Emotional Contagion Vs. Empathy

The title of this discussion, may make you think there is some great division between Empathy and Emotional Contagion, but that’s not really the case here. Point of fact, Emotional Contagion is a piece of the puzzle, which is Empathy. Problems arise when one can not differentiate between the two, because each has a very specific meaning and purpose. And though they are closely related, they are not the same thing. So lets look at some definitions.

Empathy is the capability to share and understand another’s emotion and feelings. It is often characterized as the ability to “put oneself into another’s shoes,” or in some way experience what the other person is feeling.

Emotional contagion is the tendency to catch and feel emotions that are similar to and influenced by those of others. It is a process in which a person or group influences the emotions or behavior of another person or group through the conscious or unconscious induction of emotion states and behavioral attitudes.

So Empathy is the ability to stand in one’s own perspective, while at the same time, possessing the ability to shift perspectives and see through another person’s eyes, as it were. It is a process of understanding and sharing the emotions of another person from a dual perspective with a multilateral self-awareness.

While Emotional Contagion is much more of an automatic process, rather than a conscious one, which relies on non-verbal communication and even, at times, telecommunication (ie., online emails, forums and chats). People who catch this type of ‘social virus’ tend to mimic the facial expressions, vocal expressions, postures, and instrumental behaviors of those around them, and thereby “catch” another person’s emotions as a consequence of such facial, vocal, and postural feedback.

The Process Of Empathy

The process of Empathy includes 6 different pieces, which often times overlap one another and can be quite confusing to differentiate between. These six pieces can be put into two categories. One is the cognitive level and the other is the emotional level. Within the scope of the cognitive level, the three pieces are: theory of the mind, perspective taking, and cognitive empathy. On the emotional level, the three pieces are: identification, emotional contagion, and ‘true empathy’.

What we are going to do here is look at each facet of the empathic process in a little bit more detail. And explore what makes each piece unique in its own right, as well as, a integral part of the empathic process as a whole.

The Cognitive Level

1. Theory Of Mind is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one’s own. In a 2001 research paper, Simon Baron-Cohen describes Theory of Mind as “…being able to infer the full range of mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions, imagination, emotions, etc.) that cause action. In brief, having a theory of mind is to be able to reflect on the contents of one’s own and other’s minds.”

The process is illustrated in the picture to the left. Sally has a ball. She puts it into her basket and leaves. The other person, Ann, sees Sally with the ball and watches as she puts the ball away in her basket. She wishes to have the ball, so she takes it and puts it away in her box, when Ann is gone. And when Ann returns, she is left with the question of where her ball is. Someone who has a full grasp of Theory of Mind will immediately know that Sally will look where she last left the ball, and upon the discovery that it is missing, she will begin looking for other places it might be.

2. Perspective Taking is the ability to see things from a point of view other than one’s own. In this description, there are a number of different traits. The first is a person recognizing that the self and others can have different thoughts and feelings. The second is a person understanding that different perspectives may occur because individual people are privy to different information. The third is when a person can see through another person’s eyes and view their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors from the other person’s perspective. They also recognize that others can do the same. The fourth is when a person can step away from a one on one situation and imagine how both parties are viewed from a third party perspective. And the last occurs when a person understands that third-party perspective taking can be manipulated by a system of cultural and/or social values.

In the picture to the right, one looks at the top picture and sees what? A bird with a man in its beak? But when the picture is flipped over, and it is viewed upside down, the picture changes. What do you see in the second picture? A large island with trees in the place of the bird’s feet? And a man in a boat, reeling in a huge fish, by the island? This is perspective taking. The perspective you see with depends on which direction you look at the picture from. It is much the same, when one sees through another person’s eyes, or walks a mile in another person’s shoes. You retain your original perspective, but add to that one that differs based on the other person’s perspective. In other words, it is a broadening of your own perspective to accommodate the views of others.

3. Cognitive Empathy is having a consciousness of the need to imaginatively put oneself in the place of others in order to genuinely understand them, which requires the consciousness of our egocentric tendency to identify truth with our immediate perceptions of long-standing thought or belief. This trait correlates with the ability to reconstruct accurately the viewpoints and reasoning of others and to reason from premises, assumptions, and ideas other than our own. This trait also correlates with the willingness to remember occasions when we were wrong in the past despite an intense conviction that we were right, and with the ability to imagine our being similarly deceived in a case-at-hand.

To elaborate, it is the literal process of putting oneself into the shoes of another person and seeing their experiences through their own eyes, through the act of imagining and the process of visualization. An example would be if you have ever read a true account of someone else’s suffering, or a trauma they have experienced in their lives, in explicit detail, and you literally place yourself, in a first person perspective, in that person’s shoes and feel their suffering right along with them.

The Emotional Level

1. There are several definitions for Identification. Emotional identification is defined as a heightened form of emotional contagion in which the another person’s emotions are taken as one’s own. Empathic identification is defined as the process to predict people’s behavior by using faculty of empathy.

Identification is a process through which a person absorbs and incorporates facets of others, assimilating this information to produce their own identity. This happens consciously when a person perceives a correlation between someone else’s experiences and their own. However, unconscious dimensions of identification are far more important, influencing the development of our personalities and our interactions with others in subtle and powerful ways that lie beyond our conscious awareness. For example, I might identify with my mother, on an unconscious level, in her partiality to more intellectual/cerebral pursuits, rather than taking a decided interest in more athletic pursuits. This could result in a strong preference, on my part, for academic study over exercise, sports, and other athletic pursuits.

Another prime example of identification would be the Jungian archetype of the Wounded Healer. The Wounded Healer may have suffered a trauma, like physical, emotional, psychological, and/or sexual abuse in their past. Because of the pain that they suffered in their own lives, they begin to focus outwardly toward other people in an attempt to offer support to others who have suffered. And upon meeting another person who has suffered this same, or similar trauma, the Wounded Healer begins to identify with the other person because of their shared experience and the emotions which flow out of that experience. This is what makes a victim of rape and/or domestic violence an exceptional peer counselor and advocate for other victims of rape and/or domestic violence.

2. True Empathy involves truly listening for the other person’s positive intention or “hope”, beyond false presumptions which can arise in a momentary judgment call. Hopes are the universal positive qualities and values that motivate our behavior. For example, we hope to connect with others and be understood by them. We also hope to have the freedom of our own thoughts and feelings.

True Empathy is an act of altruism, as well. It does not seek accolades, awards or thanks. It is genuinely offered, with the purpose of reaching out to another person and helping them, without the expectation of receiving anything in return.

3. Here is where we come full circle, in that we come back to the term Emotional Contagion. So we will only look at it here very briefly since we’ve already given a good definition of it at the beginning of this discussion. Emotional contagion refers to an emotional state in an observer as a direct result of perceiving the state in another. Emotional contagion includes the spreading of all forms of emotion from one individual to another (e.g. the spreading of joy or distress through a crowd). As stated above, it is an automatic and unconscious process, rather than a conscious one, that tends to mimic the facial expressions, vocal expressions, postures, and instrumental behaviors of those around them, and thereby “catch” another person’s emotions as a consequence of such facial, vocal, and postural feedback.

Emotional Linkage

Both Empathy and Emotional Contagion are based on social-emotional linkage. This bond, or link, is how one person is connected to another in both an emotional way and a social venue. So it would include everything from the parent/child bond to the leader/subordinate bond to any type of peer bond. It is how each individual interacts with others from infancy into adulthood. And it is strongly based upon the social and cultural venue we all believe we belong to and how we fit into the hierarchy of that social structure.

Emotional Contagion Vs. Empathy

Now that we understand the differences and similarities of the ideas of Emotional Contagion and Empathy, it is important to understand what brings this discussion up. Emotional Contagion is a part of Empathy, but by itself it is not Empathy. It is based on a mob and/or hive mentality which sweeps through a crowd like a sudden torrential storm. And in the first instant of perception, our unconscious mind judges everything we encounter as good or bad. We are consciously unaware that the judgment has been made and it could very well be wrong, particularly if it is based off of a current of Emotional Contagion.

The judgment, however, forces our senses to find corroborating evidence to support its assumptions. And our unconscious mind will play a game of selection in what information it takes notice of, finding negative information to support a negative assumption and vice versa, while excluding all information that might prove the assumption wrong.

Knowing that this happens, that we are easily, and without realizing, mistaken about other people and situations, we can learn to overcome our negative assumptions of people and situations. This is what takes us from one of the pieces of empathy into the truest and most complete forms of it.


~ by Misuchi Sakurai on April 15, 2009.

3 Responses to “Emotional Contagion Vs. Empathy”

  1. […] From: Emotional Contagion Vs. Empathy […]

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  3. I dont know what i am, aside from a caring person. However recent experiences have left me with many questions. I have come to understand that i have a close bond with my family. I experience mood swings that have nothing to do with me only ti find out later that it was a family member experiencing something. I have been in public places and found that others affect me. I can guess what the problem is if i spend a small amount of time around someone. Other times i just know something is off, just not what. My issue is with a recent experience i had and may still be having. I met someone on line and felt magneticalydrawn to them. The pull was so strong that i felt somewhat week and compeled to converse with them. I know nothing about t this person, but i find that i care for him. He was going through a stressful time at work a little while ago, and lost a friend. He shut down. I was strongly affected by the strangers death as well. I was in tears and angry by his passing. About two days after his death, i found that i was not able to eat. I was hungry, but could not get more than 3or 4bites down. It took me about three days to find out why i was going through this, butthere was nothing i could do about it. He is better now, and i can eat, but i am worried that this may be just the first part of this crazy ride. So… any ideas about what is going on here, or how i can better handle whats may come?

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