There’s an epidemic spreading called Emotional Contagion. Some folks call it the “Bandwagon Effect.” We are each of us susceptible to infection.
Scientific studies have long since proven that it’s a natural instinct for all animals to pick up on and share in the emotional responses of their group. Humans are no exception. People can literally catch emotions from each other, and boy, oh, boy, has that been spreading around! The current symptoms are pretty nasty – depression, anxiety, irritability, escalating to anger, hatred, paranoia, punctuated by uncontrollable name calling – Fascist! Snowflake! Racist! Libertard! Nazi! Safe Spacer! While most infections spread through direct contact, this particular disease seems to be carried by the technological hosts of news and social media spewing psychological contaminants through tvs, computers, and smart phones.
At it’s best, emotional contagion is a very effective survival tactic, used mostly by prey to protect against predators. It’s what turns a grazing herd of cattle into a sudden stampede, a placid flock of geese into a panicked flight of honking feathers, or the proverbial lemmings sprinting in unison right over a cliff. Nature gave us this instinct as a tool of self-preservation. Here’s why – It’s not efficient for every member of a group to be on the lookout for danger. If you’re constantly watching out for predators, you have no time to forage for food, find a mate, raise a family. So that the community can prosper, often one or two members will stand guard scanning the landscape for predators, while the others graze, hunt for food, play, sleep, or otherwise go about their business. Then, if the lookout suddenly starts squawking and sounds the alarm, the entire group immediately takes up the panic and together flees the perceived danger. There is no stopping to ask questions, no double checking the threat, no second guessing the degree of danger, because to delay could mean you’ll be left behind and eaten! It’s a good system, but only if the lookouts can be trusted to tell the difference between a real threat and a false one.
For us in the U.S., our lookouts have been our news anchors and journalists, people entrusted to scan the environment and alert us to dangers that may threaten our safety, our property, our way of life. So, too, it’s been our teachers, our universities, our scholars. It’s been our scientists, our religious leaders, our military, our police, our judges, and our elected officials. These are people we’ve placed into positions of trust to keep vigil against threats, while we go about the business of living our lives. When they sound the alarm, we, as a Nation, jump on the emotional bandwagon, feeling what they tell us to feel, believing what they tell us to believe, because if we don’t, we may be left behind and eaten. Our instinct to survive drives us to react without thinking. The louder the alarm, the faster we jump onto the bandwagon and press others to jump, too, even if we have to drag them on for their own good.
The value of this societal alarm system breaks down, however, when our trusted lookouts go from heralds to hysterics. Psychologists call it Chicken Little Syndrome, spreading panic that the world is coming to an end when someone misunderstands a simple event and allows their imagination to spin it into a catastrophic nightmare. When you place your trust in lookouts who can’t tell the difference between an actual threat and their perception of a threat, you become infected with their emotions and lose the ability to think and feel for yourself. There may be a sense of safety in numbers as you huddle panicked with the flock, but that, too, is merely perception, not reality, and can actually cause you more harm if you’re swept over the emotional cliff with the crowd.
Emotional contagion is not, in itself, a good or bad thing. It depends on what emotion is being spread. This instinctual transference can involve any type of emotion, the positive as well as the negative. Fear and anger spread rapidly, but so does joy and kindness. Young children, if they see a parent crying, will often begin crying themselves without knowing why. Yet, so too will they burst into smiles and giggles at seeing their parent laughing. You know this is true. You’ve been around someone who was laughing uncontrollably, and found it near impossible not to feel like laughing, too. Given a chance, a smile is contagious. Lending a helping hand is contagious. Acting with honor and treating others with respect is contagious. Positive emotions are just as contagious as negative ones.
So, in a world where it’s harder and harder to trust what is a real threat from a false alarm, are you able to vaccinate yourself against negative emotional contagion? Yes, as human beings, we have emotions and instinctual impulses, but we also have consciousness. We are aware that we are subject to emotions and instincts and can choose to rise above them. We don’t have to blindly jump on the emotional fight or flight bandwagon, the way others in the animal kingdom are driven to do. We can think through the emotions and choose how to react. But, it takes effort. It takes recognizing that emotional responses are the byproduct of perception, not of actual reality. It means you have to separate “news” from opinions, “values” from legal rights, and “speculations” from facts, before you can genuinely make up your own mind.
Emotions are contagious. What infects you, and what you infect in others, is up to you. What are you spreading?