Why happiness is infectious and rudeness is contagious

Written by
Dr Dalton Kehoe

18 Mar 2016

18 Mar 2016 • by Dr Dalton Kehoe

Through its mirror neuron system and the instant good-bad decision-making of the amygdala, we are constantly reacting to what’s going on around us. Just as cat videos can “go viral” and “infect” everybody online, our moods can do the same at work.

The elephant’s instant decisions are always communicated in two directions at once: (1) to the rider (conscious) mind, so we’ll know what to do or say and, (2) to the body’s self-regulation system and reward and threat circuits, so we’ll know how to feel. All this occurs at the non-conscious level as the elephant reads others’ facial gestures; the sound of their voices and their body movements.

Emotional contagion

Research reveals that emotions, both positive and negative, spread like viruses among employees in a work group. One study of 70 work teams, across a variety of industries, showed that members who sat in meetings together ended up sharing moods – good and bad – within two hours. People routinely “catch” each other’s feelings and this influences not only their moods but also their judgment and business decisions as well. 

In one controlled study, where groups were being asked to simulate a “salary committee” attempting to fairly distribute a limited amount of money among worthy candidates, and still maximise benefit to the company, their decision-making was affected by the most expressive person in the meeting. In some groups one person was secretly asked to display “cheerful enthusiasm.” In other groups an individual was asked to display “hostile irritability”. 

In the presence of “cheerful enthusiasm” groups not only felt they were more cooperative but actually had less conflict. Moreover, they allocated the money more equitably than groups intentionally infected by hostility. 

When the effective groups were asked about their success, they pointed to their own skills as negotiators or to the qualities of the candidates they represented. They had no idea that their behavior had been directed by the emotions displayed by a confederate of the experimenter. 

In peer groups, the most expressive person may be the key shaper of everyone’s feelings but in managed work groups that role falls to the leader. Our culture trains us deeply to pay attention to people who have power over us.  In work groups the expressed emotions of team leaders and managers matter most. 

Managers can manage their moods

Emotionally intelligent managers accept the importance of their emotional expression and can learn to recognise their moods and regulate them. First, they can regulate their bodies before a meeting. If they are in a “bad” mood, they can use the conscious calming breath to calm elephant. They can also smile to themselves before entering a meeting (our smiling face provides instant positive feedback to our elephant). Second, they can avoid the body language of negativity (for instance, no crossed arms. Everyone interprets that as defensiveness). Finally, they can emphasise positive vocal tone as they speak to communicate the emotion of optimism as they start the meeting.

The elephant just wants to fit in

When people smile and use a pleasant tone of voice your elephant can't help noticing, and most importantly, copying the emotion. It does exactly the same thing when people are being rude to each other.  Remember, the number one neural drive for the elephant is to connect with others. It does this by “fitting in” – both at the level of non-conscious emotions and public behavior.

Rudeness is contagious

A study of 6,000 employees in Sweden showed that a critical factor in undermining a positive climate at work was one employee being rude to another and getting away with it. This included, “forgetting” to invite them a meeting; taking credit for their work, spreading rumors about them, or simply being openly rude. 

Rudeness involves conscious choice, but watching someone get away with it and imitating that behavior is automatic. The Swedish study indicated that the most common cause of rude behavior was the imitation of a colleague. A controlled experiment in the US confirmed that simply watching rude behaviors can lead people to be rude to the next person they meet. When unchallenged, a few acts of incivility can lead to a climate of rudeness.

The spread of rudeness through imitation happens not only at work but at the highest levels of government as well. When a sitting US president addresses a joint meeting of the houses of congress the moment is imbued with deep significance and polite, respectful silence. While President Obama was in the midst of such a moment in 2009, an angry Republican representative suddenly shouted, “You lie”. This act opened the floodgates of incivility. It seemed that anyone could be rude to the president and thereafter Republicans of all stripes were: from a Republican governor waggling her finger in his face as she lectured him to congressional republicans attempting to pass a bill requiring presidential candidates to show their birth certificates (to support the conspiracy theory that Obama wasn’t born in the US) to the Republican senate minority leader’s private and eventually public commitment to all-out resistance to anything Obama for two terms.  

And what has been the outcome for the Republicans?  They’ve angered the public by getting nothing done for years and maintained a climate of angry incivility towards the most revered political position in the nation. As a result, they now have to deal with someone who could shatter their party: Donald Trump. He’s running in Republican primary elections to become their nominee for president. He bullies, belittles and bellows threats against almost anyone to get attention - and so far he’s winning. Rudeness is contagious.