There is no doubt that the people around us influence how we feel and that we influence the emotions of people around us. However, most people do not how powerful those influences are.
As social creatures, connection and belonging are some of our most basic human needs. This is why our brains are designed to learn from others and mirror those around us (which is referred to as social learning). In fact, in our brains we have what are called mirror neurons, which fire when we observe actions performed by another, triggering us to engage in the same action. For example, our physical body will mimic someone else when we observe the person crossing their legs or yawning. Have you ever heard that “yawns are contagious”? Mirror neurons are the reason why.
More importantly, our brain assesses others’ emotional states and then reflects or mimics what is observed, influencing how we feel. This is empathy. Some people are naturally more empathetic than others and both extremely high and extremely low empathy can be unhealthy.
Emotions are contagious. This is incredibly important to understand! You may have noticed that when someone you know is extremely excited, it makes you excited. Alternatively, perhaps you have found that when you talk to someone who is depressed, you walk away feeling sad.
So, how powerful is this influence?
In 2000, the journal Psychological Science published a study in which participants were shown a face with either a happy, angry, or a neutral expression. They were shown the image for only 30 milliseconds, so they were not consciously aware of what expression they were being exposed to. Their unconscious minds picked up the image, and when they were shown images displaying happiness, their bodies reacted by increasing electrical activity in the muscles needed to smile. The same thing happened for those who were exposed to
images of anger.
What is powerful is that participants were seeing the images for just 30 milliseconds, and their bodies were reacting automatically, even though they were completely unaware that they had seen this image. Now, imagine the impact that the people around you who are expressing a strong emotional state can have on your body’s reaction!
Another study that was published in the journal PLOS One found that we are also influenced by observing another person experiencing physical sensations. In the study, they showed participants videos of a hand that is placed into either visibly cold or visibly warm water. The study found that the participants’ hand temperature actually changed based on what they saw in the video. For example, when a video was shown of someone putting their hand in cold water, the participant’s hand dropped in temperature.
These studies, among many others, truly demonstrate that those around us can influence us at a deep level.
Ask yourself, who is influencing you?
It’s important to understanding this, in all areas of our lives, because if we are aware of this phenomenon we can choose to limit how much we allow ourselves to be influenced. Once these unconscious, automatic reactions become conscious because we learn to notice our own
and other people’s emotional cues, we have more control.
Plus, knowing how much we influence each others’ emotional states, we can choose to have a positive influence on those around us, including setting the emotional tone of our work environment by modelling. Emotional awareness is the key here and spending time on developing that awareness can unlock so much for ourselves and those around us.