By Donald Officer –
Emotions Don’t Think: Emotional Contagion in a Time of Turmoil By Bruce Hutchison, Ph.D. 328 pp. Crossfield Publishing 2021.
The full title of this book by retired psychotherapist Bruce Hutchison may give some readers pause. Maybe linking emotion with another recent and deeply consequential contagion comes too soon for comfort. Maybe we never made this connection before. Maybe we’d prefer to avoid the discovery of how totally emotions can compel us.
Bruce Hutchinson provides evidence from multiple perspectives. Individuals may not be responsible for being infected by emotional contagion, but it is up to each of us to notice, consider impacts, then act or not. Emotions don’t think, but individuals do. As Daniel Kahneman might put it and Bruce Hutchison reframes in his book, using a considered, slow thinking approach instead of an impulsive or reflexive emotional response to provocation is a first line of defense to either ill-considered impulses or infectious triggers.
The practical problem with emotional contagion is not just in spotting the outbreak. By then it might be too late to save either self or a contact community from ill effect. As with other forms of contagion, noticeable individual symptoms are lagging indicators. But are there strategic tools to spot ominous spreads from afar? If you or people close to you do catch an emotional infection, how should it be treated? Can this kind of wave be contained? This book contributes to detection, identification, and containment.
Positive Psychology as First Aid and Immunity Booster
It may not be the primary focus of the book, but Dr. Hutchison acknowledges the intersection of his advice with the pillars of positive psychology. For example, positive emotions can serve as an antidote to being overwhelmed by fear or anger. They broaden thinking, deterring prejudice while helping us put a best face on uncertainty, reframing it as opportunity.
Think of emotional contagion as a powerful tide. Positive emotions can be seawalls against surges of enticement by opening our minds to possible harm. Powerful strengths like courage, resilience, persistence, and patience can overcome the tide of fearful aversion or cynical despair. Likewise, solid relational attachments, committed engagement, meaningful involvement, and the remembrance of past accomplishments offer bulwarks against tempting impulses.
Where Do Emotional Contagions Come From?
To explore where contagion threats come from, Hutchison brings his experience as a psychotherapist to bear. In particular, he recognizes that he too is not immune to contagion. Emotions are integral to who we are, or think we are, or even wish we weren’t.
Research psychologist Elaine Hatfield defined emotional contagion in 1994 as “the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize facial expressions, postures, and movements with those of another person, and consequently, to converge emotionally.”
Hutchison has a more open-ended definition. Fair enough: someday the science will catch up. While the narrower academic specification points out some observable sources of contagion, Hutchison’s open-ended view is also needed because, like some biological contagions, dangerous forms can be almost invisible until too late. For example, the media now available everywhere spreads ideas exponentially. Bad actors, the confused, terrified, and misinformed have weaponized the tools that were first meant for innocuous transactions, leading to suspicion and misunderstanding. What’s at stake? Autonomy, dignity, efficacy, agency. These things matter.
It’s easy to see how skepticism about messaging could produce increased susceptibility to emotional and social contagion. Incomplete narratives are put in doubt when more satisfying, often fictitious, versions appear. Speculation and suspicion lead to rumor. Entertaining rumors are infectious and sometimes harmful. As Hutchison observes, a world in turmoil needs little to spark full-on contagion.
How Can You Tell if You’re Infected?
Because we are all as susceptible to emotional contagion as we are to biological threats, we need to become aware of the underlying conditions which increase vulnerability as well as the dangerous places where infection lies in ambush. Emotions Don’t Think includes a fascinating catalogue of risks.
Positions we take may start as reasoned opinions. But if we do not keep an eye on how our beliefs play out in practice, reasons can degenerate into rationalizations, especially if we invest in flattering best case outcomes emerging from convenient positions.
Citing the panic buying of toilet paper during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Hutchison reminds us that our default tendency is to visualize worst case outcomes and then treat those as certain. Doubting science and resenting inconvenience, some people became suspicious of all official sources, causing them to turn to more dubious ones. Conditions were set for successive waves of dangerous emotional contagion.
Conspiracy theories spread, particularly through social media, which disseminated outlandish, increasingly sinister gossip. Many started to distrust almost all other sources while infecting their own cults with fearful suspicion.
They had help from the rest of society too. Intrusive manipulative messaging and unwarranted surveillance have become singular threats to privacy, voice, and personal agency. Equally troubling is the toxic nurture of an antisocial mindset. Backlash is triggered in reaction to offensive intrusions. It takes courage, stamina, and resilience to keep checking for accurate statements, reliable sources, plausible motives, and acceptable risks of contagion. As with some somatic infections, symptoms may be invisible to the afflicted but visible to others.
Some Stress is Good for You and So Are Some Emotional Contagions
Stress can build up resilience, the ability to withstand oppressive pressure. Hutchison endorses positive capacity building, explaining that contagious optimism is capable of reviving communities in times of turmoil and disruption. He also uncovers multiple ways contagion can enhance social relations, institutions, critical processes, even whole societies.
To his credit, Hutchison avoids making his book an inadvertent source of emotional contagion The tone is clear, and the assertions consistent. The author balances critique with deep experience.
Positive psychology practices can help create strong resilient leaders whose strengths are positively contagious, causing emotional contagion to flow constructively. Learning to distinguish between positive and negative emotional contagion is important. Bruce Hutchison’s book is a timely step along that path.
Hutchison, B. (2021). Emotions Don’t Think: Emotional Contagion in a Time of Turmoil. Crossfield Publishing.
Barrett, L. F. (2020). 7 ½ Lessons About the Brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
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Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. London, Allen Lane.
Kravetz, L. D. (2017). Strange Contagion: Inside the Surprising Science of Infectious Behaviors and Viral Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves. New York: Harper Collins.
Rosin, H. (2015, Dec). The Silicon Valley Suicides: Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto? The Atlantic.
Thompson, D. (2017). Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction. New York: Penguin Press.
Donald Officer, MA ’89, is a strategic thinking practitioner who melds problem solving research models to help clients anticipate unexpected scenarios and opportunities while pursuing what is most meaningful to them. In addition to coaching, facilitation, and consulting Don blogs at The Intention Coach, where he welcomes comments. He is a certified facilitator and a member of the International Coach Federation and the Canadian Positive Psychology Association. Donald’s articles can be found here.