Other people's moods can be as contagious as a virus

November 30, 1993|By Ellen O'Brien | Ellen O'Brien,Knight-Ridder News Service

If you're wondering how it happened again -- how you woke up in a good mood and drove to work in a good mood and hung up your coat in a good mood, and now suddenly you're in a bad mood -- then look around you. Surreptitiously.

Because you probably caught it. That nasty mood. You probably caught it like a bad cold.

Moods are as contagious as viruses. We pick them up from other people automatically, unconsciously -- and within milliseconds.

That's the bad news. The worse news is that the more accommodating, sensitive and empathetic we are by nature -- in short, the "nicer" we are -- the more apt we are to become the victims of other people's conquering negativity and plain blue funks.

"It must have been important to us in our primate heritage -- to communicate by gesture, look and tone," Elaine Hatfield, professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, says about our boundless human capacity to transmit and receive moods. "We're wonderfully good at it. It must have had some evolutionary advantage . . . like fish in an ocean can change in a second, and go in a different direction together."

Ms. Hatfield is co-author with her husband, psychologist RicharL. Rapson, and their colleague, John T. Cacioppo of Ohio State University, of a tome devoted to the study of mood-catching, "Emotional Contagion" (Cambridge University Press).

Ms. Hatfield is a longtime mood-watcher who splices her own insights and experiences into the textbook-style book. "I am so prone to the deadening effects of the depressed that I find it hard even to keep a minimal conversation going," she confesses, by way of example, in the book's introduction. "I keep finding myself sinking off into sleep."

More eye-opening is Ms. Hatfield's theory. Basically, it goes like this: In conversation, individuals automatically synchronize their facial expressions, voice levels, postures and movements to those of the people around them -- and as soon as they "imitate" an emotion, they "experience" it -- at least, little bits of it -- at a deep physical level.

Ms. Hatfield and her fellow authors contend that physicaresponse by the involuntary nervous system -- the system that "makes your heart pound, your hands sweat and shake, and your knees turn to jelly" -- can be brought on by the unconscious mimicking of the flicker of an eye or a split-second downturn of the mouth.

Ms. Hatfield quotes the conclusion of psychologist WilliaCondon, whose experiments demonstrated that individuals can synchronize their speech -- talking at the same clip, with about the same length of pauses -- with one another within 50 milliseconds. That mysterious talent, Mr. Condon contended, "requires some mechanism unknown to man."

"People need not, of course, be consciously aware that they are synchronizing their actions with others. . . . [But] the ability to be 'in tune' with those around us is critically important . . .," Ms. Hatfield and her colleagues write in the book. "Communication is as rhythmic as music, dance or tennis. . . .

"One colleague told me that he watched in fascination as one person at dinner reached for the salt and all the others at the table would reach for a glass of water, the salt or a napkin, a split-second later. One diner would shift in his seat in an effort to find a more comfortable position; another would almost immediately mirror his settling-in," Ms. Hatfield continues.

"Some people are good 'senders' because they're well in touch with their own feelings -- and can express them -- and are sort of oblivious to other people's," Ms. Hatfield said during a telephone interview. And, she said, the stronger the mood -- deep anger or depression, for instance -- the greater the odds that they can transmit it.

According to Carol Culp, assistant professor of psychology at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.: "In roommate studies, college students who, through the luck of the draw, get a depressed roommate, will be more depressed at the end of the term." Other psychological studies have also found that men and women with depressed spouses have more trouble with their own moods than those who are have non-depressed spouses, Ms. Culp said.

James Coyne, professor of psychology in the departments of psychiatry and family practice at the University of Michigan Medical School, has demonstrated that it takes only 20 minutes to catch someone else's depression.

Mr. Coyne's experiment consisted of matching pairs of nondepressed and clinically depressed individuals in telephone conversations. Those who were initially in a balanced mood "were depressed and hostile, themselves, after 20 minutes," he said.

In another study, Mr. Coyne found that "people living with a depressed person were themselves depressed in their moods, and they felt burdened by the depressed person's symptoms. . . . When the depressed person recovered, these people's moods went up, too."

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