Anger Can Be Contagious — Here's How To Stop The Spread

Feb 25, 2019
Originally published on March 7, 2019 9:27 am

Even if you're not aware of it, it's likely that your emotions will influence someone around you today.

This can happen during our most basic exchanges, say on your commute to work. "If someone smiles at you, you smile back at them," says sociologist Nicholas Christakis of Yale University. "That's a very fleeting contagion of emotion from one person to another."

But it doesn't stop there. Emotions can spread through social networks almost like the flu or a cold. And the extent to which emotions can cascade is eye-opening.

For instance, Christakis' research has shown that if you start to become happier with your life, a friend living close by has a 25 percent higher chance of becoming happy too. And your partner is more likely to feel better as well. The happiness can even spread to people to whom you're indirectly connected.

To document this, Christakis and his colleagues mapped out the face-to-face interactions of about 5,000 people living in one town over the course of 32 years. Their emotional ups and downs were documented with periodic surveys. "We were able to show that as one person became happy or sad, it rippled through the network," Christakis says.

It's not just happiness that spreads. Unhappiness and anger can be contagious too.

And you don't have to be in the same house or city to catch someone else's emotions. There's evidence that emotional contagion can spread through our digital interactions too.

Say you're in a negative mood, and you text your partner. A research study, dubbed, "I'm Sad You're Sad," documented that in these types of text exchanges, your partner is likely to both sense your emotion and mirror it.

So, just how far does this go? A study of nearly 700,000 Facebook users suggests we can pick up on — and mirror — the emotions we encounter in our social media feeds too.

As part of the study, users' news feeds were altered. Some people in the study began to see more positive posts, while others began to see more negative posts.

"We found that when good things were happening in your news feed — to your friends and your family — you also tended to write more positively and less negatively," says Jeff Hancock, a communications researcher at Stanford University and author the two studies on digital interactions

And the reverse was true too. Viewing more negative posts prompted people to write more sad or angry things. Overall, the effects were very small, compared with what has been documented in face-to-face interactions, "but [the study] suggested that emotions can move through networks through contagion," Hancock says.

A lot of us have seen this play out on our social media feeds, especially on Twitter. Late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel pokes fun at angry tweets by asking celebrities and famous athletes to read aloud the mean things that have been tweeted about them. "Draymond Green's jump shot is almost as ugly as his face," NBA player Draymond Green read to an audience last June. "Whoa!" the audience responded.

It's funny in the moment. But when you're on the receiving end of a personal attack, it's hurtful. And it increases the likelihood that you'll lash out in return.

One study finds there may be a little bit of troll in each of us. If you read a nasty message from a troll that dishes out sarcasm or a personal attack and you happen to be in a bad mood, the research shows you're more likely to copy the troll-like behavior.

Bottom line: It's easier to be mean from behind a screen. The rules of face-to-face interactions don't exist. "There are fewer cues," Hancock says. You don't see or hear the person on the receiving end of your tweet or post. "That makes it a little harder to view you as a person," he says.

This is what happened to a Twitter user named Michael Beatty who lives in Alabama. He's 65 and served in the military during the Vietnam War. Earlier this year, he got ticked off when he read a tweet written by comedian and actor Patton Oswalt. It was a negative tweet about President Trump.

"So I did a knee-jerk reaction," Beatty told us. " I sent him two tweets back."

Beatty says he told Oswalt: "I enjoyed seeing your character in [the movie] Blade: Trinity die so horribly." In another tweet he poked fun at the actor's height.

Looking back, Beatty says, "it was harsh, uncalled for, embarrassing."

And Oswalt's response? The actor scrolled through Beatty's feed and learned that he had some serious health issues. After a long hospital stay, he had medical bills piling up.

Next thing Beatty knew, Oswalt had donated $2,000 to Beatty's GoFundMe account and encouraged his millions of followers to follow his lead. "This dude just attacked me on Twitter and I joked back but then I looked at his timeline and he's in a lot of trouble health-wise," Oswalt tweeted. "I'd be pissed off too. He's been dealt some s***** cards — let's deal him some good ones."

Beatty began to hear from Oswalt's followers. Some donated money; others sent encouraging messages. His GoFundMe account grew to about $50,000.

Oswalt's generosity spread. "It had a large cascade effect," Beatty says. "I honestly, truly thought I was dreaming and this couldn't happen in real life."

One act of kindness led to the next.

"I realized that knee-jerk reactions to things [are] not the way to go," Beatty says. It led him to slow down and reflect. "What kind of person have I been?" he asked himself.

He says when he wrote those angry tweets, he was in a bad place, angry at himself for letting his health deteriorate: "It was easy to snap back and snarl."

But Beatty says the empathy shown toward him changed him. He has begun to think, "People are good." He realizes that politics divide people, but one on one, "people are caring, generous, helpful."

Over the last month, he says, he has felt his anger fade away. This manifests in lots of small ways. For instance, he used to have serious road rage. But now "if someone wants to get over, I'll wave them in," Beatty says. "I have changed."

This story reminds us of what we should already know (and hopefully remember from watching Mister Rogers): "It's good for us to be kind," Hancock says.

Not only is it good for the world around us, but it makes us feel a lot better and disarms anger.

"There's lots of scientific evidence that when you are kind or express gratitude you get all kinds of psychological benefits," says Hancock.

So next time you're tempted to respond to an angry post, maybe you'll remember this story.

Anger leads to more anger. But a single act of kindness can help stop the spread.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We know many illnesses are contagious. Emotions are contagious, too, including anger. As part of our extended look at anger, NPR's Allison Aubrey reports on a strategy to stop it spreading.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Even if you're not aware of it, at some point today, it's likely that your emotions will influence someone around you. Scientist Nicholas Christakis says this can happen during the most basic exchanges, say on your commute to work.

NICHOLAS CHRISTAKIS: If someone smiles at you, you know, you smile back at them. That's kind of a very fleeting contagion of emotion from one person to another.

AUBREY: But does the spread of a smile go beyond the superficial? I mean, do the people around us really help to shape how happy, sad or angry we feel? This is a question that Christakis, who's a professor at Yale University, became interested in way back.

CHRISTAKIS: Could there be emotional contagion that's spread not just in a fleeting moment from one person to another but in a more sustained way?

AUBREY: To figure this out, he and his colleagues did a cool study. They documented the social interactions of about 5,000 people in one town in Massachusetts.

CHRISTAKIS: We were able to map out the face-to-face interactions that thousands of people had across 32 years.

AUBREY: They could show who was connected to who, from spouses and neighbors and friends to those who were just friends of friends. And they also tracked the emotional status of each of these 5,000 people, capturing their ups and downs with periodic surveys.

CHRISTAKIS: And we were able to show that as one person became happy or sad, it rippled through the network and affected not just the people to whom they were directly connected but also the people to whom they were indirectly connected. So that as you became happy, it made your friends and their friends more likely to be happy and so forth.

AUBREY: And it's not just positive emotions that cascade. Unhappiness and anger can also spread. Here's researcher Jeff Hancock of Stanford University.

JEFF HANCOCK: Negative emotions like anger are more contagious. People pay more attention to them.

AUBREY: This is part of what he found when he did a big study with Facebook. It included nearly 700,000 users whose newsfeeds were altered as part of the study. Some people began to see more negative posts while others began to see more positive posts.

HANCOCK: When good things were happening in your newsfeed, you also tended to write more positively and less negatively. And the effect was a little bit stronger for things like anger and sadness.

AUBREY: Now lots of us have seen this play out in our own social media feeds, especially on Twitter. Late night TV host Jimmy Kimmel pokes fun at angry tweets by having celebrities and professional athletes read aloud the mean things that have been tweeted about them.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE!")

DRAYMOND GREEN: (Reading) Draymond Green's jump shot is almost as ugly as his face - almost.

(LAUGHTER)

ANDRE DRUMMOND: (Reading) Stevie Wonder shoots free throws better than Andre Drummond. Now that's straight disrespectful. Come on, now.

(LAUGHTER)

STEPH CURRY: (Reading) Imagine the damage Steph Curry would be doing in the NBA if he didn't have such a girly name.

AUBREY: Ouch. We may laugh at these. But when you're on the receiving end, it can really be hurtful. And it also increases the likelihood that you will lash out in return. The research shows there may be a little troll in all of us, meaning if you read nasty messages and you're in a bad mood, you're much more likely to copy that behavior. Jeff Hancock says one thing that drives this is that when you're behind a screen, the rules of face-to-face interactions don't exist.

HANCOCK: There's fewer cues. So I don't see you, and that makes a little harder to view you as a person. I might not see how my actions towards you affect you.

AUBREY: This is what happened to a Twitter user named Michael Beatty. He lives in Alabama. He's 65, and he served in the military during the Vietnam War. Earlier this year, he got really ticked off when he read a tweet written by comedian Patton Oswalt. It was a negative tweet about President Trump. And Beatty says it touched a nerve.

MICHAEL BEATTY: So I did a knee-jerk reaction. And I sent him two tweets back.

AUBREY: They were snarky and sarcastic, and Beatty says he regretted them almost immediately.

BEATTY: My return to him was, now I understand why I enjoyed seeing your character in "Blade: Trinity" die so horribly.

AUBREY: It would've been so easy for Patton Oswalt to just ignore these tweets, but he did not. Instead, the actor scrolled through Beatty's posts and began to learn more about him. He found out that Beatty had some serious health problems. And after a long hospital stay, he was in debt. So instead of firing back, Patton Oswalt gave Beatty $2,000 to help him pay his bills. And he asked his followers on Twitter to show their support, too.

BEATTY: I thought I was dreaming and that couldn't happen in real life.

AUBREY: Beatty heard from lots of Oswalt's followers. Some donated money. Others sent well-wishes. Beatty says he was overwhelmed.

BEATTY: It was a cascade effect.

AUBREY: One act of kindness led to the next.

BEATTY: I realized that knee-jerk reactions to things - not the way to go and that getting me to stop and think about things - think about, how have I acted; how have I been; what kind of person have I been?

AUBREY: Instead of dishing out sarcasm and personal attacks, Beatty changed his ways. He says it was as if a switch was flipped. And Stanford's Jeff Hancock says the story reminds us of what we probably already know.

HANCOCK: There's lots of scientific evidence that when you are kind or express gratitude, you get all kinds of psychological benefits. It's good for us to be kind, and the story even tells us that. Beatty - you know, he says, I was in a really bad place.

AUBREY: And he was angry, but the empathy shown towards him made him want to be kind. He began to think...

BEATTY: People one on one are caring, generous, helpful. Politics doesn't enter into it. People are good.

AUBREY: He felt his anger fade away, and this showed up in lots of small ways. For instance, he used to have some serious road rage. But now...

BEATTY: That has gone away. I find myself now - if I know someone wants to get over, I'll slow down. I'll wave them in.

AUBREY: So the next time you're tempted to respond to an angry post, maybe take a step back, remember this story and remember that anger just leads to more anger. A simple act of kindness can help stop the spread. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF EL TEN ELEVEN'S "MARRIAGE IS THE NEW GOING STEADY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.