Published originally in Character & Context (the blog of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology).
Imagine you are a parent and your 14-year-old daughter enters the house smelling of alcohol. When you ask her, “have you been drinking?” she replies without hesitation, “yes, I drink with my friends, so what?” This response may make you quite angry. Now assume that your partner is in the room with you, and before you get a chance to respond, your partner bellows at your daughter with rage, “I know kids who were drinking alcohol at your age. Drinking destroyed their lives and it will destroy yours too!” Think again about your emotional response, would it be higher or lower than originally intended?
We are extremely sensitive to others’ emotional expressions, as they provide useful knowledge about others’ internal states and about the world. This sensitivity usually leads us to “catch” the emotions of those around us, a process which is often defined as emotion contagion. Emotion contagion occurs in a variety of situations such as our interpersonal, intimate interactions, our experiences at work, and our responses to collective events. Thus, our emotional states are constantly being influenced by others.
Emotion contagion has historically been thought of as an automatic, uncontrolled process. Under this view, the person who expresses the emotion is the active agent, while the one who is the recipient of the emotion is a passive experiencer. However, in many cases, such as the example above, we may want to control the influence of others’ emotions because we believe that their response is inappropriate to the situation. In fact, in extreme cases, we may even want to counterbalance their response in order to create a more balanced overall group response.
We tested such situations in a series of projects involving dyads and larger groups. Our studies show that in cases in which people have a clear view of the appropriate emotional response, they tend to resist the influence of other’s emotions if they perceive them to be inappropriate. In cases in which others’ responses are extremely inappropriate, people may even change their own emotions to counterbalance those of others. For example, we show that in the above mentioned case, parents expressed lower anger when their partner overacted to the situation compared to situations in which they underreacted.
Resisting the influence of others occurs not only when people overreact but also when they underreact. For example, in a recently published article, we told White Americans about the existence of a White only prom (which excluded Black students) at a high school. We then manipulated the way that participants perceived other White Americans’ emotions regarding the situation. Participants expressed stronger emotions when they thought that other White Americans emotionally underreacted to the situation (compared to cases in which they overreacted). Furthermore, participants indicated that these stronger emotions were expressed in order to convince others to change their emotions.
It is not easy to resist the influence of others’ emotions. In a recent project we found that resisting contagion is a more effortful process, compared to conforming. However, this process greatly influences the ways that groups’ emotions unfold. We believe that groups can more easily maintain their emotional equilibrium when some group members resist the influence of others’ inappropriate responses. Understanding and emphasizing such processes can help us solve situations in which groups’ emotions get out of hand.