News and Commentary The Everyday (Super)Power of Emotional Contagion

This April, I was supposed to deliver a TEDx talk at the University of Delaware (TEDxUniversityofDelaware) about the (super)power of emotional contagion. Because of the pandemic, the talk has now been moved — but given the situation, I couldn’t think of a better time, or opportunity, to discuss a vital ingredient to human connectivity in the form of a written version of this talk with a bit of background on my (related) project as a Macy Faculty Scholar. 

I want to talk to you today about superpowers. 

When we talk about superpowers, we usually talk about super strength like Superman or Wonder Woman, or super speed like the Flash, or mysterious insect bites like Spiderman. But there is another superpower that appears among a number of heroes (and villains) in the comics and movies — the ability to sense and feel other people’s emotions.

Imagine walking down the street and just being able to pick up on the emotional states of those around you. What would you do if you had that superpower — how would you use it?

I ask because research suggests that you DO have that superpower.

When I was a kid, I noticed that I was very (almost hyper-) sensitive to others’ negative emotional states. It became so overwhelming that I tried to “fix” those that appeared to be sad, frustrated, disappointed, mad, or simply just in a bad mood. I tried to make them “happy” so I wouldn’t be overloaded by their emotions, which, in turn, left me drained, exhausted, and unsure of who I was. As I got older, I wanted it to stop — so I tried to simply ignore others’ emotional states, I retreated inward — which you can imagine lent to its own negative effects.

I’m still very much aware of others’ feelings and still very much struggle with not trying to tend to others’ negative emotional states. But I have no doubt that it’s this heightened sensitivity that drew me to my research in and on empathy.

Within the field of empathy-related research, there are a number of concepts that address this superpower: emotional acuity, emotional resonance — but perhaps the most encompassing is the concept of emotional contagion.

Emotional contagion is just what it sounds like: in the same way colds are contagious, others’ emotional states are indeed contagious — we can “catch” them! A number of scholars argue that this ability to “feel” others’ emotional states to some extent is innate, that we are indeed born with this ability. Some also take it a step further and note the evolutionary resilience of emotional contagion — thereby suggesting that this trait is promotive for connectedness, social cohesion, and enhances solidarity and togetherness.

This may all seem overwhelming in and of itself. But the good news is research suggests you can hone this power, you can “teach” empathy. I take that a step further and argue that you can “work out” “muscles” related to emotional contagion specifically and empathy in general — you can harness and develop this superpower.

The first step is simply acknowledging when you are indeed affected by others’ emotions. We’ve taken this superpower for granted for so long that we need to “wake it up,” bring it to the surface. Moreover, we need to turn into the skid — don’t run away from it, experience that phenomenon of “catching” another person’s emotions.

Then, with exercises related to enhancing your sense of self- and other-awareness, presence, listening skills, and emotional accuracy, among others, you can begin to hone this superpower and work towards not being overwhelmed or overcome by others’ emotional states. This is where my Macy Scholar project comes in — the Interprofessional Training in Empathy, Affect, & Mindfulness, or I-TEAMTM.  I-TEAM™ is a semester long interprofessional program that engages health profession students in various “workouts” to cultivate and enhance the attributes and practices associated with the empathic experience, team-based skills, overall well-being and presence, and fundamental communication skills.  I-TEAM™ represents an innovative and engaging method of cultivating (inter)professional identity and provides opportunities for health professions to express vulnerability and openness with and to one another. 

Along with online “lectures” in the conceptual and theoretical foundations of empathy, affect, and mindfulness, and their roles within health professions education and healthcare delivery, I-TEAM™ also includes a series of interprofessional “training sessions” where health profession students engage in various “workouts” to strengthen their empathy muscles, including those related to emotional contagion, and in turn, develop what I call empathic resilience — an ability to experience authentic empathy without becoming overwhelmed or overburdened by others’ emotions.

The premise behind the training sessions and the workouts nested therein is quite simple: You wouldn’t just go out and run a marathon — you have to train for it, or risk serious injury. So why do we expect health profession students (or health professionals for that matter) to be “empathic providers” without providing authentic, explicit, formal opportunities to train their empathy muscles? Think about it — if I tossed you a 30lb medicine ball and you had very little capability, capacity, or willingness to catch it, you would either let it fall to the ground, or it would hit you in the chest or arms and may actually cause significant pain or damage.

In fact, this lack of opportunity and genuine focus on empathy within health professions education, systems-level disregard of the value of emotional contagion, as well as the overarching conflict of emotion vs reason nested within the culture of medicine, are powerful culprits regarding burnout, compassion fatigue, emotional exhaustion, anxiety, and depression among health care providers — but that is a discussion for another time.  

Not only is I-TEAM™ nested within the curriculum and training of University of Delaware’s College of Health Sciences for all health profession students, but efforts are underway to provide a model of I-TEAM™ for faculty and staff as well. Therefore, this program represents not only micro-level clinical skills training, but more importantly, institutional-level shifts in regards to what is valued and practiced, as well as the overarching culture and climate within the institution.

I am currently reviewing and analyzing our evaluation and assessment data from the pilot offering of I-TEAM™.  However, quantitative data shows that students significantly improved in empathy (p<.001), specifically in the areas of Perspective Taking and Empathic Concern, following their participation in I-TEAM™, and qualitative data suggests that engagement with the workouts nested within I-TEAM™, including particular mindfulness practices, encouraged students to be more open to and present with others’ emotional states (as well as their own) and enhanced their level of self-awareness. This was only the pilot, and there is a lot more work to do to uncover the what/how/why, but in short something is happening, and there is preliminary evidence to suggest that this approach can indeed strengthen the muscles related to the experience of empathy — including the core (super)power of emotional contagion.  

Beyond health professions education, however, I want to return to the key issue here: YOU have a superpower that you most likely have taken for granted, an innate connectivity to and with others. How will you use it?

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