The Next 100 Things You Need To Know About People: #115 — Emotions Are Contagious

photo of two girls laughingOne time when in Chicago I went to an improv theater performance. I’d had a busy week, and it was fairly late at night. I was tired and not that excited to be there. In fact, I’d been thinking of not going at all.

As the room began to fill up before the performance started, I noticed that almost everyone there seemed happy and excited. There was a buzz in the room. I found myself waking up, and feeling happy and excited too.

Research has long shown that emotions are contagious. James Fowler (2008) wrote about the spread of happiness over twenty years in one community. There were happy and unhappy groups of people in the network. Happiness extended up to three degrees of separation. People who were surrounded by happy people were more likely to become happy in the future. The statistical analysis showed that this was not just because happy people tended to interact with other happy people, but because people were more likely to become happy when they were around happy people. Even physical distance was important: those who had a happy friend within a mile were 25 percent more likely to become happy themselves. Those with a happy next-door neighbor had a 34 percent greater probability of becoming happier.

And it’s not only happiness that’s contagious. A 1985 study by M. J. Howes showed that people without depression who roomed with someone who suffered from even mild depression would themselves become depressed over time.

In the Fowler study, the effects of emotional contagion were seen in people who knew each other over time and were in physical proximity. What about the emotional contagion of strangers? Or people in a video?

Amy Cuddy of the Harvard Business School researches how taking certain postures can cause neurochemical changes in the brain. If you’re feeling sad, you frown, hang your head, and contract your body. What you may not realize is that the opposite is also true. Even if you’re not sad, if you frown, hang your head, and contract your body, then your body will release neurochemicals that actually make you feel sad. The same is true for other bodily postures and feelings. For example, opening the body with your arms and legs leads to feeling confident and powerful.

One theory about why emotions are contagious is that people tend to mimic the bodily postures of those around them, or of those they see in a video. This, in turn, makes them start to feel the feelings of the people around them, even strangers or people in a video.

We now know that people are affected by the emotional states of other people even in a matter of seconds. Facial expressions are particularly contagious, even through watching a video.

P.S. The improv theater was T.J. and Dave. And afterwards I knew why there was so much buzz in the room — they were amazing.

If you liked this article, and want more info like it, check out my newest book: 100 MORE Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People.

Top Ten Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People: #10 – People Imitate Your Emotions And Feelings

Man looking mad

Your facial expressions and body language communicate information and affect how people react to you and your message. They can also cause other people to start feeling a certain way.

People imitate what they see — If you are smiling, they will tend to smile; if you are energetic yet relaxed, then your audience will tend to be energetic and relaxed too. Which means YOU have to make sure you are rested, prepared, relaxed, and passionate about your topic. When you are, those feelings are communicated through your words, tone of voice, and body language and are picked up and felt by your audience.

Mirror neurons firing — Let’s say you are watching your friend who is holding an ice cream cone that is starting to drip. Your friend lifts her arm to lick the dripping cone. Mirror neurons in your brain will fire as though you are lifting your arm (even though you aren’t).

Mirror neurons are the starting point of empathy — The latest theory is that mirror neurons are also the way we empathize with others. We are literally experiencing what others are experiencing through these mirror neurons, and that allows us to deeply understand how another person feels.

(V.S. Ramachandran has a great Ted talk on mirror neurons.)

When you are passionate about your topic your audience will be passionate — People like to watch and listen to someone who is animated and excited about what they are talking about. If your topic does get you excited, don’t hold back. Show how you feel. That feeling will be contagious. If you aren’t excited about what you are talking about, then reconsider the topic or your approach to it. You need to find an angle on the topic at hand that will get you excited.

This post concludes the series: Top Ten Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People. Besides this post here are the other 9 (links below) or check out my book – 100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People (link is in the sidebar to the right):

#9: If You Want People To Act You Have to Call Them To Action

#8: People Are Energized When The Room Is Full

#7: People Assign Meaning To Your Hand Gestures

#6: People Need To Feel Safe To Participate

#5: People Assign Meaning To Your Tone Of Voice

#4: People Read Your Body Positions Instantly & Unconsciously

#3: Multiple Sensory Channels Compete

#2: Writing By Hand Can Increase Commitment

#1: People Learn Best In 20 Minute Chunks


100 Things You Should Know About People: #68 — Smells Evoke Emotions and Memories

Picture of a nose

Do you have a type of food that makes you feel a certain way? When you smell it you have an emotional reaction? For me it is kasha. Kasha is a form of buckwheat. You cook the buckwheat kernals in oil and then boil them (with salt, pepper, onion, and garlic).  I’ve never met very many people that have actually eaten kasha, much less know what kasha is.

When I smell kasha cooking I get a big smile on my face and I feel happy. This is because my mom used to cook kasha. I have a positive emotional memory of my mom when I smell kasha cooking.

A special path for smells — The thalamus is a part of the brain that is between the cerebral cortex and the midbrain. One of the functions of the thalamus is to process sensory information and send it to the appropriate part of the cortex. For example, visual information comes from the retina, goes to the thalamus and then gets routed to the primary visual cortex. All of the senses send their data to the thalamus before the information goes anywhere else, with the exception of smell. The olfactory system does not go through the thalamus. When you smell something, that sensory data goes right to your amygdala. The amygdala is where emotional information is processed. This is why people react emotionally to smells: You smell a flower and it makes you happy. You smell rotten meat and it makes you feel disgusted. The amygdala is right next to the memory centers of the brain. This is also why you can smell something and have memories invoked.

Smells from a web site? — For a reasonable amount of money you can now buy an olfactory machine that hooks up to your PC, and software that emits many different scents (forest, ocean, turkey, chocolate, etc).  It’s the ScentScape from ScentSciences (

What do you think? Is there a smell in your favorite websites future?


100 Things You Should Know About People: #66 — Emotions Are Tied To Muscle Movement

Botox is a popular cosmetic procedure to reduce facial wrinkles. Botox is injected into various muscles, for instance in the face, and it paralyzes the muscles thereby causing the wrinkles to “relax”. It’s been known for a while that one of the side effects of Botox treatments are that people can’t fully express emotions (for example, they can’t move the muscles that would show they were angry, or even happy). New research shows another interesting side effect – people who have Botox injections can’t feel emotions either.

Muscles and feeling are tied together — If you can’t move your muscles to make a facial expression you can’t feel the emotion that goes with the expression. So if you have recently received a Botox injection and you go to a movie that is sad, you will not feel sad because you won’t be able to move the muscles in your face that go with feeling sad. Moving muscles and feeling emotions are linked.

Botox injections — Joshua Davis (2010) from Barnard College and his team tested this idea with some research. They injected people with either Botox or Restylane. Restylane is a substance that when injected fills out sagging skin, but does not limit muscle movement like Botox does. Before and after injecting the participants, they showed them emotionally charged videos. The Botox group showed much less emotional reaction to the videos after the injections. Continue reading “100 Things You Should Know About People: #66 — Emotions Are Tied To Muscle Movement”

100 Things You Should Know About People: #65 — Seven Emotions Are Universal

If you go to the other side of the world and interact with people there, can you recognize the emotions they are feeling by looking at their facial expressions? Paul Ekman says the answer is yes. He has been studying emotions for many years and in different geographies and cultures. He has identified seven emotions that seem to be universal:

  • Joy
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Contempt
  • Surprise
  • Disgust
  • Fear

What is an emotion? — Considering how important emotions are in our everyday life, there is not as much research on emotions as you might think. In order to study emotions it’s necessary to define them first. Scientists studying emotions contrast them with moods and attitudes:

Continue reading “100 Things You Should Know About People: #65 — Seven Emotions Are Universal”