The Emotional Contagion Of The Anxiety Experience

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Mental illnesses are strikingly common and hardly discussed in American culture, despite having significant impacts every facet of our lives. Nearly 43.8 million, or 20% of the United States population, faces mental illness annually and these numbers have been steadily increasing over the last several decades. Furthermore, 1 in 25 adults in the U.S., roughly 9.8 million, have a mental illness that is serious enough to significantly hamper at least, one major life event in a given year. Mental illnesses significantly increase mortality rates as they are linked to higher disease rates and increase the risk of suicide (American Psychological Association, 2015). The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted that suicide took more lives (42,733) than car accidents (35,398) in 2014. Moreover, suicide was reported as the 10th most common cause of death for Americans. It is normal to experience depression in response to upsetting stimuli, but chronic depression is debilitating. A survey by the APA found that nearly one third adults reported that they experience consistent stress and anxiety at work, however, less than half stated that their workplaces offered satisfactory resources to help cope (American Psychological Association, 2015). In small amounts, stress may aid in productivity, but constant stress is damaging, effecting both mental and physical health, mood, behavior, and wellbeing. Individuals with chronic anxiety have a far higher likelihood of developing further problems such as depression and alcoholism (Karpyak, Biernacka, Geske, Abulseoud, Brunner, Chauhan, & Onsrud, 2016).

This study will focus on emotional contagion, which is the development of an emotional state in response to another person or group. This may be established through either conscious or unconscious stimulation of an emotional state, that results in the feeling that emotion and expressing the associated behaviors and attitudes (Schoenewolf, 1990). This emotional contagion effect is a product of the natural impulse to mirror and harmonize the facial expressions, speech, demeanor, and motions of those around us. In turn, such actions induce the individual to experience the emotion that they are mirroring (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999, Hatfield, Cacioppo & Rapson, 1992). It is widely understood in psychology research that emotional stimuli have a strong influence on individual’s facial expressions (e.g. Lee & Wagner, 2002) and that demonstrating a certain expression can evoke an equivalent feeling (Adelmann & Zajonc, 1989). To the individual, this is often unconscious and the experience feels as though it is all happening concurrently. In a study by Friedman and Riggio, (1981) emotional contagion was established when two strangers sat in silence and maintained eye contact for just two minutes. People are naturally social and inherently inclined to empathize with other’s emotions which often drives behaviors and forges relationships.

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Contagion is typically regarded as short-lived phenomena, wherein state affect or mood are transferred between individuals. Moreover, very little research has looked at long term exposure to clinical levels of mental illnesses that impact emotional states and are likely transferrable via emotional contagion. Everyone experiences state levels of both anxiety and depression at one point or another, but consistent episodes can lead to clinical diagnoses and have detrimental impacts on overall mental health. Previous research found that clinical levels of anxiety and depression can elicit state experiences of these emotions after prolonged exposure but tends to stay within the disorder. Specifically, contagion may be exclusive to depression such that depression elicits depression but does not elicit anxiety (Joiner, 1994). Previous research would suggest that depression is more predisposed to contagion effects compared to other mental illnesses. The contagion effects seem to stay “within-symptoms” such that depression in one individual may lead to depressive behaviors in another person but not anxious behaviors. Both anxiety and depression have a strong valence that makes them particularly salient and consistent and therefore more susceptible to contagion effects. However, research has not yet looked at how having clinical levels of anxiety or depression impacts an individual’s susceptibility to the contagion of other emotions. The Interpersonal Theory of Depression (Coyne, 1976b) suggests those with clinical depression seek reassurance so often that they in turn feel further rejected by the people around them, feeding into a cyclical pattern of depression. Coyne (1976a) also suggested that depressed individuals induce a negative effect on others, which may which may explain the social rejection. However, further empirical research has not found support for the idea that negative mood facilitates the relationship between feelings of depression and rejection. In a study by Joiner et al. (1992) they discovered that students’ depression was correlated to their roommates’ depression, but were unable to explain why the contagion effect did not account for students rejecting their depressive peers (Joiner & Katz, 1999). Perhaps due to depression being particularly susceptible to contagion effects, the roommates avoided the depressed individual as an act of self-preservation.

The primary motivation for contagion is the unconscious human inclination to compete and compare themselves to those around them and imitate the behaviors observed. Social comparison theories have noted that this pattern is one of the most powerful and universal psychological phenomena (Kruglanski & Mayseless, 1990). This phenomenon indicates behavioral expectations and allows people to either conform to conventional norms or aspire to differentiate themselves. Such pressure towards conformity leads individuals to surround themselves with people who have characteristics they perceive as worth emulating. Individuals are more likely to utilize social comparisons when they are in an unfamiliar environment, uncertain how to behave or believe they are at risk, as people are often unsure of how to conduct themselves (Festinger, 1954). This is a potential confounder for the Joiner (1992) study on college roommates, whose entire lives are in a state of flux while learning to navigate the adult world on their own in a new environment.

Salancik and Pfeffer (1978) elaborated on Festinger’s (1954) foundational research on social comparison to better understand its influence on workplace dynamics. Existing organizational studies have utilized the contagion mechanism to better understand the circulation of emotions (Johnson, 2009 & Barsade, 2002), turnover (Felps et. al., 2009), and staying late at work (Brett & Stroh, 2003). Contagion effects have been found both from leader to follower (e.g. Johnson, 2009), and among peers (Felps et. al., 2009). Emotional contagion should be particularly salient for highly valanced emotions such as anxiety and depression as these states commonly occur in response to stressful stimuli. That being said, anxiety and depression are detrimental to organizations, as they have been linked to lower productivity (Rost, Smith, & Dickinson, 2004), higher absenteeism, presenteeism, and turnover (Baba, Galperin, & Lituchy,1999). When social comparisons expose differences between an individual’s thoughts, feelings, or behaviors, a common unconscious inclination is to alter his or her perception of their environment so that their behavior, which induces the related emotional state, becomes consistent with the people around them (Festinger, 1954). Moreover, it has long been understood that people tend to behave similarly to those around them. (Chartrand and Bargh, 1999). Anxious individuals tend to place their self-worth in the hands of others, which is likely to particularly salient in the workplace, as they are always being evaluated (Skaalvik, 1997). 

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