Don’t bring me down

Negative moods are highly infectious, but you can protect yourself 


The Kansas City Star 

Psychologists call it “emotional contagion.” But you can think of it as Scroogeology or Grinchonomics.

Better yet, think of it as the woeful friend, the crabby boss, the depressed party guest whose moods are so melancholy that, despite your good cheer, they suck the joy from the season.

The effect is far from imaginary. In the last five years, a growing body of psychological research — much of it focused on the emotionally negative or positive boss — is bearing out the power one individual’s mood can have on others.

“It is one of the most robust phenomena I have ever seen,” said University of New Hampshire researcher Richard Saavedra. “And it’s all unconscious.”

Fortunately, he said, just as Bob Cratchit and Cindy Lou Who refused to let Scrooge or the Grinch dampen their spirits, modern and age-old strategies can combat the draw of your own Debbie Downer.

As University of Michigan psychologist Christopher Peterson said, “That’s why we have eggnog.”

Recent evidence is consistent.

In the March issue of The Journal of Applied Psychology, Saavedra and colleague Thomas Sy at California State University at Long Beach examined the effects of a leader’s mood on a group.

They took 189 volunteer undergraduates, divided them into 63 groups of three and told them they were going to take part in a team-building exercise: putting up a tent.

Before the exercise, a “leader” chosen from each team was shown one of two video clips — “Saturday Night Live” skits or a vignette on torture — designed to induce a positive or negative mood. All team members’ moods were measured before and after the task.

Result: The leaders’ moods ruled, and negative moods ruled most. If a leader was up, some team members’ moods also rose. But if he or she was down, everyone was down.

In May, Purdue University psychologists presented similar results in Chicago at the annual meeting of the Midwestern Psychological Association.

Janice Kelly and Jennifer Spoor took 43 pairs of undergraduates and asked them to complete a task. One was designated the leader, the other the subordinate. The leaders, again, were shown movie clips, this time of the “choice” scene in “Sophie’s Choice” or a scene from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

Bad moods ruled again, with negative proving much more contagious than positive.

Other studies show that the effect goes beyond leader-subordinate relationships. Separate studies of college roommates, dating couples and spouses all show that when one gets depressed, the other also becomes more depressed. Studies in Britain of groups of nurses and accountants showed that, within the same work group, individuals tended to share the same up and down moods.

“The idea is, you go to a holiday party and you’re happy until you enter into an encounter with someone who’s down or depressed,” said Sy of Cal State. “The next thing you know, your positive mood no longer exists. It has been hijacked ” by this other person’s bad mood. You go off wondering, ‘What happened?’

Explanations abound. One is evolutionary, harking back to our animal selves.

People possess a vast range of troubles. But despite even grave concerns, humans in cultures worldwide generally report themselves as feeling fairly upbeat and positive, said Hope College psychologist David G. Myers, a scholar on happiness and author of The Pursuit of Happiness: Who Is Happy and Why?

Positive moods, therefore, are the norm, making negative moods stand out like an emaciated Santa. They’re cause for alarm. Something’s wrong. In the animal world, those that don’t instinctively notice and react to such warning signs do so at their own risk.

“The original form is the contagion of fear and alarm,” said Frans de Waal, a psychologist and primate expert at Atlanta’s Emory University. “You’re in a flock of birds. One bird suddenly takes off. You have no time to wait and see what’s going on. You take off, too. Otherwise, you’re lunch.”

In other words, getting caught up in another’s negativity is hard-wired, unconscious and powerful.

“I have often noticed how primate groups in their entirety enter a similar mood,” de Waal said. “All of a sudden, all of them are playful, hopping around. Or all of them are grumpy. Or all of them are sleepy and settle down. In such cases, the mood contagion serves the function of synchronizing activities. The individual who doesn’t stay in tune with what everyone is doing will lose out, like the traveler who didn’t go the restroom when the bus stopped.”

Now toss in empathy.

Although each of us may think of ourselves as individuals with our own emotions, we’re not, said University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, published this month.

“We are fundamentally hive creatures, like bees and ants that have evolved as ultrasocial creatures,” he said. “We are exceptionally influenced by what is going on around us.”

When we encounter a Grinch or Scrooge or wearisome gloom monger, a) it captures our attention, and b) if we don’t feel attacked, we’re apt to empathize. People don’t say, “Hey, you’re down; I’m up! So who cares about you?!” Myers said.

“We take on the other person’s pain to some extent,” he said.

We sit. We commune. Research has long shown that we respond in like ways. They frown; you frown. They smile; you smile. They furrow their brows in conspiratorial disgust; you listen and furrow yours.

Natural and unconscious, the phenomenon is called “facial mimicry.” Coughs, yawns and laughter are contagious for the same reason.

“Acting as another acts helps us feel what another feels,” Myers said.

And feel it in very real ways.

Research shows that being exposed to someone cheery makes you cheery, but not as much as being exposed to a spiritless grump makes you depressed. As British researchers showed in work published last year, the phrase “I feel your pain” is more than a saying.

At London’s University College, psychologist Tonia Singer and colleagues used brain scans to explore empathy in 19 romantic couples. The experiment was simple. Both individuals were hooked to brain scans. One was given a slight electric shock while the other watched. Scans showed identical brain reactions. One partner was shocked, but the other partner’s pain center lighted up as if he or she had also been jolted.

So it goes with the holiday killjoy.

“Everyone wants to be civil, but unfortunately he draws your attention. You can’t help it, because that somberness stands in contrast to your generally pleasant life,” Saavedra said. “But before you know it, you’re drawn in and the ” only thought is, ‘I wish I could get out of here!’

Strategies exist.

“In general, the key is awareness,” said Sy of Cal State. “The most insidious aspect of a negative mood is that, often, it infects you unconsciously. If you realize, ‘This person is depressed. I’m catching his mood. That is why I’m depressed,’ you can manipulate it. You can control it.”

The controls vary by person and situation. All of them come under the heading mood lifters.

Whereas, for some people, that might mean jogging or music or surrounding themselves with positive friends, for others it might mean an hour at the gym slugging a punching bag or kvetching with colleagues or a raucous night out.

Shopping. Movies. Family. Eggnog.

“There are lots of tricks we use. We do it every day, pump ourselves up,” Sy said “Why do we eat chocolate when we know it’s going to make us fat? Because it makes us feel better.”

Then there is this hopeful note.

Spirit-sapping Negative Nellies are powerful, yes. But research out of Stanford University and elsewhere also suggests that the moods of people who feel their emotions intensely — whatever they may be — are also highly contagious.

In other words, in the presence of merry spirits like Ol’ Fezziwig, the Scrooges of this world don’t stand a chance.

To reach Eric Adler, features reporter, call (816) 234-4431 or send e-mail to

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