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Seconding That Emotion: Research Confirms Feelings Can Be Contagious

At first glance, it's hard to understand why certain conservatives are so concerned by the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. Given her background, the veteran jurist could conceivably have more empathy for the underprivileged than some of her fellow justices. But she's just one vote, and it's not as if such feelings are contagious.
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Except, perhaps they are.

A just-published paper by two Oxford University psychologists provides confirmation and clarification of the phenomenon known as emotional contagion. For more than 20 years, researchers have studied the ways our emotions — and the decisions we make while under their influence — are affected by the feelings of the people around us.

Refining this concept, Brian Parkinson and Gwenda Simons looked at two specific emotions — anxiety and excitement — as experienced by a group of people over a four-week period. Each of the 41 study participants (who ranged in age from 18 to 52) kept a detailed diary, entering data about their decision-making process and fluctuating emotional state into a handheld computer.

The researchers concluded that "when two adults are both focused on a common object, their appraisals of that object and affective reactions to it often become calibrated." They add that their findings "clearly establish that our anxiety and excitement about decision options are affected by the anxiety and excitement experienced by others."

They report this occurs through two different mechanisms.

One is "affect transfer," in which one person's emotional response to a situation, as conveyed through body language or facial expression, alters another person's "appraisal of the emotional meaning of what is happening." In other words, our reflexive reaction to a piece of news might be joy, but seeing a friend react with concern will lead us to reassess our initial feelings.

The other is "emotion contagion," which takes place on an unconscious level. According to this theory, "We catch another person's affect (that is, their emotional state) automatically, and without necessarily registering its personal significance." In other words, you may not consciously perceive the fact your spouse or co-worker is feeling fearful about something (you insensitive, self-absorbed lout), but those feelings will register on an unconscious level, and soon you will begin to feel uneasy yourself.

The researchers, writing in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, report finding "consistent evidence" of the power of affect transfer, noting the many occasions in which "participants took the other person's feelings into account when evaluating and interpreting the decision situation." They also found strong but indirect evidence for unconscious emotion contagion, a phenomenon difficult to conclusively prove but one that appears to occur in some form.

Parkinson and Simons admit that anxiety and excitement may be more contagious than some other emotions "because they signal threats and opportunities in the social environment, respectively." In evolutionary terms, it is advantageous to have the ability to sense these particular emotions in others, so we may be more attuned to them than to, say, sadness.

"More generally," they add, "we believe that affect transfer is most likely when interactants are pursuing common goals and have a close relationship or a common social identity."

Such as Supreme Court justices deciding a case?

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