 shortly after her train ride to Madison, Wisconsin where she was looking forward to attending the governor’s inaugural ball.  Enroute, she noticed a crying young woman dressed in black.  Emma sat next to her and comforted the woman for the rest of the trip. When she arrived in Madison, Emma was acutely aware of how depressed she felt. She wondered if she would even be able to attend the festivities.

smiling frowning woman

More than 100 years later science has proven that indeed, emotions are contagious.  In a 2008 Harvard Business Review article, “Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership,” Goleman and Boyatzis reported on the behavioral neuroscience discovery of mirror neurons in our brains. Think about what happens to you when you’re near someone who yawns.  That’s mirror neurons being activated. This class of brain cells apparently act like neural Wi-Fi that help us detect someone else’s emotions and create a quick shared experience.

When you’re at work and someone smiles at you, these mirror neurons light up (faster than you are aware of cognitively) and make you smile as well.  There’s a subset of these neurons whose only focus is to detect others’ smiles and laughter prompting smiles and laughter in return (Aha!  the science behind the TV laugh track!)

Mirror neurons are important in leading people.  A leader’s emotions and resulting behaviors prompt others to mirror those feelings and deeds. Research showed that if you have a boss who is easygoing, smiles, laughs and generally sets a positive tone, you have people around her that act more like that, are more bonded, and perform better. According to Goleman:  “…top-performing leaders elicited laughter from their subordinates three times as often (compared to) mid-performing leaders.” Leaders who appeared solemn, self-controlled, and humorless “..rarely engaged those neurons of their team members,” and those leaders didn’t perform as well.  For you sales people: Individuals who are anxious and stressed make others feel similarly, which decreases the likelihood of a sale.

The take-away: Being aware of your emotions and how you are behaving is the foundation of emotional and social intelligence.  Be thoughtful of what you are feeling and how you’re behaving, especially in stressful situations.  New York City Mayor Rudi Giuliani recalls the morning of 9/11 and credits the advice his father gave him:  “In a crisis, you have to become the calmest person in the room.”

To see emotional contagion in action, check out this 2 minute CELTICS FAN CELEBRATION video (hint: Full screen & volume up!)



§ 4 Responses to Emotions are Contagious

  • Anne Romney says:

    Allen – I love this. Thanks for sharing the laughter – Tim and I cracked up. Actually, I really like all 3 blog entries. The EI insight is helpful and makes sense that follow-up is key. The Trust article rings so true to my experience. Chris Roland mentioned some folks – I think in Marblehead or Newburyport who have done a lot of work on trust in the workplace – are they mentioned in your blog? Good luck with this endeavor. I look forward to reading more. You’re an excellent writer.

  • Thanks Anne. Appreciate the thoughtful and kind words. Rob Galford, one of the authors of “The Trusted Advisor” lives somewhere in the Boston area. He may be one of the people who Chris works with. I’ll check with Chris.

  • Gretchen Cherington says:

    I’ve always been impressed, even with very good leaders,how often they are unaware of their emotions and/or the impact of those on the people around them. Even with their emotions are “positive” they may not know how to leverage them well in their team; likewise,when they have “negative” emotions, they sometimes don’t know how to use the power of the emotion/vulnerability to make things happen. Enjoying your posts, Allen!

  • Bob Faw says:

    I like the way you ground your insights in brain science. I’m big into that myself.
    Emotions are contagious, as you say. When I work with you, your confidence spreads through your employees. Everyone feels stronger and more capable; partly due to your self-confidence, and partly due to your confidence in others.
    I find too, that when I do public speaking, the more authentic and upbeat I am, the better the audience responds. I was reading in “Scientific American Mind” today that even talking about emotions causes our bodies to experience the some of the same affect as experiencing them directly.
    Keep up the great posts!

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