Mrs Wyatt featured in Being Magazine

Mrs Wyatt has been featured in Issue 6 of ‘Being’ magazine, writing about Emotional Contagion, read on for the whole article…

Emotional Contagion – What is it and how is it relevant to you?

Are there some people who drain you of energy and others who make you feel positive, without you even noticing it? This is the effect of emotional contagion. In this article I would like to share my fascination with this subject and explain why I think that being aware of it is so important for everyone. Knowing more about it has helped me be aware of the impact others are having on me, but also of the effect that I am having on them.

Since starting in the teaching profession over twenty-eight years ago, I have been struck by the transformative effect that positive and negative emotions can have in the classroom, but I did not understand why they were so powerful. It was like discovering a missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle, when I came across the studies by Psychologists, Elaine Hatfield, John Cacioppo and Richard Rapson (1994). Their book, Emotional Contagion helped me to see the picture more clearly.

Take the arrival of a flustered and angry parent who has just had an argument with another driver on the school run. She makes no eye contact with me when I greet her at the door and she shouts at her anxious daughter to hurry up. She then leaves her in the classroom without saying goodbye. This same child, who is normally well-behaved, is brought to my office at break time for pushing another child and being rude.

Another example: I am called to help with a class of usually well-behaved children who have morphed into a group of uncontrollable mischief makers; the teacher had not slept well the night before and had been shouting at the children.

Considered in the light of Hatfield’s studies, the children’s behaviour could be a result of the ‘ripple effect’ of negative emotion. It would appear as though they have literally ‘caught’ the emotion from the adult.

Contagion is defined in the Cambridge English dictionary as:

  1. The situation where disease is spread by touching someone or something
  2. The situation in which feelings, ideas or problems spread from one place to another.

Emotional Contagion is the phenomenon of having one person’s emotions or related behaviours directly trigger similar emotions and behaviours in other people. (Wikipedia).

Hatfield et al. suggest that this process often happens through mimicry and synchronization. We unconsciously mirror emotions and we start to feel them too. It is obvious enough that when one person smiles at us, it can make us feel better, and when they frown, it can make us feel sad, but their study helps us to understand how this transfer of emotional experience happens. Hatfield suggests that the very act of mimicking the facial or bodily expressions of another can elicit the emotion in ourselves.

Understanding this process is very important when it comes to teaching.  If a teacher smiles at the class and radiates positivity and happiness, they will respond in kind. On the other hand, (and I have seen it all too often) a grumpy, tired and miserable teacher will find the class is soon bored and disengaged, no matter how exciting the lesson content is.

In my role as an inspector, I have the privilege of visiting many schools. What is obvious within the first few minutes of walking into a building and meeting the staff, is the overriding atmosphere. Is it a happy, positive school, or does it feel stressed and unhappy? Clearly, the arrival of the ‘inspection team’ does not normally have a positive effect on staff, but the way the staff relate to one another and to the children, despite the team being there, is very telling. Are relationships in the school positive and what is the pervading atmosphere?  From experience it has been clear that the governors, Head and leadership team are responsible for setting the ‘emotional scene’ in a school. I believe that dictatorial, egocentric leadership can create an atmosphere of fear and stress which is easily transmitted to the pupils. This can in turn, have a serious impact on pupil wellbeing.

One of the books recommended to me on my NPQH course (National Professional Qualification for Leadership) was Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott (2002). Scott says that leaders need to take more responsibility for their ‘emotional wake’ than others because their wake has the most impact. She used the analogy of a large boat going down the Hudson river with its wake rocking the smaller boats behind it. I found the analogy very sobering and it really made me consider the impact that I was having on the staff at my school. Her book makes excellent reading for anyone in management as she emphasises the importance of making time for everyone in the workplace and for paying attention to every conversation that you have with them as, ‘the conversation is the relationship’. She says it is not what happens when you are in the room that counts, it is what you leave behind you that matters. Awareness is the key.

The consequence of having people in positions of responsibility who are not aware of the emotional impact they are having can have devastating effects, as the patients at a well-known London hospital found out. On Friday 3 August, news broke of a hospital where the emotional tension between staff members had become a very serious problem. The report stated that a, ‘persistent toxic feud’ had existed between a dysfunctional team of surgeons at St George’s Hospital.

The heart unit had been consumed by a ‘Dark Force’ and patients’ lives had been put at risk. There had been an unusually high death rate in the unit that was being investigated by an external body. Conversations with 39 staff members revealed that they were all shocked by the increased death rate but, ‘most felt poor performance was inevitable due to the pervading atmosphere’. This is negative emotional contagion at its most dangerous. (The Guardian 2018). Everyone in the team had been caught up in the unhealthy atmosphere and had been affected by it.

Sadly, we are realising that emotional contagion does not only take place in the real world; it happens in the virtual world too. In January 2012, Facebook teamed up with Cornell University to study the effect of emotional contagion on their users. Over a one-week period, they changed the content of newsfeeds for a random sample of more than 600,000 users. For one group they removed the content that contained positive words, for another group they removed the content that contained negative words. They then measured whether subtly biasing the emotional content in this way changed the emotional content of status updates by respondents. What they found was not surprising, making feeds more negative led to more negative behaviour in the respondent and vice versa. Therefore, the researchers concluded, emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness. (Robinson Meyer. Everything We Know About Facebook’s Secret Mood Manipulation Experiment June 28 2014).

Many people disagreed with the ethics of what Facebook did, but the study did highlight the fact that emotions are highly contagious; even when people cannot see one another. This phenomenon can go some way to explaining why the problem of negative emotional contagion is growing amongst children who use social media. Regular exposure to negative stories and images has been credited as being a contributory factor in the rise in children’s mental health issues.

Figures show that more than 100,000 children aged 14 in the UK are now self-harming. The number of girls under the age of 18 being treated in hospital in England after self-harming has nearly doubled compared with 20 years ago. (The Guardian 29th August 2018). Molly Russel recently committed suicide and she was only 14 years old. Her father has said that social media was partly to blame for his daughter’s death after her Instagram account was found to contain distressing material about depression and suicide (The Guardian Wednesday 30th 2019).

Unfortunately, the rise in mental illness is not only seen in pupils. In the Independent it says that more than half of teachers have been diagnosed with mental health issues. Three quarters of those surveyed by Leeds Beckett University believe that their poor psychological and emotional conditions could have a detrimental effect on pupils’ progress (23rd January 2018). So, if the staff and the children are suffering from mental health issues, what can be done to help the situation? Can teachers and children become less susceptible to negative emotional contagion, whether from social media or through being with other people?

It seems that negative emotions are more ‘catching’ than the positive ones and Dr Mike Bechtle (2016) reports that neuroscience backs this up, ‘our brains are wired towards the negative, not the positive. We’re naturally drawn to it. The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones. As this is the case, we need to find ways to develop positive thinking so that we are less susceptible to negative feelings, but we also need to build self-awareness so that we can be a positive influence in the world.

The rise in ‘mindfulness’ in schools and businesses is certainly helping. There are many self-help books on the shelves and numerous experts who suggest ways to build this emotional resilience.

One such expert is, Shirzad Charmine. He is the author of Positive Intelligence and is a lecturer at Stanford University. He coaches CEOs and businesses in how to reach their full potential through positive thinking. In his Ted Talk Know Your Inner Saboteurs he says, ‘Take command of your mind. Your mind is your best friend but also your worst enemy.’ He divides the brain into two parts and describes the insular cortex – the right brain – as your Sage. When the Sage is in command, every outcome can be turned into an opportunity. Whereas, the limbic left brain is our ‘Saboteur’ and is wired to feel stress. He suggests that one way that we can connect with our ‘Sage’ is by coming into the present moment. He suggests that we do this by connecting with one of our senses. We should try to do this by connecting for 10 seconds every hour. The system that he presents is practical could be adapted to be used in the classroom. It resonates with the ‘Fixed Mindset and ‘Positive Mindset’ idea that is proposed by Carol Dweck and is used in many schools today with very positive effects.

Another very passionate exponent of the need to develop emotional intelligence is Joelle Hadley. In Emotions are Contagious: Spreading Emotional Intelligence (TedxArrowheadRanch) she says that having emotional intelligence makes you happier, more resilient, healthier and a better leader. Emotions, she states, are so contagious that the entire energy in a room can be changed within three seconds of someone walking in. Awareness can enable us to choose to be affected or not.

What is interesting about her talk is that she says that emotional intelligence is a learnable skill and we can work to improve it. She cites the study by Harvard University where they followed a cohort of young graduates for several years to find out what made them successful. What they found was very interesting for those who lead educational curriculum reform, as they saw that there were three areas that lead to success. 1. IQ, 2. Technical Skills 3. Emotional Skills.

What the researchers found was that the emotional intelligence quotient was twice as important as IQ or technical skills when it came to the graduate’s success over the long term. Hadley believes that for leaders, their emotional intelligence skills count for 80-90 percent of their effectiveness. She reminds us of the work by Daniel Goleman who has written extensively about the need for us as a society to develop emotional intelligence as he thinks it is just as important as IQ for professional and social success.

Hadley is a yoga teacher and she talks extensively about the need to use the breath to help us when we have what she calls an, ‘amygdala hijack.’ Her descriptions of the two human states, one, ‘the captain of our ship who is calm, responsive and creative’, the other, ‘totally dumb, fight and flight,’ are like the sage and saboteur that Charmine describes above. Both are accurate and can be recognised by anyone. What both Hadley and Charmine point to is that we can change our emotional state ourselves. We are in charge. Although we are ‘hardwired as a species to look for negativity’ we can find a way out.

Hadley describes standing at the top of a mountain and noticing that she has had an ‘amygdala hijack’. She is rooted to the spot with fear. She knows that the response of her body is to drain the blood and oxygen from the brain, thus taking away 75% of her cognitive ability. She uses her three, ‘tools’ to change her state and is able to ski down the slope, despite her fear. She suggests that everyone can practise the same whenever they feel the stress hormones taking over.

The three things that Hadley did to help herself get down the mountain could be useful tools for anyone to use when they feel stressed. When we notice we are moving into the ‘chemically induced sense of dumb,’ that comes when we feel fear, anger or threat of any kind, we should:

  1. Get breathing. By taking long slow breaths we are bringing the oxygen back to the neocortex.
  2. Get focused. According to Hadley, 60 thousand of our thoughts each day are related to the past and to the future; these can cause the stress reaction. Only 5% are in the present moment where there is no stress; in order to overcome the stress reaction, we need be in the present moment.
  3. Be grateful – HeartMath (a scientifically validated approach to dealing with stress) has demonstrated that when you have thoughts of gratitude and appreciation it has a positive effect on the rhythms of your heart. These actively reverse stress into anti-stress hormones.

From my studies of emotional contagion, I have concluded that the most important thing we can do for this generation is to teach them about the power of, and the effect of negative emotional contagion. In schools, we need to develop emotional resilience in our pupils, their teachers and in their parents. Only in this way will we stem the tide of mental health illness and help to reduce the suffering that is being felt by a whole generation of young people.

For leaders today, it is important for them to be aware of their ‘emotional wake’. Children also need to learn that they can change their negative emotions into positive ones. In school we have an ‘emotion wall’ in each classroom where children can show their teacher how they are feeling each day. We encourage children to talk about their emotions and to place their concerns in a ‘worry Box’ if they are unable to share how they are feeling with the teacher. We have weekly yoga lessons and Year 6 have tea and toast on Wednesdays, so they can talk about their worries about moving onto senior schools. Regular class ‘worry workouts’ enable children to talk about any issues that are on their minds and the Key Stage 1 pupils make ‘Resilience Shields’ to help them to overcome any concerns they may have.

Schools can do a lot to teach children how to grow into happier adults, but it is the example that the adults around them set that will have the most powerful impact. By being positive, smiling and showing gratitude, we will be sending a little wave of happiness into the world; who knows how far it will go!

Hilary Wyatt