The Contagion We Can Control

Executive Summary

During stressful, uncertain times like the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s normal to be scared. Your family is likely also scared and everyone you seem to know on social media is scared as well. These feelings can spread, something known as negative emotional contagion, which can make us less equipped for dealing with the unknown. But by learning what it is and how it works, you can start making positive emotions more infectious. This can help you feel more prepared and in control and will help others feel the same way as well.

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You are scared. Your family is scared. Everyone you seem to know on social media is scared. And with good reason: Things are uncertain. We don’t feel in control. Everything is shifting, and fast. We don’t know what the rules are. We aren’t sure what will happen to us, our livelihoods, our families. And it doesn’t necessarily feel short-term. So what do you do?

While medical and public health leaders working as hard as they can to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, we of course listen to and heed their advice. But experts in emotional intelligence also have something powerful to offer — a way to help us manage a different type of contagion that, if we let it run rampant, will only make things worse. Stemming negative emotional contagion — and making positive emotions more infectious — will make us feel more prepared and in control during this frightening period.

We’ve long known that panic spreads, but experts more recently have come to understand emotional contagion, the mechanism by which people’s emotions (positive or negative) “go viral” within groups, influencing our thoughts and actions. Learning about that mechanism is key to dampening negative emotional contagion and making us feel a bit less frantic.

As research has shown, we generally have little awareness of emotional contagion and its influence on our behavior. It starts when we automatically mimic other people’s facial expressions, body language, tone of voice — which we’re hardwired to do from infancy. What happens next is also “infectious”: Through a variety of physiological and neurological processes, we actually feel the emotions we mimicked — and then act on them.

When you have legitimate reason to worry, as we do now, you’re even more likely to be influenced by everyone else’s justifiable fear. It’s easy to become infected by the negative emotions of coworkers, the newscaster you’re watching, friends on social media, or your family. In effect, you “catch” their anxiety and transfer it to others, who relay it back to you, in an almost unending circuit of negative emotion.

And while feelings are more contagious in person, they can still be transmitted online — and by email, phone, or any other ongoing remote interaction with other people. In fact, isolation can increase social loneliness, which can dampen our mood, making us even more susceptible to negative emotional contagion. Given this, we can all benefit from becoming more aware of how we respond to emotional contagion during this time, even if we’re working at home.

There is good news: We’re not helpless. Understanding how emotional contagion works increases your awareness of the negative version of it — and is a form of prevention in its own right, as research on the benefits of recognizing unconscious processes has shown. Your worry is reasonable, but understanding how negative emotional contagion works can help you cope. You’ll be able to see why your legitimate emotions are getting amped up from interactions with others, and that knowledge gives you the power to do something about it.

For starters, cut down on how often you engage with venues where fear feeds on itself rather than on the facts — social media, for example, or conversations with friends and coworkers who do more speculating and catastrophizing than sharing of evidence. Distinguish between people who are consulting sound information and those who are in a frenzy.

That doesn’t mean burying your head in the sand. To the contrary, you should stay alert. But be wise about your sources. Turn to reliable health and behavioral experts: your doctor or nurse-practitioner, the CDC, the World Health Organization, the National Institutes of Health. Do what these experts advise — but don’t assume you need to do more than they advise, as this could intensify negative emotions in yourself and others.

Second, just as you’re trying to protect yourself and everyone else from viral contagion with exemplary health hygiene, actively work to stem negative emotional contagion by exercising good emotional hygiene. Try to stay calm using whatever methods work for you. People will mimic that emotion, too. That can lead to positive emotional contagion, and my research shows that it’s just as strong as the negative variety.

Exercising, volunteering and showing kindness, mindfulness meditation, and positive high-quality connections with others — even if virtual — can positively increase your mood. Feelings of hope have been shown to be more important than feelings of fear in resilience to poor outcomes,  and purposefully expressing optimism and gratitude, with the explicit goal and understanding of feeling better, also relate to long-term well-being. We need this positive counterbalance during this difficult time, and there are free, research-based online resources to help you do these things.

There may not be an effective COVID-19 vaccine or treatment for a while. But we have the power to take action where we can, from heeding advice on social distancing to staying as calm as possible for our own benefit and the benefit of others. Reducing negative — and bolstering positive — emotional contagion will help us all weather this very unpredictable storm, together.

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