The Life of the Party

Neuroscience research suggests that we have been underestimating our emotions’ social lives

When we think about emotions, we generally think of them as something internal, something that goes on inside of us. They are ours alone unless we express them. Sure, they influence others if we have an outburst or decide to be open about how we are feeling, but mostly, emotions are private. Right?

Actually, not so much. Recent research in neuroscience has shown that emotions are innately social – we are constantly sending and receiving emotional messages.

In a very real sense, emotions are the life of the party – and deepening your knowledge of how they work is the secret to understanding how to thrive socially.

“Emotions aren’t just inside of us.

They ripple out, signaling to and influencing others.” 

Sigal G. Barsade

Professor of Management, The Wharton School

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This constant emotional communication is happening so subtly that most of us are unaware that it’s happening at all. It’s a powerful, unspoken language, which we give out and pick up on without even noticing.

How is it possible that we are sending and picking up on emotional messages without even knowing? Well, it’s deeply rooted in another human tendency that we are largely unaware of, but has been proven by research.


Fascinating Research on Imitating Others

To understand how this subtle, automatic exchange of emotional information goes down, we have to take a look first at the innate human tendency to mimic and imitate each other. A tendency, according to researchers, that humans are literally wired for.

The fascinating part is not that we can imitate others when we choose to, but that we are actually doing it all the time, even unknowingly.

Consider this study from UCLA. Two groups were instructed to complete a scrambled sentence language task. One group was given a neutral set of words, like “was man flower motivated the.” The other group was given a set of words that were all related to the elderly, like “retirees in bingo play Florida.” Both groups completed the task by making the following sentences, and left.

“The flower man was motivated.” — “Retirees play bingo in Florida.”

What the participants didn’t know when they left is that they were still very much in the middle of the study. The researchers were really interested in whether the words they unscrambled would have any effect on the participants once they finished the task, so they videotaped the participants walking to the elevator. Incredibly, the group that had unscrambled words about the elderly walked significantly slower to the elevator than their counterparts — unknowingly imitating the slowness of old people.

As this study shows, and others like it, imitation is a complex, subtle and often unconscious process – an automatic part of our social functioning. But what does this have to do with emotions, or learning how to thrive socially? Imitation is simply a tool for us to understand others’ emotional states – to feel what they feel, even for a moment. We are unconsciously imitating each other in order to speak this secret language of emotions more easily and accurately.

But it gets more complicated. Research shows that as we unconsciously pick up on others’ emotions, we actually begin to feel the same way – we “catch” other people’s emotions. This phenomena is known as emotional contagion.

Remarkable Findings on How Emotions Spread

In a study at Yale University, researchers found that emotions spread through groups and have a measurable impact on group attitudes and performance.

In the study, trained confederates enacted specific moods, and the researchers recorded the results with both outside coders’ ratings of participants’ mood and participants’ self-reported mood. A significant emotional contagion effect was found for both positive and negative emotions, at both the individual and the collective level. Turns out emotions are extremely contagious. Further research has confirmed that emotions spread through a number of mechanisms, including voice inflection, facial expressions, posture and specific behavioral patterns. For emotions to spread, they don’t even have to be said out loud.

Sigal Barsade, Professor of Management and lead researcher on the aforementioned study, compares the spreading behavior of emotions to those of viruses.

“My research reveals that emotions, both positive and negative,

actually spread among your employees like viruses.”

Sigal Barsade

Professor of Management, The Wharton School

The most remarkable part of the study was probably the impact that the mood had on the group’s performance. Positive mood emotional contagion was correlated with improved cooperation, decreased conflict, and increased task performance among group members. Negative mood contagion has been correlated with burnout, absenteeism, and poor performance.

With so much at stake, how can put this knowledge about the social side of emotions into action?

I use a simple, three step process to check in with myself and see how I could improve my social contributions. It’s based on the Six Seconds Model of Emotional Intelligence, which has three primary pursuits: Know Yourself, Choose Yourself, Give Yourself: K-C-G.


Know Yourself


Be aware that your emotions are influencing others.

The first step is simply to be aware that whether you intend to influence others or not, your emotional state will influence them, especially if you are in a position of power. This is true even when you don’t say how you are feeling, because people are wired to pick up on your emotional state through a number of mechanisms.


Choose Yourself


Be intentional and create the type of
emotional climate you want to create.

This means practicing self-awareness and cultivating your ability to navigate emotions. Making careful decisions and responding, instead of reacting on autopilot.


Give Yourself


Be purposeful about creating a specific emotional climate for a reason.

When the purpose is clear and aligned with our long-term goals, putting it into action comes much more easily. You will be clear and full of energy to continually respond how you want to – and thus create your desired emotional climate.


For more on the Six Seconds Model of Emotional Intelligence, read this article.

For tips on practicing self-awareness, check out our 15+ Tips for Awareness

For tips on making more intentional choices, check out our 15+ Tips for Choice

For tips on living a purpose driven life, check out our 15+ Tips for a Purpose Driven Life


Fill out this form to get Six Seconds’ research summary and slides on the social roles of emotions

Michael Miller

Writer at Six Seconds
Michael Miller is a writer and contributor for Six Seconds who lives in Santa Cruz, California. He is passionate about living a balanced, healthy lifestyle and helping others to do the same. You can reach him at [email protected]

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