The idea of emotional contagion goes back to 400 B.C., when Hippocrates found that some women transferred their strong emotions to others.
In the late 1800s, Theodor Lipps suggested that this imitation of unconscious emotions was the root of empathy, and that emotional contagion happens because of our ability to feel empathy.
The brain’s mirror neurons constitute a basis for our ability to feel empathy. Emotional contagion implies that we reflect the emotions of others so that we feel the emotions ourselves.
For this reason, emotional contagion plays a major role in altruistic behaviors, since we tend to help others because we feel their sufferings.
This ability, however, does not always lead to positive outcomes because we also reflect negative emotions, which may lead to feelings of distress. Here are three strategies to avoid that other people ‘s moods affect you in a negative way (Rempale, 2013):
3 ways to avoid emotional contagion
- Empathic imagery: Involves mentally placing one’s self in the position of another person
- Dissociation: Involves mentally placing oneself outside the (dyadic) interaction
- Reflection: Involves engaging in a cognitive task directly related to the interaction
A study by Rempala (2013) examined the impact of the strategies (in a therapist setting) on emotional contagion. Overall, all strategies were found to decrease emotional contagion and increase engagement.
The authors say that: “… It does not matter what specific strategy is used because the use of any of the cognitive strategies will disrupt the nonconscious, reflexive process by which emotional contagion occurs.”