Sensing Shared Emotions

Sensing Shared Emotions

By Suzanne Dikker on Sep 3, 2019. 

If you go through an emotional experience with someone, this strengthens your social bond. This finding, part scientific fact, part intuition, has led some social psychologists to even go so far as to suggest that if you really like someone, you should hit the rollercoaster on your first date to increase your chances that the relationship will stick.

One possible explanation can be found in how highly emotional stimuli (such as scary movies) affect our brain and physiology: when our system is “aroused” it may also be more “receptive”. Or we might feel vulnerable and try to seek comfort in the person who happens to be sitting next to us. Or maybe you just remember your date better if it’s been a more eventful day?

This is known as social contagion and has inspired a fascinating and important line of scientific research. Scholars have linked emotional sharing–and social contagion more specifically– to our physiological responses in various interesting ways. In one particularly cool study, scientists found that emotions are literally in the air: the composition of chemicals changed when movie theatre audiences were shown scary vs. funny movies. Other research has found that emotional videos synchronize our galvanic skin responses when we watch them together together vs. alone.

That feeling when you walk into a room and you just KNOW that people just had a fight? Turns out that we’re wired to catch other people’s emotions even when we’re not in the same room when they were put in that emotional state by an event. For example, babies can sense stress in their mothers and end up adopting their state of mind if the mother is still stressed out by something that happened when they were away from their child: Infants whose mothers received negative input showed significant increases in heart rate relative to baseline within minutes of being reunited with their mothers.

These are just a few examples that demonstrate how insightful measuring our physiology can be instead of just asking ourselves how we feel. We don’t actually know how our heart rate changes or how our central nervous system when we’re with others, but that information can be crucial to explain why we behave the way we do around others.