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Sadness is more "contagious" than joy

16.08.2017 Society, Interesting facts

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Sadness of others does not leave us indifferent. We can be "infected" with it by both the people we like and those we do not like. This is different than joy, which we catch primarily from the people with whom we seem to be close.

Spending time in the company of joyful people can lift us up, and contact with someone saddened - make us feel sad as well. In psychological literature this phenomenon is referred to as the emotional contagion or socially induced affect.


The initial research of this phenomenon consisted in showing the subjects videos or photos of people expressing emotions and checking whether this presentation would affect their mood. Analyses were usually conducted out of social context, without controlling who appears in the videos or photos, nor what impression they make on the subjects.


Recent studies show, however, that in certain social contexts (especially in relationships between people who like each other) affect induction should be highly probable, while in others (especially in relationships between people who dislike each other) it may not occur at all, and even lead to completely divergent reactions.


This suggestion became the main inspiration in the research led by Dr. Monika Wróbel from the Institute of Psychology at the University of Lodz.


"The results of literature review indicated that - although there is a lot of evidence that supports the thesis of the role of liking in the course of emotional contagion - most of this evidence is indirect. We wondered what exactly this role would be, and therefore whether the emotions and moods of disliked people would induce any affective states in others and - if so - what is the direction of this induction" - explained Dr. Wróbel.


Researchers looked for answers to these questions in a series of eight experiments. In all of them they manipulated variables associated with liking. The person expressing emotions was either presented in a way that enhanced the liking (for example as someone who has views that are similar to the subject's views or someone with positive traits) or in a way that weakened the liking (as someone who has views that diverge from the views of the subject, or someone with negative traits of character). The subjects assessed their emotions and mood twice - before and after the presentation of the recording of the person expressing emotions.


The results confirmed that such manipulation is relevant for the course of emotional contagion. The subjects were infected with joy of the presented person only if that person was liked. Joy on the face of disliked person did not cause any reaction of the subjects.


"At first we expected it apply to all emotions. If we have a negative perception of a person, we would not be infected by that person's sadness or joy. But the results showed something else" - Dr. Monika Wróbel told PAP.


In the case of people who expressed sadness it turned out that the subjects were infected by their affect, regardless of how these people had been presented. In other words, the subjects were infected with the negative affective state both when they liked and when they disliked the presented person. Dr Wróbel emphasised, however, that negative affective state may mean many different emotions: sadness, frustration, anger.


The result confirms the hypothesis of some scholars that negative states are more contagious than positive states.


"My interpretation is that when the subjects saw someone sad, the basic empathic processes started. They focused so much on the fact that the sender was sad empathised so much that the sender's characterization ceased to be so important. This was true even when we presented our sender as a person with very undesirable traits, very immoral. The subjects still responded to the sender's sadness and after the experiment many people asked us why the sender was so sad. The result is overall optimistic. It shows that people react empathically to others: when we see a sad person, we forget about how different that person is" - noted Dr. Wróbel.


She emphasised that perhaps if the person expressing emotions had been presented as extremely immoral, this effect would not have occurred.


The research project was funded by the National Science Centre grant under the Sonata programme.


PAP - Science and Scholarship in Poland, Ewelina Krajczyńska


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