Why bad moods spread more easily than good moods – and how children read emotions

Contagion and transmission aren’t confined to viruses. Moods succumb to similar levels of group infection, according to new research – and there’s nothing a face mask and anti-bac gel can do about it.

Published 6 Apr 2021, 15:16 BST
Are moods contagious? Yes – but probably not in the way you think.

Are moods contagious? Yes – but probably not in the way you think. 

Photograph by Science Photo Library / Alamy

MOODS are contagious, and bad moods are more infectious than good – according to new research by scientists at Oxford and Birmingham universities. Their study has revealed that teenagers catch moods from each other in a process that sees adolescents in a good mood lift the spirits of those in a bad mood, and vice-versa.

At a time when COVID-19 restrictions are lowering the spirits of so many people and limiting the opportunities for this type of face-to-face balancing of good and bad moods, the research raises serious questions about how to protect mental health and improve emotional wellbeing.

“If everyone is struggling, is it too emotionally risky to connect with others and potentially ‘catch’ their low mood?” asks Dr Stephanie Burnett Heyes, a lecturer at the University of Birmingham’s School of Psychology and co-author of the new study.

The research tracked the moods of 79 teenagers, aged between 15 and 19, while on tour with two orchestras before coronavirus struck. By monitoring adolescents in this ‘controlled’ environment, largely free from external influences, the researchers could identify which student interacted with another and how that made the other feel.

The results showed that teenagers did not seek out peers with more positive moods. Neither did they look to interact with people in the same moods as themselves, nor avoid fellow adolescents in a negative mood. Instead, they adjusted their moods to experience the same moods as the individuals with whom they were interacting.

Mood contagion

However, the research did discover that a bad mood is more infectious than a good mood, countering previous research which had indicated that good moods spread more easily.

“An under-eight would see the image of someone cowering accompanied by the sound of laughing, and identify the person as happy – whereas people aged 18-plus identified the character as fearful and afraid.”

“Negative moods are more contagious in terms of both presence and absence,” says Dr Per Block, lecturer at Oxford’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science and co-author of the study. Which means we can catch a negative mood from someone who has one – but also can get rid of a negative mood by passing it on to someone else who doesn’t.

“If I sit in a neutral mood between a very happy person and a very unhappy person it’s not easy to say in which direction I will shift, but it’s important to see that the other two people will both move in my direction,” says Dr Block. “This is not just a unilateral process where I become less happy, but a multi-lateral process in which the less happy person moves towards my neutrality.”

Importantly, the research did not find that gloomier characters withdrew socially, and nor were they ostracised by friends in a more upbeat mood. Instead, social interactions occurred and then moods changed to become more similar.

“We call it mood tolerance – if a friend had a bad day the others would not abandon them,” says Dr Burnett Heyes.

She adds that she would expect to see similar mood contagion among adults, but questions whether the size of the group might be significant. Would a family struggling with lockdown have the same capacity to absorb and mitigate negative moods as a larger, more balanced, buoyant group of teenagers?

Interpretation through the ages

How children read the emotions of others is the subject of a new study conducted at the University of Durham, which found striking differences between age groups. The research discovered that younger children, under the age of eight, determine emotion through hearing, whereas adults prioritise what they see.

Presented with corresponding and contrasting pictures and sounds, of humans (with blurred faces) conveying the emotions happy, sad, fearful and angry, “The youngest kids could not ignore the auditory and seemed to prioritise it in coming to an emotional recognition decision,” says Dr Paddy Ross, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Durham and lead author of the study.

For example, an under-eight would see the image of someone cowering accompanied by the sound of laughing, and identify the person as happy, whereas people aged 18-plus identified the character as fearful and afraid.

“Any emotional auditory stimulus will impact on a child’s perception of the visual,” says Dr Ross.

The findings are potentially important for parents of primary school children grappling with home schooling. However much younger children may stare at a computer screen or tablet, cannot ignore what they hear around them.

Dog Facial Expressions Change When Watched By Humans

“The sounds around the home are not the sounds of the classroom, so if there are people arguing or there’s something negative emotionally on the tv in the background, kids can’t ignore that information,” says Dr Ross.

He suggests that children following lessons at school should wear headphones, “which would make it an environment much more akin to a classroom, where all you can see and hear is the teacher and the material.”

For teachers, the study reveals the importance of minimising irrelevant auditory information to allow under-eights to concentrate on the core message. However, auditory dominance starts to diminish beyond the age of eight, giving way to visual dominance, so “teaching styles should adapt to this while reflecting that not all children may exhibit this switch at the same time, with 41% of children showing a bimodal learning preference.”

One explanation for the dominance of the auditory over visual sense among younger children is evolutionary – they rely on their hearing to identify out-of-sight threats as early as possible, whereas older, taller children have a greater chance of spotting a threat as well as hearing it. It’s tempting to speculate that a similar scenario appears with meerkats, where an adult will act as lookout for the mob, scanning the area for predators, but will signal an alarm to younger meerkats through a bark.

An alternative explanation for auditory dominance among young children might simply relate to their limited attentional resources, which are unable to compute both auditory and visual information simultaneously. This is not an issue in most situations where both inputs tell the same story, so children only need to rely on one of the two senses.

But where these are incongruent, parents and carers are advised to pay attention to their tone of voice when talking to children to avoid the content of their message being overwhelmed by the emotional element.

“When communicating with young children, especially if you feel melancholy or frustrated and start to talk through gritted teeth, you are going to be found out by younger kids,” says Dr Ross. “Your voice is going to betray you. You would be better putting on a brave voice than a brave face.”

This isn’t easy – a quiver in the voice could give away underlying sadness, regardless of what is said or body language.

“Your voice is very hard to control,” says Dr Ross. “Everyone presents themselves in a visual way, and it’s rare for people to consider how they sound, because we don’t really hear our own voices. It’s really hard to hear emotions in your own voice even if you know what emotion you are trying to portray. But if you want a positive experience and to present yourself as happy then focusing on how you talk is much more likely to influence a young child than the visual.”

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