Emotional Contagion in School and Elsewhere

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Not in teacher's college, nor while I was teaching, did I hear the term "emotional contagion." However, it didn't mean that I was unaware of its effects.

A typical class is filled with children with a variety of abilities, needs and behaviours. It is the teacher's job to knot those disparate strands together to weave together a healthy learning environment. Some days go better than others. Some years also go better than others. A lot can depend upon the make up of one's class. It can also depend upon the teacher's demeanor.

There's one thing for certain: the dynamics in a classroom are never static.

One Contagious Student

One student can have a huge influence upon the mood and behaviour of the class. It's evident when that particular child is absent. Suddenly, there are fewer interruptions, the classroom is quieter and the lessons flow. Normally quiet students may be more apt to engage in classroom discussions, as it likely feels safer to do so.

Classroom Dynamics and the Teacher

Just as there is a range of learning styles, there's also a range of teaching styles. Some classrooms are run with military precision, while others allow for more freedom. The personality of the teacher, along with the focus of the school (traditional, arts, sports, etc.) and the socio-economic area that the school is located in, can all have an impact on the classroom dynamics.

Many teachers will tell you that there are several phenomena that can also impact student behaviour: pre and post-Halloween; the week preceding Christmas or March break; the last month of school; a full moon.

Flexibility, compassion, creativity and a regular undressing of stress practice for both the teacher and the students can lead to a positive change in the dynamics of the classroom.

Outside the Classroom

Who can forget the toilet paper crisis of 2020, brought on by COVID-19 pandemic shopping? It began with toilet paper, then extended to other goods that people deemed necessities. Suddenly, there was a panic run on at the grocery stores.

Now that you have some distance from those early days, are you able to see how or if you were infected by that "everybody else is doing it, so I'd better do it, too" virus? Fear, tainted with uncertainty, set the world ablaze with a wildfire of emotional contagion.

Let's face it!

On ScienceDirect, the article Emotional Contagion and Socialization reports:

"In situations in which participants are watching an unpleasant medical procedure on video, for instance, it is easy to identify the occurrence of emotional contagion, including the corresponding facial expressions. In such cases, people usually display the classic 'disgust face' (Bavelas et al., 1986). In addition, participants in a study who watched a prerecorded videotape of a target person describing the happiest or saddest events of his or her life tended to experience the same emotions." (Hsee, Hatfield, Carlson & Chemtob, 1990)

Emotional contagion happens. Are you aware of its effects on you?

Emotional contagion at work

Here are three emotional contagion scenarios that often infect work places:

In the lunchroom. Have you ever noticed that your mood suddenly plummeted after sitting with a particular group of people? If you dissected the conversation, you might discover that food was not the only thing on the menu. You may have been exposed to a lot of negativity in the form of complaints, anger and resentment.

What to do. Awareness is key. If possible, choose to sit with people who aren't always soaking in negative thoughts, feelings and emotions. While this is not always possible or desirable, practice stress techniques that help you balance your emotions, during or after the event. No one needs to know that you are doing them, as they can be done anywhere, anytime. You won't even look like you're spaced out.

The rumour mill. This contagion is a sneaky one. Perhaps your grapevine has sprouted some of these rumours? "We're downsizing." "We are going back to work next month, even though COVID-19 is still a concern." "Our office is moving."  Someone starts a rumour, maybe it makes them feel powerful, under the pretense that they're "connected," or perhaps they just like to see the detritus that their actions produce.

What to do: Recognize that rumours are like dust particles; they're always floating around. Train yourself to not press the panic button as soon as you become aware of them. Stress techniques can help you recognize that these are unsubstantiated and to wait until you hear what is actually going on from management. The turmoil (stress) that is produced by rehashing the what-ifs of whatever rumour is not worth the wear and tear on your nervous system.

The self-fulfilling prophecy: Otherwise known as expectation, derived from what you heard about what went on before you. Several years ago, a client had expressed concern that he was stepping into a new position where there had been a lot of turmoil. He heard that it was not a good place to work and was feeling apprehensive about the situation. I urged him to transform his fears and hold off on forming any sort of judgement until he was actually working there. After several weeks of work, he reported that he enjoyed his job and found it to be an invigorating place to work.

In schools, you can find this scenario occurring when a particular class has a reputation that sticks with them like toilet paper adheres to a shoe. If you inherit that "branded" class you might get a lot of eye-rolling and sympathy from your colleagues. Often, everyone from the principal to the cleaning staff knows the "rep" of that class, which not only influences the teacher, but also the students' behaviour and performance.

What to do: Stop! While forewarned is forearmed can be a helpful aphorism, it can also prevent you from having a good experience. A type of self-fulfilling prophecy can colour your judgement. Unconsciously, you may begin to look for reasons to support what you heard about that class or that position.

Teachers, like everyone else, have biases. It's important to recognize when they crop up so that they don't create problems. From How Teacher Expectations Influence Student Performance:

"Once teachers form expectations, they convey them to students through smiles, eye contact, and supportive and friendly actions. Low teacher expectations have been identified as a significant obstacle to academic achievement for disenfranchised learners."

The above quote can apply to any number of scenarios. Expectations - for better or for worse, we all have them in varying degrees: it's a bad work environment; it's a great place to work;  I've got that class; my students are wonderful; it's a supportive community; that area is known for its problems; and on it goes.

Regularly addressing and undressing your stress can help you change your perspective, which in turn, puts you in a better position to navigate your way through life. When you look at things differently, you may not be so reactive. Additionally, you are able to see solutions where you thought there weren't any.

Positive Emotional Contagion?

It's electric! For example, while watching this YouTube video of one of my favourite bands, Blue Rodeo, I felt it. It's evident that the band and the audience did, as well. The positive energy of the crowd sent ripples that were felt in the heads and hearts of everyone present. The spirit of singing well-loved tunes together added another dimension to an already positively-charged event.

Here's a YouTube video about how singing together changes the brain:

On Your Toe Tappin', Time Keepin' Heart, I discuss my experience at a Blue Rodeo concert and the entrainment that occurs when musicians (and the audience) get in sync.

Address Your Stress and Inoculate Yourself from Emotional Contagion

In the physical sense, stress dampens natural killer cell cytotoxic activity. NK cells affect the immune system and provide protection from viral infections and cancer cells. In the emotional sense, stress can make you reactive to the events in which you participate.

Have you ever noticed how your mood plummeted after hanging around with "Negative Nelly?" What about after watching the news? How do you feel if your social media feeds are filled with doom and gloom, disasters and negativity? A number of studies show how social media can affect your mood. Use wisely and with discretion.

Conversely, reflect upon the times when your mood has been uplifted by your interactions with the people around you. Perhaps you received a Duchenne smile from someone? A Duchenne smile is one that reaches the eyes. In other words, it's not just lip-service! A genuine smile is a simple thing that can make a big difference in one's experience, for both the giver and the receiver. There is power behind a smile!

The front desk can set the tone: a recent experience

Yesterday, despite being a hot day, I walked to a local medical imaging location near me for an elbow x-ray. What a relief it was to enter the air conditioned building. It was apparent that the air temperature wasn't the only thing that was frosty. Not one of the three receptionists smiled; in fact, I was barely greeted. This caused me to wonder what type of work environment it was or whether the staff had been adequately trained. I had a much better experience when I met the lovely x-ray technician. Not only was she kind, but it was easy to see her Duchenne smile. A fake smile would have been hidden by her mask.

The type of reception one receives can put people at ease, or make them more nervous. It is especially important to have good "climate control" in places where people normally feel anxious: at the dentist, the doctor or the lab. Most people don't like to be poked or prodded, whether physically or emotionally; an easy first step is a warm, genuine greeting to help set people at ease.

Do It for The Health of It!

Address and undress your stress so you can find a safe harbour in the wake of the storms that rage around you. Or during fine weather, more fully enjoy smooth sailing. Build resilience!

2 Replies to “Emotional Contagion in School and Elsewhere”

  1. This is a wonderful article and I hope it is widely read and shared. As a former teacher, what you wrote about a classroom is so true. Though the one child can attempt to ruin things, there are ways to win him or her over. If that doesn’t work, and it often dos not, I remember ignoring that person. THE WORST THING IS WHEN THAT PERSON KINDA TAKES OVER THE CLASS. Your final point about the medical visit: I recently had a terrible experience with a mammogram tech. I thought I only needed an ultrasound so that argument got us off on the wrong foot. Then she was not tender, actually gruff and harsh with me. When I got out of her room I was crying. The next day I still had nervous tremors but eventually they went away.

    1. Thanks for your kind words and support, Beth, now and over the years we’ve “known” one another.

      Your ultrasound experience could have been so much better with a gentler approach. I’m sorry that it upset you.

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