It started out a wonderful day. The sun was shining and I was singing along with my favourite radio station while driving through unusually light traffic to the San Francisco airport. Then, as I turned into the airport parking lot, a driver abruptly pulled in front of me and glared through his rear-view mirror. At the ticket counter the airline employee frowned and sighed as I explained the need to make changes to my itinerary. By the time a scowling attendant took my airline ticket, I scowled right back. My good mood had been contaminated!
No one is immune to emotional contagion. Facial gestures and their underlying emotions (both positive and negative) are highly infectious, and “catching” them is a universal human phenomenon. We all tend to mimic the facial expressions and reflect the mood of those with whom we have contact. Getting a genuine smile can brighten our day. And angry frowns are upsetting.
We’re hardwired to mimic expressions and emotions, and have been doing so since infancy. Nine-month-old babies look longer at their mothers and express greater joy when their mothers are themselves joyful. One-year-olds, after watching a videotape of an actress portraying either positive or negative feelings, will mimic the actress’s expressions and alter their own emotions accordingly.
As adults, we remain susceptible. Swedish researchers found that merely seeing a picture of a happy face produces fleeting activity in the muscles that pull the mouth into a smile. In fact, whenever we look at a photograph of someone portraying any strong emotion, like sadness, disgust, or joy, our facial muscles automatically start to mirror that expression. And it isn’t just a physical response, since our facial expressions will subtly trigger the corresponding feelings.
A business simulation experiment at Yale University asked two groups of people to decide how much of a bonus to give each employee from a set fund of money. Each person in the group was to get as large a bonus as possible for certain employees, while being fair to the entire employee population.
In one group, the conflicting agendas led to stress and tension, while in the second group, everyone ended up feeling good about the result. The difference was in the “plants” – actors who had been secretly assigned to each group. In the first group, the actor was negative and downbeat, while, in the second, positive and upbeat. The emotional tone of the meetings followed the lead of each actor-although none of the group members understood why his or her feelings had shifted.
In my change management consulting, I’ve noticed in times of organizational uncertainty, employees instinctively pay more attention to the facial expressions of those around them. People search for smiles or frowns to get a better sense of how to interpret and react to a situation, and then they begin to mimic the predominant emotions. When someone moans about an upcoming change or rants that the company is sure to go under, co-workers can be “infected” with a kind of collective anxiety about the future.
Each of us gives and responds to hundreds of facial expressions daily – from co-workers’ grins to clenched-jaw displays around the conference table. Looked at another way, you are part of an emotional chain-reaction effect. Especially now, in challenging times, we need to make sure we’re part of the (positive emotion) solution, and not part of the problem.
Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help – or Hurt – How You Lead.