Imagine this: You are sitting outside your local coffee shop enjoying your daily cup of coffee when a stranger’s phone sitting nearby starts to ring. The stranger picks up the phone and with an animated tone starts talking to person on the other end. Looking at the stranger’s cheerful attitude somehow transfers over to you and you too, start smiling simply because you looked at the happy stranger.
From a psychological standpoint this transfer of emotions is not a strange phenomenon. Unintentional transferring of mood has been studied in considerable detail under the brand “mood contagion” (Neumann & Strack, 2000) and has been explained by pointing to unconscious imitation of facial expressions. When we mimic someone else’s facial expressions it also triggers in us emotions similar to ones being experienced by the other person. So mimicking someone smiling is likely to make us feel happy, and mimicking someone sad is likely to make us feel sad.
But as always, things are not so simple. Consider the following: : You are sitting outside your local coffee shop enjoying your daily cup of coffee when a stranger’s phone nearby starts to ring. The stranger picks up the phone and with an animated tone starts talking to person on the other end. Just a week ago witnessing such a sight led you to yourself feeling happy, but not today. In fact, not only are you not feeling happy, the stranger’s incessant laughter is making you downright angry. What happened to emotional contagion here? Why is someone’s positive mood is leading to a negative mood in this situation?
The reason how one can feel positive when looking at cheerful behavior of stranger one day and feel angry when looking at the same behavior the next is because of our inclination for mindless social comparisons that usually are also triggered automatically (Mussweiler et al., 2004). When individuals feel that there are similarities between them and some target of attention mimicking their facial expressions triggers similar emotions in individuals. But when individuals feel that they are somehow dissimilar from their target of attention any emotion being felt by the target elicits opposite emotional reactions.
This simple but important construct about how spontaneous social comparisons influence how we feel about others was tested in a study by Epstude and Mussweiler (2009), researchers at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and University of Cologne, who first primed half of 79 participants with a similarity focus by exposing them to images of faces that matched their own gender, and the other half were primed to a dissimilarity focus by exposing them to images of faces that was opposite to their own gender. Afterwards, half of the participants were asked to listen to an audiotaped reading of a philosophical text that was spoken by a male/female in a slightly positive mood. The other half listened to the same reading that was spoken in a slightly negative mood. The hypothesis here was simple; similarity focus should produce similar (concordant) affective reactions while dissimilarity focus should lead to dissimilar (discordant) affective reactions.
The results of the study confirmed the hypothesis as it was shown that participants who were exposed to similarity focus felt positive after listening to a text read in a positive tone, whereas participants who were exposed to a dissimilarity focus felt worse after listening to a text being read in positive mood. The opposite was also true for both groups when listening to a text being read in negative tone.
So what are the implications of this study? Results like this and many classical studies on socially induced affect before it demonstrate how easy it is for people to adopt the mentality of us vs. them and build up on small similarities or differences. In this study for example the only dividing factor for participants was images of people with same or opposite gender and that led them to either empathizing or showing apathy for someone’s voice. The duration of this study was only few minutes but it was long enough for participants develop an in-group/out-group mentality.
Perception is reality. In this day and age people like to think that even when they exhibit emotional reactions for important matters like politics, economy, or other social issues their reactions are somehow driven by logical reasons and are thus, defensible. But in most situations this is simply not the case. We are cognitively lazy creatures and like to take shortcuts whenever possible. While watching presidential candidates on TV in 1980s for example, Regan’s speeches were deemed emotionally vacuous by Democrats while Republicans perceived them to be full of passion (McHugo et al., 1985). The reason for this emotionally dissimilar reaction is not necessarily a product of differences in philosophy about how the government should be organized but the simple fact that Republicans perceived Regan to be part of in-group and mimicked his emotional reactions while Democrats did not.
Epstude, K., & Mussweiler, T. (2009). What you feel is how you compare: How comparisons influence the social induction of affect. Emotion, 9, 1-14.
McHugo, G.J., Lanzetta, J.T., Sullivan, D.G., Masters, R.D., & Englis, B.G. (1985). Emotional reactions to a political leader’s expressive displays. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 1513-1529.
Mussweiler, T., Ruter, K., & Epstude, K. (2004). The man who wasn’t there – Subliminal social comparison standards influence self-evaluation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40, 689-696.
Neumann, R., & Strack, F. (2000). “Mood contagion”: The automatic transfer of mood between persons. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 211-223.