It is well known that emotions can spread to other people of the group, but what is the role of emotional recognition in this process?
There is certainly a long history of research and casual observations as to how other people’s emotions can impact our own, but the exact causal mechanism is a bit elusive. Why does somebody looking sad make us look sad? The answer might be related to microexpressions or the reading of subtle epressions.
Initially, emotional contagion appears to be a very real phenomena, rather than yet another example of psychological mythmaking. As Dr. Elaine Hatfield of the University of Hawaii says , “When we watch other people, for some reason, we’re wired up to get in sync with them on so many things that it kind of boggles your mind. … And they calculate that it’s so fast that you couldn’t possibly do it consciously.”
Hatfield emphasizes that there is something primal and instinctive about emotional contagion. She claims that this can occur even when neither individual is aware that they are feeling a strong emotion.
Already, we can speculate as to a connection with emotional recognition, as emotional expressions are deeply rooted into our evolution and can be perceived during almost immediate, involuntary processes.
Hatfield and her husband, Dr. Dick Rapson, connect emotional contagion with our unconscious mimicking of the subtle expressions of our compatriots. This leads to a phenomenon where we mimic their emotion, even when neither of us may be aware that anyone in the vicinity is feeling that way!
In fact, this unconscious mimicry sounds a lot like the automatic processes born out of mirror neurons.
While Drs. Hatfield and Rapson decline from more closely investigating the phenomena of microexpressions, there is some reason to speculate that these play a causal role.
In order to answer that question, it will help to turn to an interview that Humintell’s Dr. David Matsumoto conducted with NPR. In that interview, Dr. Matsumoto emphasizes the fleeting and incredibly quick nature of microexpressions. Often, when other people notice our microexpressions, they will pass by conscious understanding.
Microexpressions usually do not appear to make sense, even if we manage to see them, but Dr. Matsumoto noted that they have the potential to play significant roles in interpersonal interactions. However, he emphasized that often this comes down to noticing subtle emotional expressions, rather than actual microexpressions which are just prohibitively fleeting.
So, we may notice somebody’s expression of sadness, without seeing it for what it is, and then we will feel sad once we unconsciously mimic that expression, but it is unclear that that amounts to microexpression detection.
As Dr. Matsumoto notes, microexpressions are incredibly difficult for people who are not trained to notice. While training can come very quickly, people without that training are unlikely to actually be detecting microexpressions.
This all suggests that the answer to the puzzle of emotional contagion, while not rooted in microexpressions, is somehow connected to similar immediate and non-conscious processes of emotional recognition and facial mimicry.