Fear may be able to spread from person to person—just like a virus. Discover how in this episode of Gross Science.
Is Fear Contagious?
Published February 16, 2017
When you’re frightened, your heart starts to pound, you break into a sweat, and your muscles tense so you can quickly take action. This is a classic fear response—a mechanism to protect you from something you perceive as life-threatening. But this response may not only affect you. It could unwittingly affect your whole community. Because as scientists have discovered, fear may actually be contagious.
I’m Anna and this is Gross Science.
If I told you to think of something contagious, you’d probably imagine a type of bacteria or virus. But diseases aren’t the only things that can spread from person to person through contact.
In the animal kingdom bodily secretions, like sweat and tears, give off signals called pheromones. These pheromones can communicate information to other members of your species, and there are a few different types.
One type is the alarm pheromone. When a social animal like an ant or a bee encounters a threat, it releases alarm pheromones which quickly alert the whole colony to the impending danger, and trigger a collective response.
And ants and bees aren’t alone. Humans might do this too. When we’re scared, we release chemicals in our sweat—called chemosignals—that may be contagious. When other people smell them, they may get scared or stressed, too.
In one small study, scientists collected sweat from people’s armpits after they ran on a treadmill, and also after they skydived for the first time—which would be a pretty scary experience for most people. When other people sniffed the treadmill sweat, nothing remarkable happened. However, when they sniffed the skydiving sweat, part of their brains called the amygdala, which is related to emotion processing, was more active.
That means that we may not only be communicating through our speech or body language, but also through our body odor.
And, the implications of this are a little unnerving. Especially when you realize that today, we can be stressed by things that don’t cause bodily harm at all—like work, or dating, or the news—and potentially pass that stress to the people close to us.
That said, body odor isn’t the only way fear and anxiety spread. Humans are social beings, and we tend to mimic the feelings of those around us. This is called “emotional contagion,” and it can spread either positive or negative emotions through a group. So, for instance, if you see your friend smiling, you’re more likely to smile too. And vice versa. And now, thanks to the digital age, we can rapidly transmit these feelings on a global scale.
Certain emotions spread faster and further than others, though. For example, one study found that the most emailed New York Times articles in a three-month period were ones that evoke what are called “high-arousal” emotions like awe, anger, and anxiety.
To understand the impact of this, take the Ebola scare in America. From 2013 to 2016, the largest Ebola epidemic ever swept across West Africa causing over 11,000 deaths. This was a terrible human tragedy, and it deserved to be covered extensively by the media. But the way it was covered may have caused the widespread panic that erupted in the US, despite the relatively low threat Ebola posed to Americans.
Today, researchers are designing algorithms based on the twitter data from the Ebola panic so that public officials can improve the communication of emergency information in ways that are less likely to cause mass hysteria. This might be done by using language that evokes less anger and anxiety.
And this would be beneficial for lots of reasons. Fear and stress guide our lives in hugely important ways: from potentially influencing our political opinions to contributing to our risk of heart disease.
But what if it’s too late, and you’ve already caught some negative emotions, like fear, anger or sadness?
Well, in an article in New York Magazine, researcher Sigal Barsade, who has studied emotional contagion for two decades, suggests three simple ways to ‘cure’ yourself from ‘catching feelings.'
First, create a distraction from the source of contagion. This could mean shutting off your Twitter feed when it is upsetting you. Second, project your own positive emotion back. If you are chatting with an anxious friend, maybe they’ll catch your good mood. And, the third option: speaking up. Sometimes people project negative emotions without even realizing it. So if a friend is spreading unwarranted ‘negative vibes’, just let them know that it’s bringing you down.
‘Cause frankly, I don't need any additional fear or anxiety in my life.
PRODUCTION CREDITS Host, Editor, Animator Anna Rothschild Researcher and Writer Seeta Joseph Additional Research and Writing Natasha Ishak and Anna Rothschild Camera, Sound Natasha Ishak Infinite Void Underscore Music Provided by APM FOOTAGE AND IMAGES Opening Montage Psycho (1960) The Shining (1980) Airplane! (1980) Troll 2 (1990) Butt Sniff Party Flickr/Craig Howell Brady L., 34 Flickr/Hairy Jacques Image of friends drinking milkshakes Friends (NBC) Ebola virus virion Wikimedia Commons/CDC/Cynthia Goldsmith Image from Ebola epidemic CDC/Umid Sharapov, M.D., M.Sc. SFX Cockroaches Freesound/StateAardvark
(used with permission from author) Squeak Pack/squeak_10 Freesound/Corsica_S Wink Freesound/Bennychico11 Bee Fly Freesound/soundmary Cough Cough Sniff Sniff Freesound/harrypeeks Slide Whistle Down Fast 01 Freesound/joedeshon Produced by WGBH for PBS Digital Studios. POSTER IMAGE The Scream Wikimedia Commons/Edvard Munch
Want More Info?
New York Magazine: Is There An Antidote for Emotional Contagion?
PLoS ONE: Chemosensory Cues to Conspecific Emotional Stress Activate Amygdala in Humans
Journal of Marketing Research: What Makes Online Content Viral?
Scientific American: The Secret to Online Success: What Makes Content Go Viral
Nautilus: Nothing Snowballs Online Like Fear