In my opinion, emotional contagion is the strongest power known to humankind. Emotions move and flow among people and groups. We absorb others’ emotions. If there were no emotional contagion, then love would not move between people and we would be severely diminished and unhappy. The opposite is also true: When negative emotions swirl, it affects everyone in society.
“Emotional contagion” is the technical term for an experience we’ve all had—at its simplest, it includes feeling happy when those around you are smiling and laughing, and feeling sad when someone around you is crying. Emotional contagion has been established in the psychological literature, and the neurobiology of the effect is beginning to be understood; mirror neurons have been established as biological moderators of emotion. Mirror neurons allow us to easily pick up and absorb emotions that we see in others and feel them ourselves.
Bob Avenson describes this effect well, writing, “The mirror neurons activate the areas of the brain associated with the emotion of the speaker, thus conjuring up the emotion as if the receiver were experiencing it naturally.” People are often not even aware they are absorbing others’ emotions.
Consider the many traumatic situations that have played out on ceaselessly on our TV screens, in our newspapers, and on our phones and tablets without respite: The January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol that left us frightened for the future of our democracy; the coronavirus pandemic that left us feeling scared and isolated; the videos of police murdering Black people which led to a summer of protests against racist brutality; floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and fears that climate change will soon lead to an unlivable world; and worsening economic inequality and poverty that left many struggling just to survive.
And consider the news reports that police have pepper-sprayed, body-slammed, choked, and arrested adolescents and children, and put an 8-year-old in handcuffs, and that police have, over the past five years, killed more than 400 drivers who were not wielding a gun or knife and were not under pursuit, and 5,000 civilians overall. And, of course, younger people grew up with the terrorist attack of 9/11 (and the following years of terrorism paranoia) as a formative moment in their childhoods.
The emotions that churn, spread and are absorbed through emotional contagion from these episodes are momentous, and leave a strong residue of turmoil amongst the populace. This swirl of strong negative emotions seems to have been spiraling and seeping into the psyche of America and the Western world for years. And wherever people absorb this massive influx of negative emotions, you will see the madness growing. An increase of conspiracy theories, delusional behavior, paranoid thinking, shootings, rioting and self-defeating behavior such as vaccination resistance are all signs of madness growing.
Alfred E. Neuman would be happy. We are indeed living in the age of madness. But this is real life. It is tragic and sad.
When we wonder why anxiety and depression are on the increase, we must ask ourselves whether contagious negative emotions flow in society, between people, in families, amongst people, amongst groups, in the media, through extreme, hyperbolic emotional language, as seen daily in the media. Hate and revenge seem to motivate people. Competition is heightened to a toxic level as people have even feared the break-up of America. Contagious negative emotions influence the politicians, the media, journalists, people in business, and, of course, the vulnerable public.
But few recognize the toxicity or even the presence of this, and most are unaware of principles of emotional regulation or unwilling or unable to put it into practice given the intensity of the emotional toxicity. In a “spiked” society overwrought with troubling emotions during the pandemic, people easily catch contagious negative emotions like fear, panic, cynicism, pessimism, suspicion, distrust, hate, alienation, demoralization, apathy, and depression. Conspiracy theories and delusional thinking abound.
These fearful emotions have triggered serious cognitive distortions and heightened the imbalance people feel. There may or may not be a chemical imbalance, but one thing is certain: Society is way off balance. Society is in turmoil. And this involves emotions. You can’t have turmoil without emotions. And people can’t expect to be in balance when society is out of balance.
The contagious effects of negative emotional and social contagion are invisible. Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and lack of control are plentiful in society these days. Many people absorb it, to the detriment of society, producing quick, emotional reactions which are often destructive. Powerful contagious negative emotions circulate in political circles and in the media, as fear, worry, and distrust give way to psychopathology. Fights occur, arguments happen, relationships end, property is destroyed, and people are killed. Emotions don’t think and this is the result.
With social and emotional contagion, there are no bacteria and no viruses. There are no medical doctors, no police and no judges. It can’t be measured on a blood test, an X-ray or an MRI; it can’t be fined or sentenced to jail. Laws don’t stop it. Medical tests don’t pick it up. It can’t be arrested. It can’t be drugged. There is no medication for it.
Society certainly tries to use medication, by prescribing anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medication to settle emotional issues without addressing the social or psychological cause. Or by self-medication, through misused prescribed drugs like opioids, through alcohol or street drugs, tobacco or nicotine, or through over-the-counter vitamins, herbs and various mood enhancers, as well as collagens. None of these blocks, prevents or cures negative emotional and social contagion, the main culprit.
Learned helplessness is a phenomenon in which individuals learn that they lack behavioral control over environmental events. This, in turn, undermines their motivation to make attempts to reduce problematic situations, producing further dark, contagious emotions. Repeated exposure to uncontrollable stressors is thought to result in individuals failing to use any options for control or change that may be available, due to learned helplessness, likely resulting in depressive apathy and cynicism. Apathy becomes contagious.
This is one result of the population being psychologically unaware and turning to the biochemical solution, which is partial, incomplete treatment, lacking in humanity. The biological explanation of psychiatry teaches people that their brains are broken, that they can’t change on their own, that they must depend on drugs to live even the semblance of a normal life. Psychotherapy does the opposite, focusing on individual empowerment, teaching people that they are powerful agents for change in their own lives, boosting self-esteem, counteracting depression and anxiety.
Yet mental health professionals tend to ignore or overlook the powerful effect of emotional contagion in inducing the madness that many people now feel. Consider many psychiatrists, expecting that medications alone can somehow prevent depression and anxiety in this troubling environment, without addressing emotional contagion, without providing psychoeducation, without teaching emotional regulation, without teaching interpersonal effectiveness, indeed without a psychotherapeutic approach at all—this leads to the madness growing, to an end that looks like disaster.
Calling an emotional illness such as depression and anxiety a biological illness in a troubled, mad society is microscopic thinking, with the microscope focused on the bodies’ cells while toxic emotions swirl about us. It is like trying to remove the poison from the body while ignoring the fact the environment is poisoned with toxic substances that seep into the body regularly. This is pure madness.
There are many psychological, cognitive, emotional, and social solutions for depression and anxiety that could be invoked, but their importance is not being recognized by the naive biological psychiatrists who seem to think people are purely an organism. This removes the respect and dignity people need.
Medication has failed to relieve the distress. More and more biological psychiatry—to the point that by 2018, one in five Americans were taking a psychiatric drug—has only led to worse outcomes, not better. Suicide rates and disability due to mental health problems continue to rise higher every year.
If the biological approach were as successful as some claim, this wouldn’t be true. If medical treatments for cancer, diabetes or other illnesses resulted in a worse epidemic of that illness, they would be quickly discontinued. When a condition is worsening, becoming an epidemic despite almost 70 years of well-established treatment for it, despite the fact that one in five are being treated, and yet it still grows, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this so-called treatment is ineffective—yet psychiatry still hasn’t.
At the same time, psychotherapy is difficult to access. It may also be unappealing to many people since many perceive that it puts the blame on the person without focusing on society’s madness. But in psychotherapy, where people experience being cared for unconditionally and with authenticity by the psychotherapist, there is the potential for positive emotional contagion—contagion of the feelings of connectedness, gratitude, love. There is rarely positive emotional contagion when the mental health professional sees their job as writing a prescription for medication, and, if there is, it is likely because of their belief that medication is the necessary treatment component, in the same way that a physician may be loving and caring when they set a broken bone.
We need a therapy for society as well as increased access to effective psychotherapy for individuals. It needs to be in the mainstream of popular literature, rather than as a sideshow. We need a psychological inoculation.
The turmoil cannot be medicated away, and the balance produced by satisfactory healthy levels of individual empowerment and respect cannot restored by medication. There is no medication for respect. People are off balance because society is off balance. But because of the domination of the biological approach in psychiatry, a balance cannot be restored.
This balance would involve trust, harmony, respect, and a humanizing, insightful, sharing affirming conversation that would produce empowerment. That’s the goal of psychotherapy. And the lack of this results in a dehumanizing, depersonalized consequence, where people are treated without sensitivity, to the detriment of society.
How Can We Heal Society?
We can work on healing society. Knowing that there is no medication for respect, we can provide it to the population only in a psychotherapeutic manner. It is not truly psychotherapy in the classical definition of the term; it is just human decency, which by itself is therapeutic. It starts with increasing cooperation and reducing competition.
The problem is that society is an abstract entity, and we need to start with smaller portions. The best place to start is with ourselves. This means we need to control how we react to stimuli from society. Lowering pessimism and cynicism are ways to do this. Realizing that there is no enemy, but another person with a different approach is a good place to start.
But we have to give ourselves permission to do so. We need to trust this process, but how can we trust if we are cynical and pessimistic, since we may think we are surrendering to negativity? It becomes a vicious cycle we need to break with gradual approximation of successes and feelings of control. We build it up slowly until it becomes contagious. We treat society by this gradual build-up of positive emotional contagion coupled with responsible behavior.
We need to expand the approaches used in psychotherapy to also apply to society. Treating each other with respect is a good place to start. This means realizing that there are no enemies, and each part or organization in society is likely to add something valuable.
We have to realize that psychotropic medication can be helpful for many people. As a (retired) clinical psychologist, people often asked me if I am for or against medication. I tell them that we all have bodies, and we all have minds, and we need to treat both. So medication is good, and psychotherapy is good, but different people need different portions of each. Medication includes nutrition and some people do not need pharmacological agents regularly, but we all need nutrition because we all have bodies. Both are essential, since we all need to be aware of what we put into our bodies and ensure it is healthy, and we all need to make sure that we keep our mind healthy.
We do this by the way we think and how we handle feelings that we receive from others, as well as how we handle feelings that come from our thoughts. This is why we need to think effectively, rationally and wisely, as well as process and manage our feelings effectively. This includes managing emotional contagion. Our mind allows whether we can do this or not and we need to take charge of this by developing an internal gatekeeper. Keeping calm and handling incoming emotions without letting them get up worked up is a good start because when our emotions get worked up, we get less rational and may show some disrespect, make some unwise decisions or act irresponsibly.
The problem here is that society itself does not offer much in the way of either on its own. Advertisements put the consumer last in the way of respect and well-being and the consumer’s money first. We are bombarded with logos, sounds, brands, jingles, colors and shapes daily, all trying to sell us something. Society does this to us. We may not like it but it is real.
Radical acceptance means we need to accept what we may not like but which we have little power to change. We can work at changing it gradually and, in the case of advertisements, if we are aware that we accept the message in ads when we are on automatic pilot and are likely not to if we are aware of why they take a certain approach, then we invoke our defensive strategy, like a football or basketball team does when their fans yell “de-fense.”
So we can work at slowly affecting change in society by watching how we spend or do not spend money and ensuring that we are not responding automatically to the logos, sounds, brands, jingles, colors and shapes which all put us into automatic mode.
We all need to take care of our bodies, and can do it is many ways, as long as they are safe. To be holistic, we also need to take care of our minds, and by doing so we know that we are also taking care of our bodies. Our minds and bodies work together. It is not either-or. Lowering the “either-or” approach is a start. We as people are not commodities, not data, and not organisms. Many may see us in that reductionistic way. Any way in which we can humanize us and treat each other with respect is a way to start.
Healing of society needs to include the media. There are shows like Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil that will either use medical approaches to treat diseases or psychological approaches to help people with emotional or relationship problems. But that is not sufficient. This is the “medical model” treating disease. There need to be regular shows on TV and media presenting the positives, the successes, occasions where police are constructive and helpful, where respect, kindness and effective endeavors are used in dealing with people who engage in criminal behavior, and therapy-like group meetings with members of the public focusing on such matters to clarify misconceptions.
There needs to be a focus on overcoming cynicism, pessimism, and disillusionment, with various techniques used. Call-in shows where these situations and topics would be discussed with professionals trained in relevant therapeutic techniques need to be used. In short, a focus on positive psychology rather than on the negative stance used buy the media which attracts viewers, and which in turn attracts advertisers. Fewer reality shows with vulnerable people who are laughed at will occur, raising respect and with it the mood.
Instead of presenting society’s problems with drama and color and tension, the media needs to do so in a factual, stable, level manner, showing the exceptions to the problems, highlighting the occasions of success, discussing the likely causes of the situation, without highlighting the issues with tension and drama.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.