The Anger Contagion

Did you know that anger is actually contagious? I didn’t. Sure, like most people I’ve been told at some dour point or another in my life “Emotions rub off on other people, so try to be positive!” but I was always smugly under the impression that that was just something people say because it sounds good… Kind of like the 5 second rule.

As it turns out, there is a whole science about the infectiousness of emotions.

As someone who doesn’t get angry often or easily, I was always oblivious to just how powerful of an emotion anger actually is. My most recent brush with anger came from a conversation I had with a friend that started civil, but left me troubled. I had approached them about a problem I had with them, and they seemed to take it as that I was just trying to pass off blame on them because they believed that “[people] just find it easy to place the blame on me because of my situation.” From there the conversation had rapidly devolved from civil talk, to accusations being tossed back and forth, to a “You said this! / I didn’t say that!!/You said that!!!” and spiraled far off course from there. I found myself within that verbal train-wreck all but shouting my points across, as was my friend.
I should note that, even before we started speaking my friend had informed me that he had a bad day, and that he was already frustrated about other things. That wasn’t something I really had in mind in the heat of the moment, so I ended up leaving the conversation angrier than I had been in a long time.

And I’d be lying if I said a part of it didn’t feel good.

Maybe “good” isn’t the appropriate word. My travel home, wrapped up in my anger and more than ready to lash out –physically or verbally- at anyone who crossed me felt … Liberating. It felt liberating to not care or worry about what anyone else thought. It felt liberating to not have to worry about etiquette or being polite and walk in a way that people had to move out of MY path, and not the other way around. And woe to anyone who spoke to me the wrong way! I had enough negativity to turn into verbal ammunition to cut down anyone who spoke to me the wrong way, and a sadistic part of me had actually hoped for another confrontation to vent out all this energy.

But some small logical part of me, sitting back in my subconscious and soaking up this uncommon experience, couldn’t help but wonder… Why was I so mad?

Sure, the conversation had mutated into a fierce argument, but neither of us had become disrespectful or violent. There wasn’t any real substance to my anger except for the fact that I was mad at how the conversation had turned out, but my reaction felt way out of line with the situation. It was only hours later, as I reflected on my day, that I remembered that my friend had originally told me that his mood was already foul despite that he wasn’t really showing it.

Had I been… infected by his anger?

Questions like this are anathema to our ego. Surely we, each one of us being smart and rational human beings (because have you ever met anyone who DIDN’T think they were “not dumb”?) are strong enough of will to not get caught up by someone else’s emotions. And even if we DID emulate the anger of another, of course we’d have the presence of mind to realize this, right? Call it arrogance, but that’s what I thought. When people say emotions are contagious, they say it in a way that makes me doubt they actually believe themselves susceptible of picking up another’s emotion.

It turns out, reflecting emotions has less to do with intelligence, and more to do with empathy.

Scientists refer to this phenomena as “emotional contagion” and research has gone on for centuries into how and why people unconsciously and automatically mimic the emotional expressions of others, in many cases actually feel the same feelings simply by exposure to emotions in social interactions. Studies have shown that mimicking a frown, a smile, or other kinds of emotional expression trigger reactions in our brains that cause us to interpret those expressions as our own feelings.

So his anger was making me angry, my anger was making him angry, and we worked together as a team to piss eachother off (sounds like a normal day in politics). What’re friends for if not teamwork, eh? Emotions –like colors- work on a spectrum, and a part of us always wants people to be on our wavelength; when we’re feeling negative we gain a grim sense of satisfaction when we spread some of that pain we’re feeling to others we feel “deserve” it. When we’re feeling positive, we want those around us to feel as good as we do. This emotional ping-pong works for both positive and negative emotions. When someone smile’s back at your smile, odds are that they’re not just being fake and trying to pretend to be civil. We all have an underlying negativity lurking in us, but few people actually want to be miserable.

The emotions you see on people’s faces are usually a reflection of their inner thoughts. Those inner thoughts usually come from their reactions to the world around them. Most people who are rude, selfish and angry don’t want to live in a world where everyone is rude, selfish, and angry – but they can’t help but reflect how they feel… a feeling which was likely brought on by some (direct or indirect) interaction from another person! Don’t be one of those people who brood in their anger, and actively look for reasons to continue being mad simply because they’re just comfortable being angry.

Find joy and reflect it. Be the change you want to see in the world.

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