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The Social Neuroscience of Empathy$

Jean Decety and William Ickes

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780262012973

Published to MIT Press Scholarship Online: August 2013

DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/9780262012973.001.0001

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Emotional Contagion and Empathy

Emotional Contagion and Empathy

Chapter:
(p.19) 2 Emotional Contagion and Empathy
Source:
The Social Neuroscience of Empathy
Author(s):

Elaine Hatfield

Richard L. Rapson

Yen-Chi L. Le

Publisher:
The MIT Press
DOI:10.7551/mitpress/9780262012973.003.0003

Abstract and Keywords

Most clinical and counseling psychologists have identified three distinct skills required in true empathy: the ability to share the other person’s feelings, the cognitive ability to intuit what another person is feeling, and a “socially beneficial” intention to respond compassionately to that person’s distress. Scholars from various disciplines, including sociology, biology, neuroscience, social psychology, and life-span psychology, argue that primitive emotional contagion—a basic building block of human interaction that allows people to understand and to share the feelings of others—can shed light on human cognition, emotion, and behavior. This chapter discusses emotional contagion and describes three stages in the process of emotional contagion: mimicry, feedback, and contagion.

Keywords:   empathy, emotional contagion, cognition, emotion, behavior, mimicry, feedback, contagion, primitive emotional contagion, social psychology

Whoever battles with monsters had better see that it does not turn him into a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

—Nietzsche

Today there are many definitions of empathy. Most clinical and counseling psychologists, however, agree that true empathy requires three distinct skills: the ability to share the other person’s feelings, the cognitive ability to intuit what another person is feeling, and a “socially beneficial” intention to respond compassionately to that person’s distress (Decety & Jackson, 2004). This chapter focuses on the second of these processes: the ability of people to “feel themselves into” another’s emotions via the process of emotional contagion. We review what is known about this pervasive phenomenon, discuss three mechanisms that may account for it, and propose questions for further research.

Scholars from a variety of disciplines—neuroscience, biology, social psychology, sociology, and life-span psychology—have proposed that primitive emotional contagion is of critical importance in understanding human cognition, emotion, and behavior. Primitive emotional contagion is a basic building block of human interaction, assisting in “mind reading” and allowing people to understand and to share the feelings of others.

Emotional contagion is best conceptualized as a multiply determined family of social, psychophysiological, and behavioral phenomena. Theorists disagree as to what constitutes an emotion family. Most, however, would agree that emotional “packages” comprise many components—including conscious awareness; facial, vocal, and postural expression; neuro-physiological and autonomic nervous system activity; and instrumental behaviors. Different portions of the brain may process the various aspects of emotion. However, because the brain integrates the emotional information it receives, each of the emotional components acts on and is acted upon by the others (see Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1994, for a discussion of this point).

Hatfield, Cacioppo, and Rapson (1994) define primitive emotional contagion as “the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person and, consequently, to converge emotionally” (p. 5).

(p.20) The Emotional Contagion Scale was designed to assess people’s susceptibility to “catching” joy and happiness, love, fear and anxiety, anger, and sadness and depression, as well as emotions in general (see Doherty, 1997; Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1994). The Emotional Contagion Scale has been translated into a variety of languages, including Finnish, German, Greek, Indian (Hindi), Japanese, Portuguese, and Swedish. (For information on the reliability and validity of this scale, see Doherty, 1997).

Possible Mechanisms of Emotional Contagion

Theoretically, emotions can be caught in several ways. Early investigators proposed that conscious reasoning, analysis, and imagination accounted for the phenomenon. For example, the economic philosopher Adam Smith (1759/1966) observed:

Though our brother is upon the rack … by the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them. (p. 9)

However, primitive emotional contagion appears to be a far more subtle, automatic, and ubiquitous process than theorists such as Smith supposed. There is considerable evidence, for instance, in support of the following propositions:

Proposition 1: Mimicry

In conversation, people automatically and continuously mimic and synchronize their movements with the facial expressions, voices, postures, movements, and instrumental behaviors of others.

Scientists and writers have long observed that people tend to mimic the emotional expressions of others. As early as 1759, Adam Smith (1759/1966) acknowledged that as people imagine themselves in another’s situation, they display motor mimicry: “When we see a stroke aimed, and just ready to fall upon the leg or arm of another person, we naturally shrink and draw back on our leg or our own arm” (p. 4).

Smith felt that such imitation was “almost a reflex.” Later, Theodor Lipps (1903) suggested that conscious empathy is attributable to the instinctive motor mimicry of another person’s expressions of affect. Since the 1700s, researchers have collected considerable evidence that people do tend to imitate others’ emotional expressions.

Facial Mimicry

The fact that people’s faces often mirror the facial expressions of those around them is well documented (Dimberg, 1982; Vaughan & Lanzetta, 1980). Neuroscientists and social-psychophysiologists, for example, have found that people’s cognitive responses (as measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging [fMRI] techniques) and facial (p.21) expressions (as measured by electromyography [EMG]) tend to reflect the most subtle of moment-to-moment changes in the emotional expressions of those they observe (Wild et al., 2003). This motor mimicry is often so swift and so subtle that it produces no observable change in facial expression (Lundqvist, 1995).

Lars-Olov Lundqvist (1995) recorded Swedish college students’ facial EMG activity as they studied photographs of target persons who displayed happy, sad, angry, fearful, surprised, and disgusted facial expressions. He found that the various target faces evoked very different EMG response patterns. When participants observed happy facial expressions, they showed increased muscular activity over the zygomaticus major (cheek) muscle region. When they observed angry facial expressions, they displayed increased muscular activity over the corrugator supercilii (brow) muscle region.

A great deal of research has documented the fact that infants (Meltzoff & Prinz, 2002), young children, adolescents, and adults automatically mimic other people’s facial expressions of emotion (see Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1994; Hurley & Chater, 2005b, for a review of this research). For a review of the factors that shape the likelihood that people will or will not mimic others’ emotional expressions, see Hess & Blair, 2001; Hess & Bourgeois, 2006).

Vocal Mimicry

People have also been shown to mimic and synchronize vocal utterances. Different people prefer different interaction tempos. When partners interact, if things are to go well, their speech cycles must become mutually entrained. There is a good deal of evidence from research using controlled interview settings that supports interspeaker influence in speech rates, utterance durations, and latencies of response (see Cappella & Planalp, 1981; Chapple, 1982).

Postural Mimicry

Individuals have also been found to mimic and synchronize their postures and movements (Bernieri, et al., 1991; see Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1994, for a summary of this research).

We are probably not able consciously to mimic others very effectively; the process is simply too complex and too fast. For example, it took even the lightning-fast Muhammad Ali a minimum of 190 milliseconds to detect a signal light and 40 milliseconds more to throw a punch in response. Yet, William Condon and W. D. Ogston (1966) found that college students could synchronize their movements within 21 milliseconds (the time of one picture frame). Mark Davis (1985) argues that microsynchrony is mediated by brain structures at multiple levels of the neuraxis and is either “something you’ve got or something you don’t”; there is no way that one can deliberately ‘do’ it” (p. 69). Those who try consciously to mirror others, he speculates, are doomed to look “phony.”

In sum, there is considerable evidence that people are capable of automatically mimicking and synchronizing their faces, vocal productions, postures, and movements with those around them. They do this with startling rapidity, automatically mimicking and (p.22) synchronizing a surprising number of emotional characteristics in a single instant (Condon, 1982).

Proposition 2: Feedback

Proposition 2: People’s emotional experience is affected, moment to moment, by the activation of and/or feedback from facial, vocal, postural, and movement mimicry.

Theoretically, participants’ emotional experience could be influenced by (1) the central nervous system commands that direct such mimicry/synchrony in the first place; (2) the afferent feedback from such facial, verbal, or postural mimicry/synchrony; or (3) conscious self-perception processes, wherein individuals make inferences about their own emotional states on the basis of their own expressive behavior. Given the functional redundancy that exists across levels of the neuraxis, all three processes may operate to insure that emotional experience is shaped by facial, vocal, and postural mimicry/synchrony and expression.

Recent reviews of the literature tend to agree that emotions are tempered to some extent by facial, vocal, and postural feedback.

Facial Feedback

Darwin (1872/2005) argued that emotional experience should be profoundly affected by feedback from the facial muscles:

The free expression by outward signs of an emotion intensifies it. On the other hand, the repression, as far as is possible of all outward signs, softens our emotions. He who gives way to violent gestures will increase rage; he who does not control the signs of fear will experience fear in a greater degree; and he who remains passive when overwhelmed with grief loses his best chance of recovering elasticity of mind. (p. 365)

Researchers have tested the facial feedback hypothesis, using a variety of strategies to induce participants to adopt emotional facial expressions. Sometimes experimenters simply ask participants to exaggerate or to try to hide any emotional reactions they might have. Second, they sometimes try to “trick” participants into adopting various facial expressions. Third, they sometimes arrange things so that participants will unconsciously mimic the emotional facial expressions of others. In all three types of experiments, people’s emotional experiences tend to be affected by the facial expressions they adopt (Adelmann & Zajonc, 1989; Matsumoto, 1987.)

In a classic experiment, James Laird and Charles Bresler (1992) told participants that they were interested in studying the action of facial muscles. Their experimental room contained apparatus designed to convince anyone that complicated multichannel recordings were about to be made of facial muscle activity. Silver cup electrodes were attached to the participants’ faces between their eyebrows, at the corners of their mouths, and at the corners of their jaws. The electrodes were connected via an impressive tangle of strings and wires to electronic apparatus (which in fact served no function at all.) The experimenter then (p.23) proceeded surreptitiously to arrange the faces of the participants into emotional expressions. The authors found that emotional attributions were shaped, in part, by changes in the facial musculature. Participants in the “frown” condition reported being less happy (and more angry) than those in the “smile” condition. The participants’ comments give us some idea of how this process worked. One man said with a kind of puzzlement:

When my jaw was clenched and my brows down, I tried not to be angry but it just fit the position. I’m not in any angry mood but I found my thoughts wandering to things that made me angry, which is sort of silly I guess. I knew I was in an experiment and knew I had no reason to feel that way, but I just lost control. (p. 480)

Paul Ekman and his colleagues have argued that both emotional experience and autonomic nervous system (ANS) activity are affected by facial feedback (Ekman, Levenson, & Friesen, 1983). They asked people to produce six emotions: surprise, disgust, sadness, anger, fear, and happiness. They were to do this either by reliving times when they had experienced such emotions or by arranging their facial muscles in appropriate poses. The authors found that the act of reliving emotional experiences or flexing facial muscles into characteristic emotional expressions produced effects on the ANS that would normally accompany such emotions. Thus, facial expressions seemed to be capable of generating appropriate ANS arousal.

Vocal Feedback

An array of evidence supports the contention that subjective emotional experience is affected, moment to moment, by the activation of and/or feedback from vocal mimicry (Duclos et al., 1989; Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1994; Hatfield et al., 1995; Zajonc, Murphy, & Inglehart, 1989).

Elaine Hatfield and her colleagues (1995) conducted a series of experiments designed to test the vocal feedback hypothesis. Participants were men and women of African, Chinese, European, Filipino, Hawaiian, Hispanic, Japanese, Korean, Pacific Island, or mixed ancestry. The authors made every effort to hide the fact that they were interested in the participants’ emotions. (They claimed that Bell Telephone was testing the ability of various kinds of telephone systems to reproduce the human voice faithfully.) Participants were then led to private rooms, where the experimenter gave them a cassette tape containing one of six sound patterns, one a neutral control and the others corresponding to joy, love/tenderness, sadness, fear, and anger.

Communication researchers have documented that the basic emotions are linked with specific patterns of intonation, vocal quality, rhythm, and pausing. When people are happy, for example, they produce sounds with small amplitude variation, large pitch variation, fast tempo, a sharp sound envelope, and few harmonics. In the study by Hatfield and her colleagues, the first five tapes were therefore designed to exhibit the sound patterns appropriate to their respective emotions. Specifically, the joyous sounds had some of the qualities of merry laughter; the sad sounds possessed the qualities of crying; the companionate love tape consisted of a series of soft “ooohs” and “aaahs”; the angry tape comprised a series (p.24) of low growling noises from the throat; and the fearful sounds included a set of short, sharp cries and gasps. Finally, the neutral tape was one long monotone, a hum, without any breaks. Participants were asked to reproduce the sounds as exactly as possible into a telephone. Results revealed that participants’ emotions were powerfully affected in the predicted ways by the specific sounds they produced. This experiment therefore provided additional support for the vocal feedback hypothesis.

Postural Feedback

Finally, there is evidence suggesting that emotions are shaped by feedback from posture and movement (see Bernieri, Reznick, & Rosenthal, 1988; Duclos et al., 1989; and Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1994, for a review of this research). Interestingly, the theorist of theater Konstantin Stanislavski noticed the connection between posture and performance (Moore, 1984). He argued, “Emotional memory stores our past experiences; to relive them, actors must execute indispensable, logical physical actions in the given circumstances. There are as many nuances of emotions as there are physical actions” (pp. 52–53).

Stanislavski proposed that we may relive emotions any time we engage in a variety of small actions that were once associated with those emotions.

In a variety of studies, then, we find evidence that people tend to feel emotions consistent with the facial, vocal, and postural expressions they adopt. The link between facial, vocal, and postural expression appears to be very specific: when people produce expressions of fear, anger, sadness, or disgust, they are more likely to feel not just any unpleasant emotion, but the emotion associated with those specific expressions; for example, those who make a sad expression feel sad, not angry (see Duclos et al., 1989). What remains unclear is how important such feedback is (is it necessary, sufficient, or merely a small part of emotional experience?) and exactly how the physical expression and the emotion are linked (see Adelmann & Zajonc, 1989). (For a critical review of this literature see Manstead, 1988).

Proposition 3: Contagion

As a consequence of mimicry and feedback, people tend, from moment to moment, to “catch” others’ emotions.

Researchers from a variety of disciplines have provided evidence in support of this contention. Recently, discoveries in neuroscience have provided some insight into why people so readily “catch” the emotions of others and why it is so easy to empathize with other people’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Some examples follow.

Neuroscientists contend that certain neurons (canonical neurons) provide a direct link between perception and action. Other types of neurons (mirror neurons) fire when a certain type of action is performed and when primates observe another animal performing the same (p.25) kind of action. Scientists propose that such brain circuits might account for emotional contagion and empathy in primates, including humans (see Iacoboni, 2005; Rizzolatti, 2005; Wild, Erb, & Bartels, 2001; Wild et al., 2003).

The real question, of course, is, What is the sequential order of mirror neuron firing and mimicry? Iacoboni and his colleagues contend that their monkeys are “doing nothing”— simply observing the other animal—when the mirror-neuron firing occurs (see Iacoboni, 2005; Rizzolatti, 2005; Wild et al., 2001, 2003). We know that this is not so. At every instant, the primate is mimicking the stimulus person’s (or monkey’s) face, voice, and posture. Depending on the timing, the mirror-neuron firing may cause the monkey’s mimicked grasping, or the animal’s mimicked grasping may cause the firing in the location under study. That is, the same brain areas may fire when an animal intentionally acts and when it performs the same action via mimicry. Only subsequent research will tell. Both processes, of course, would be of great interest to emotional contagion researchers.

Blakemore and Frith (2005) have argued that imagining, observing, or in any way preparing to perform an action excites the same motor programs used to execute that same action. They review a great deal of recent research demonstrating that, in humans, several brain regions (specifically the premotor and parietal cortices) are activated both during action generation and during the observation of others’ actions. The premotor resonance was not dependent on the motive having a goal, whereas the parietal cortex was activated only when the action was directed toward a goal. Some have argued that this mirror system allows us to plan our own actions and also to understand the actions of others.

In the 1950s, primatologists conducted a great deal of research indicating that animals do seem to catch others’ emotions. R. E. Miller and his colleagues (Miller, Banks, & Ogawa, 1963), for example, found that monkeys often transmit their fears to their peers. The faces, voices, and postures of frightened monkeys serve as warnings; they signal potential trouble. Monkeys catch the fear of others and thus are primed to make appropriate avoidance responses. Ethologists argue that the imitation of emotional expression constitutes a phylogenetically ancient and basic form of intraspecies communication. Such contagion also appears in many vertebrate species, including mice (Brothers, 1989; Mogil, 2006).

Scholars from a variety of disciplines provide evidence that people do in fact catch one another’s emotions: there is evidence from clinical observers (Coyne, 1976), social psychologists and sociologists (Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1994; Le Bon, 1896; Tseng & Hsu, 1980), neuroscientists and primatologists (Hurley & Chater, 2005a; Wild et al., 2003), life span researchers (Hurley & Chater, 2005a, 2005b), and historians (Klawans, 1990) suggesting that people may indeed catch the emotions of others at all times, in all societies, and perhaps on very large scales. (See Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1994; Wild, Erb, & Bartels, 2001; Wild et al., 2003, for a summary of this research.)

(p.26) Summary

In theory, the process of emotional contagion consists of three stages: mimicry, feedback, and contagion. People tend (a) to automatically mimic the facial expressions, vocal expressions, postures, and instrumental behaviors of those around them, and thereby (b) to feel a pale reflection of others’ emotions as a consequence of such feedback. The result is that people tend (c) to catch one another’s emotions. Presumably, when people automatically mimic their companions’ fleeting facial, vocal, and postural expressions of emotion, they often come to feel a pale reflection of their companions’ actual emotions. By attending to this stream of tiny moment-to-moment reactions, people are able to “feel themselves into” the emotional lives of others. They can track the intentions and feelings of others moment to moment, even when they are not explicitly attending to the information.

Implications of Existing Research

In this chapter we confront a paradox. People seem to be capable of mimicking others’ facial, vocal, and postural expressions with stunning rapidity. As a consequence, they are able to feel themselves into those other emotional lives to a surprising extent. And yet, puzzlingly, most people seem oblivious to the importance of mimicry and synchrony in social encounters. They seem unaware of how swiftly and how completely they are able to track the expressive behaviors and emotions of others.

What are some implications of recent findings concerning the nature of contagion and empathy? The research on contagion underscores the fact that we use multiple means to gain information about others’ emotional states: Conscious analytic skills can certainly help us figure out what makes people “tick.” But if we pay careful attention to the emotions we experience in the company of others, we may well gain an extra edge by feeling ourselves into the emotional states of others. In fact, there is evidence that both what we think and what we feel may provide valuable, but different, information about others. In one study, for example, Christopher Hsee and his colleagues found that people’s conscious assessments of what others “must be” feeling were heavily influenced by what those others said. People’s own emotions, however, were more influenced by the others’ nonverbal clues as to what they were really feeling (Hsee, Hatfield, & Chemtob, 1992).

Proposed Questions

In recent years, emotional contagion has been cited to explain the thoughts, feelings, and behavior of people in general, and, more specifically of children with autism (Decety & Jackson, 2004; Hurley & Chater, 2005a, 2005b; music lovers (Davies, 2006), religious fanatics, terrorists, and suicide bombers (Hatfield & Rapson, 2004), people who die by suicide, and people in crowds (Adamatzky, 2005; Fischer, 1995), to name just a few. What (p.27) scientists haven’t yet done is explore some of the basic questions concerning who is susceptible to (or resistant to) emotional contagion and under what conditions.

A number of important questions remain to be answered as investigators seek to understand this important component of empathy, primitive emotional contagion.

  1. 1. What kinds of people are most vulnerable to catching others’ emotions?

  2. 2. In what kinds of relationships are people most vulnerable to contagion?

  3. 3. What are the advantages (or disadvantages) of possessing the power to “infect” others with one’s own emotions? What are the advantages (disadvantages) of possessing the sensitivity to read and reflect others’ emotions?

  4. 4. Are people better liked when they possess a natural tendency to mimic others’ emotional expressions and behaviors? What happens when people consciously try to imitate others’ emotional expressions and behaviors? Does that make people like them more or less, since their performance will always be a little bit “off”?

  5. 5. Can people be taught to be more in tune with others’ emotions (i.e., to be more susceptible to emotional contagion?)

  6. 6. Can people be taught to resist being overwhelmed by others’ emotions (i.e., to become less susceptible to emotional contagion?)

The answers to these questions await the attention of researchers, for many of whom the study of emotional contagion has acquired its own contagious appeal.

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